Katherine Belliel is an American freelance writer living in Istanbul, Turkey. Her work has appeared in the anthologies “Tales from the Expat Harem,” (Ashman and Gokmen, Seal Press 2005) and “Encounters with the Middle East,” (Khashan and Bowman, Traveler’s Tales 2007). She currently writes a weekly column of her adventures as an expat wife and mother for the daily Today’s Zaman under the pen name ‘Elle Loftis.’
In the Cupboard
When I moved to Istanbul, Turkey from the United States over eight years ago I tried to fill my kitchen with appliances and utensils I was familiar with. In those days, a microwave was a hard to find commodity. I brought a crock-pot from Michigan, and tried to have an electrician change the voltage in order for it to work in Istanbul. Measuring cups, a coffee pot, and even cookie sheets made the trans-Atlantic trek to my expat kitchen. Turkish cuisine is fantastic, and I longed to make the dishes I was proudly served by my Turkish friends and family but I didn’t know how.My friend’s mom in particular took me under her wing. Trips to their home in the mountains of Bursa, about three hours from Istanbul, were culinary journeys that left me craving to re-create the same masterpieces in Istanbul.
Yogurt, a Turkish staple, homemade and mixed with crushed garlic and served with a variety of vegetables and pastas. Fragrant rice and pine nuts stuffed and rolled into grape leaves. Everything lovingly made by hand, without the use of measuring cups or measuring spoons. “Auntie Sevil, how much olive oil should I add?” I would ask, trying to take detailed notes in my recipe book. She would look at me stumped. For her, taste buds are the only way to measure how much of an ingredient should be added. Under her wing I not only learned how to cook Turkish cuisine, but also to truly enjoy the art itself. Stuffed grape leaves were tastier when neighbors and friends came over for a grape leaf rolling party. While sweat beaded on my forehead in concentration as I tightly rolled the delicate leaves, the expert ladies chatted and sipped tea, filling pans to my pitiful plate
Most of my women Turkish friends also are career women, but can still put together a meal that stuns me. Frozen, packaged dinners are basically unheard of in Turkey, and looked on askance. The convenience in America I sacrificed taste for became a non-issue here in Turkey. Now, I too make vast quantities of soup and freeze them in single serving portions if I want a future easy meal. I laugh as I remember my kitchen back in America that was almost twice the size of my expat kitchen. Filled with utensils and appliances that were barely used. My kitchen is now the busiest but smallest room in my house. Herbs such as parsley I buy fresh from the local bazaar, while my spice cabinet is crammed with spices I don’t know the English translation of, but use on a regular basis.
As the years passed, my kitchen slowly began to change. Like many parts of my American-ness, certain aspects fell away to reflect my hybrid life. The smell of filtered coffee is overpowered by the stronger smell of Turkish coffee, prepared on the stove in a copper cezve. I rarely drink Turkish coffee alone, only when a friend or neighbor is over and we can peer into the grounds of our overturned cups, guessing our fortunes.
Chocolate chip cookies don’t taste the same here, unless I add a heaping spoonful of yogurt to the dough. These cookies vie for space on the baking sheets with rolled borek, flaky pastries made from phyllo dough and stuffed with cheese. The crock-pot never worked, and now sits unused in a cabinet under the sink. A çaydanlık, a large teapot with a smaller teapot stacked on top sits on my stove and gets daily use. Tulip shaped tea glasses are at the front of my cupboard, tightly squeezed next to demitasse coffee cups. The measuring cups and spoons are only used when I make special American food, and rely on my old recipe book for specific measurements. And the microwave? Topped with a lace doily it makes a nice shelf. How has your kitchen changed since becoming an expat?