There’s a certain kind of nerves you get when visiting a stranger’s home. You don’t know what to expect of your host, or their home, and there’s always that fear of accidently causing offence. All of this was at the front of my mind when we knocked on Nuray’s front door in Goreme, our little group of nine clustered around the doorstep.
We’re here for a Cappadocian cooking class, part of a 10-day Turkey Real Food Adventure with Intrepid Travel, and while we’re excited to eat our upcoming creations, we’re curious about Nuray too.
The door swings open and there she is: a small-statured woman wearing a bright floral headscarf and a wide smile. She sweeps us inside with a sunny ‘merhaba‘ (‘welcome’) and in an instant we’re seated on couches eating lokum (Turkish delight) and other treats, admiring the intricate Turkish rugs on the floor, and the cave home her family has been living in for 50 years. On the walls hang black and white photos of the family sitting down to eat meze in this very room. Taking pride of place above the TV, I spy Nuray’s many awards for both her cooking classes and recipes.
Our leader, Atahan, tells us Nuray has been hosting cooking students with Intrepid Travel for eight years and her inclusion on our trip is no happy accident. Intrepid has been working for years to balance the gender disparity in Turkey, where women have fewer working opportunities than men. When women do find employment, they often receive less pay for the same work. To address this, Intrepid introduced a new initiative purposefully sourcing local, self-employed women to run activities as part of its itineraries.
Now she has us settled with sweets, Nuray says we’ll be helping to prepare a four-course lunch, made up of dishes local to the Cappadocia region.
We move from the couch to the kitchen, which is part of a modern extension from the traditional cave home. It’s not long before we’re crowded around the bench, cooking up a storm – slicing, peeling, stirring and tasting. Nuray dazzles us with her skills, casually tossing a handful of chopped parsley into the pot, and finely dicing a whole onion in one hand. Yup. In one hand.
Nuray tells us she learned to cook from her mother, and over time she made the family recipes her own by continually refining them. Now, she is passing her recipes on to her two daughters. The secret, she says, is constantly ‘tasting, tasting, tasting’. That diligence has led to her developing her award-winning baklava recipe, now published in a local anthology cookbook. The trick, she confides, is to use at least 40 layers of pastry and not to rest the dough too little or too much. She promises to teach me her recipe if I ever return to Goreme.
Our entree is a lentil soup called mercimek çorbasi, which features the deliciously fiery pepper paste salça. As we peel boiled tomatoes and zucchinis, the casual chit chat reveals surprising insights into Turkish life. In the old days, for instance, a young woman’s suitability to marry would be judged by her ability to cleanly peel a boiled tomato. Nuray is positively beaming when one of our group slides the whole skin from a tomato in a single movement.
With our lentil soup now boiling, we turn our attention to stuffed eggplants (karniyarik), which are decorated by peeling tiger stripes on the outside and stuffing them with beef mince and vegetables. Nuray puts half the group to work rolling sarma, vine leaves stuffed with more beef mince and rice. It’s delicate work as I try not to tear the soaked leaves, but it’s incredibly meditative; wrapping and folding, wrapping and folding. We use a plastic mat as an aid but Nuray shows us her mother’s technique, which involves lifting the leaf in the air and deftly wrapping it between her fingers.
Finally, we turn to dessert, a soft doughy creation called aside (ah-seed-eh). Nuray whips together flour, water and molasses in a pan, stirring it until it’s well combined. Like the foodie embodiment of a great hug from nene (‘grandmother’), it’s served warm with a walnut and fresh tahini sauce.
With everything prepared, we sit down to enjoy our feast. The rich and vibrant flavours of Anatolia can be seen and tasted on every plate, and there’s a constant flicker of chilli in every dish that keeps me going back for more. Getting hands–on in the kitchen has inspired everyone to talk about their favourite dishes from home, debating their love or hate for dill, and swapping recipe ideas. A small contingent from Australia vow to have a dinner party when they return home.
I’m stuffed as a sarma when Atahan rallies us to leave, and together we roll to Nuray’s front door for a hug and a kiss as we say farewell. As we walk down the driveway, I turn to see Nuray and her daughter waving goodbye from their doorstep. Maybe one day I’ll return and make good on Nuray’s offer to teach me her legendary baklava.
All images by Liam Neal.