Are you ever haunted by a culinary horror you can’t put out of your mind, no matter how hard you try? I’ve had a few in my time, but my number one with a bullet is the first “meal” I prepared myself the night I moved out of my family home and into a studio apartment. Picture, if you will, a beautiful sunset lighting up the skyline, a bottle of red, and I had… half a box of microwave-nuked dim sums tossed through a salad of iceberg lettuce and tomatoes.
As the old saying goes, start as you mean to go on, and I certainly did just that. At a time in my life when I was learning how to pay rent, do the laundry and fold a fitted sheet (an admission: I still don’t know how to fold a fitted sheet), I found myself thrust headfirst into a world I knew nothing about. Every trip to the supermarket left me anxious as I pondered what to eat, and every item that made it home fit neatly into my “meat plus jar of something plus pasta must equal a solid meal” equation. I made chicken stroganoff for hot dates by pouring a jar of mushroom sauce over dry overcooked chicken I’d proudly cooked myself, and poured packet pasta Alfredo over massacred steaks for friends. It’s not that I wasn’t interested in food; I just didn’t know a thing about nutrition or which ingredients went together to make a decent meal for one.
My parents, it must be said, weren’t all that keen on their only daughter learning how to cook – a rarity within the Turkish community.
My parents, it must be said, weren’t all that keen on their only daughter learning how to cook – a rarity within the Turkish community, where it is common practice for the daughters to take care of the domestic. In our family, my parents insisted my brothers take care of me, telling me I had more important things to worry about than slaving over a hot oven. “Just concentrate on enjoying your childhood,” they told me when I was little, and, “Just concentrate on your studies,” they said when I was a teenager. Aside from learning the odd Turkish dish with my dad, I did just as they asked and moved out of home feeling happy, relaxed and … completely clueless about how to feed myself properly. I mean, I could cook a saucepan of stuffed vine leaves no problem (which would have been great had I six dinner guests to entertain every evening), but handed a chicken breast, I crumbled under pressure. And then I coated it in Greek-style yoghurt and Doritos before placing it in the oven in a bid to be “inventive”.
We sit for hours checking out pretty cookbooks and making games of pairing dishes to create a nutritionally balanced meal. It’s all about making things fun, yet educational.
Fast-forward 20 years (three of them working at a food magazine) and it’s these memories that push me to teach my own daughters the joys of cooking. On days off and school holidays, I set them loose in the kitchen to invent their own dishes (which is how I find myself regularly having to eat “desserts” such as melted chocolate and black grapes stirred through pot-set yoghurt). We play “cooking show” in front of the camera (Mum is always the bad-tempered judge) and we sit for hours checking out pretty cookbooks and making games of pairing dishes to create a nutritionally balanced meal. It’s all about making things fun, yet educational.
Like my parents before me, I don’t care for the mental image of my girls playing the role of domestic slave in their adult years, but I care for the image of them eating corn chip-covered chicken even less. The way I see it, if I can save just one of them from standing in front of a range of reconstituted juices and asking herself if a bottle of two-dollar, five-year expiry “juice” provides a healthy balance to her no-brand taco kit meal, it’s a job well done from Mum.