There’s nothing I love more than a side of casual racism with my morning conversations. I call it ‘casual’ because you can usually tell that the person who’s making the somewhat offensive remarks doesn’t seem to quite understand it’s never okay to say something like, “So and so is far too pretty to be (insert minority group), don’t you think? Females who are (again, said minority group) tend to be pretty ugly on the whole.”
Or: “You’ve got lovely English dear” – to someone who is Australian born and bred.
Over the years, I’ve heard them all, but my favourite declaration thus far has to be the time a teacher pulled me aside at my daughter’s school and declared how lucky my daughter must be to "have lovely tabbouleh and vine leaves packed in her lunchbox every day". I had to laugh really because the most 'exotic' thing my daughter has ever had in her lunchbox is the crust left on a cheese and tomato sandwich (which she refused to eat), which was packed alongside a banana, apple, yoghurt and crackers. Tabbouleh and vine leaves? A (Turkish) mum can only dream!
My brothers and I grew up on a diet which was exclusively Middle Eastern. Feta and cucumber on toast for breakfast (I still shudder involuntarily when I see someone start the day with cereal), garlicky, chilli-filled spreads in our sandwiches which ensured we would always be too embarrassed to get too close to anybody of the opposite sex at school (clever parenting, you have to admit), and then there were vegetable stews with rice for dinner. To this day, Turkish food is our go-to, dishes we insist on eating whenever we go to visit mum and dad, and dishes we dream about when we’re eating pretty much anything else. When it comes to what our own children eat, however, that’s a completely different matter.
The most 'exotic' thing my daughter has ever had in her lunchbox is the crust left on a cheese and tomato sandwich (which she refused to eat), which was packed alongside a banana, apple, yoghurt and crackers. Tabbouleh and vine leaves? A (Turkish) mum can only dream!
Like most parents, I started feeding my babies by the book - the Annabel Karmel book. Rather than stuff lamb chops and mashing stewed eggplant into their gummy mouths like my parents insisted I should (“That’s what we did back in the day,” my mother said), I pureed pear and rice cereal and blended bland vegetables with boiled-to-bejesus meat. My kids’ tastebuds - now that I think about it - simply didn’t stand a chance when I later began to introduce all the Turkish greats from my own childhood.
“Zoom! Here comes the airplane!’” I’d squeal over-enthusiastically as I tried to shovel mouthfuls of imam bayildi (a popular eggplant dish) into their reluctant mouths. “But I hate eggplant!” cried my daughter, even though I’d warned her more than once that that is pretty much the most offensive thing you can ever say to a Turk. “Can’t I just have a sandwich?”
And so here is my problem: in a household where my husband and I would love to eat predominantly Turkish cuisine, we appear to have reached a stalemate with our children who much prefer typically Western foods like chicken and vegetables, spaghetti dishes and basically anything that involves bread or rice. I already feel that I’ve robbed my girls of so much when it comes to their heritage – they don’t really speak the language and they live on the other side of the planet from most of their family – that our cuisine feels like the final link in their heritage. If they turn their back on the food as well, what part of them could they say is actually tied in any way to their mother’s ancestors?
I was talking to my mother recently about my woes, detailing how I planned to convert them over time. There were plans to make small changes to traditional dishes to make them more child-friendly and to alternate between Turkish and Western dishes on a nightly basis, but all my mother could do was snort with laughter.
“Don’t you think we had the same problem with you and your brothers growing up?” she asked me. “All you ever wanted was McDonald's and spaghetti with tomato sauce and it drove us crazy.” What did they do to solve the problem? Absolutely nothing, it seems. “We just continued to put the food we always ate on the table and you eventually learned through exposure,” she said. “When you got old enough, something finally clicked and the same thing happened with your brothers.”
My kids are only nine and four, so I may have some time to go before “the click” – but I’m hopeful. That said, I might finally get around to packing the odd stuffed vine leaf into my daughter’s lunchbox – just in case …
With three kinds of meat, these balls might just be the most flavorful and juicy in all the land.
This is my modern interpretation of moussaka. I take meltingly tender slow-braised lamb neck and use it to fill hollowed-out eggplants. Instead of the classic creamy bechamel sauce, I add a silky smoked eggplant cream and top it all with baked ricotta. The whole eggplants are then braised in the oven.
Legend has it that this dish was so delicious that the imam on tasting it, fainted, and so it was named "imam bayildi" meaning the "imam fainted". It's a classic Turkish preparation where the eggplants are peeled to look like they are wearing striped pyjamas, are stuffed and slowly simmered in a tomato-rich stew.
This classic Jordanian dip, made from roasted eggplant seasoned with tahini, garlic and lemon, is usually served as an appetiser with flatbread.
In Italian, this dish translates to ‘spaghetti of the prostitute’. Perhaps it’s a cultural thing, but garlic, anchovies and capers don’t seem like the most obvious thing to eat before going to work. Or it could be that, historically, the name comes from the fact that this dish is very quick to cook and eat.
Most recipes call for frying the eggplants in oil to soften them, but baking them is easier and just as effective. At Kristal Lokantasi, a restaurant in Kars, this dish is served with a buttery rice pilav (rice), a bowl of garlicky yoghurt and a salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, parsley and onions, dressed with lemon juice.