It's 9am in a nameless city, but regardless of whether we're in Hoi An or Paris, the scene playing out at the hotel buffet is always the same. My husband, an Englishman through and through, is heaping up his plate with fried eggs, bacon and mountains of baked beans, while I, an Australian born to Turkish parents, am begging the head chef to find me some decent black olives to go with my breakfast plate of blocks of feta, crusty bread, and cucumber and tomato drizzled with olive oil and oregano.
At some point, I meet my husband's gaze and we respectively shudder at the sight of the others' plate. "How can you eat that so early in the morning?" I shriek. "Well how on earth do you even call that a breakfast?" He answers back as he looks me in the eye and pours milk into this tea, destroying both the drink and my soul in one quick move. That this exchange should happen at all is funny within itself; we've been married for ten years and although we know what the other will choose to eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner, what we cannot fathom is why?
The idea that ethnic identity is expressed and maintained through dietary choices is nothing new — one need only look at the English searching for fish ’n' chips joints on Turkey's Mediterranean coast, or Australians emptying any shelf that has a ready supply of Tim Tams or Vegemite in any given country, to understand that the food we eat can strengthen ties to your ethnicity and culture on a daily basis. Ordering something that's culturally expected of you is your subconscious way of saying, 'Hey everyone! This is the group I belong to', and it's often the reason so many of us exclude particular foods such as pork or beef from our diets. Sure, occasionally you stray, paralysed by the 'good mouth feel' of a new cuisine, but sometimes doing so, can push you right back to where you're meant to be — in the arms of your first love.
I was in my teens when I tried mashed potato for the first time, and even though two decades have since rolled by, I can still remember how I felt the moment that fluffy goodness hit my tongue. "Oh My GOD — what is this sorcery?" I exclaimed, hoeing in for another mouthful as my eyes attractively rolled into the back of my head. "Does anyone else know about this?" After years of eating nothing but aromatic meats and vine leaves overstuffed with spices, the plainness of the flavour excited me more than it should and when I moved out of home in my early 20s, I began rebelling against my upbringing in a most unwholesome way.
What we call stuffed vine leaves, dolma, in the UK are thought of as wrapped vine leaves, sarma, in Turkey. Dolma is only used as a term to describe things which are stuffed in Turkish-like hollowed out courgettes (zucchini) or tomatoes, or even stuffed squid. Whatever you’d like to call them, these vine leaves, filled with bright red, slightly fiery burghul (bulgur) wheat, are delicious. They are also easy to assemble.
While other friends got tattoos or hooked up with shady characters and their ‘borrowed’ Ducatis, I became lost in a world filled with lamb roasts, Yorkshire puddings and yes, more mashed potato. I remember thinking that I just couldn't believe such flavours could exist in the world! What had I been missing out on? The good times came to a standstill the evening my mother found evidence of last night's mash hidden in the back of my fridge. "But it's so bland!" She wailed as she waved the offending item at me, clearly distraught at the lack of garlic and chilli in her hand. "Exactly!" I countered back. "Sometimes Mum, you just need a holiday from your culinary heritage and I'm having mine." From the look on her face, I might as well have told her I'd taken up working as a call girl.
Happily for my parents, time eventually did the trick and the longer I stayed away from the family home, the more my palate moved back to the Middle Eastern flavours I was used to. The transition began slowly — spaghetti Bolognese (another recent discovery) got a makeover with large doses of olives before being dumped altogether in favour of traditional Turkish favourite, spaghetti tossed with Greek-style yoghurt drowned in crushed garlic. I returned to adding lemon juice and olive oil to everything in the general vicinity, and I refused to eat watermelon unless it was paired with feta.
Looking back, I can see that not only was I missing that cultural connection in a world where none of my media mates are ethnic, but I was missing my parents. You see, although it seemed like I wanted cabbage rolls served in a delicious tomato sauce, what I was really desiring was the experience of being back at my parents' dinner table, consuming similar foods while they talked openly about their disapproval over various aspects for my life (did you ever hear the joke, 'I've got 99 problems, but my ethnic parents are disappointed it's not 100'?).
Today, I'm openly out about my Turkish food obsession, and although I'll occasionally stray and go into a Yorkie coma (it's still a running gag with my friends that if I ever entered a television cooking competition, I would make mash week after week so convinced am I about its culinary superiority), I'm all about kofte, roasted eggplants and pouring yoghurt over everything in sight. My husband would also like me to add that I threaten to kill guests — or myself — if they don't eat everything that's put in front of them, which apparently is also a very Turkish quality.
This supremely satisfying breakfast dish of poached eggs with a yoghurt sauce really is fit for a king – there are records of it being cooked in the palace kitchens of Ottoman sultans dating back to the 15th century. The addition of the herb butter and Turkish chilli flakes is a more recent inclusion, but it adds just the right amount of kick to put a pep in your step in the morning.
Still, the link between cultural heritage and diet is going to get murky as we move into the next generation, as I found out first-hand recently.
Our daughter Cella is seven years old and with her mother's olive skin and her father's blue eyes, as cute as button. Her teacher called me into school to talk about some problems she'd been having with teasing as a result of the contents of her lunch box. "Now, I'm sure you're packing some exotic items..." he began and I had to suppress a laugh. What was the offending lunch that my daughter's peers frothing at the mouth? Garlicky dips? A kilo of pomegranates perhaps? Nope, the other girls had deemed her Vegemite and cheese sandwich and banana to be far too Western and boring. I hugged my daughter on the way home that day and whispered, "Same, same but different." "What?" she asked. "Nothing" I smiled. "You'll see."
In Turkey, every region, city and even village has its own kebab (or kebap) recipe, but Adana in the south-east is world-renowned. Its classic kebab is so revered it has achieved DOC status – the making and cooking of the kebab dictated by strict rules.
I’d always wanted to learn how to make these Turkish dumplings, so I was rapt when I got to learn it from a group of women in Cappadocia who had been making them for generations. It’s not something I would make every day but I’m thrilled I got the chance to learn. What makes this version a little different from the others is that they’re served in a soupy base. They’re pretty time consuming to prepare, so rope in the friends or the kids and let them work for their supper!