A Muted Palate
I left behind the comforting, familiar Midwestern foodstuffs - slowly simmering pot roasts, Friday Night Fish Fry’s, hearty casseroles, pre-baked pie crusts - for the tangy and rich cuisine of the Turkish sofra in late spring of 2005. The Turkish table may be thought of as stuffed grape leaves, fragrant rice pilavs, and baklava, but to me, the flavors are as varied as the regions of my adopted country. Stepping into Turkish culture and cuisine transformed my taste buds, as well as my creativity as a writer.
Turkish food, if you are from the Black Sea region like my husband’s family, relies heavily on olive oil dishes, hamsi - or anchovies, and fresh baked bread. As much as I loved the soupy bean dishes, the pan-cooked spinach and rice, and the crunchy rolled dough baked to a crisp, the first few years I lived in Turkey, I craved steak, hamburgers, peanut sauce, curries, and things much less simple in flavor. In my first apartment as a newlywed in the city of Izmit, on the Gulf of Izmit that leads to the Aegean Sea, I experimented as best as I could. I started a notebook of renegade recipes for perfect pancakes, fudgy brownies, and egg drop soup. Whenever a much-longed-for ingredient showed up on some supermarket shelf, I noted the discovery with glee, but my taste buds were left wanting.
My Orient Express
As any Madisonian knows first hand, the spicy Taiwanese noodles, soft squash curry, and veggie smoothies of the food carts in Library Mall can catapult your taste buds to parts of the world you may have never seen. It was there, in Madison as an undergrad, that I discovered I had a taste for Indian food. It was also there, after a 10-credit Hindi intensive, that I bemoaned the fact that I was terrible at learning languages. At that time, I could have never imagined that not only would I be living in Turkey and raising two bilingual kids, I would be writing my first book, a futuristic young adult novel.
Fast forward to today and the amassed binders full of short stories, the two tentative attempts at a memoir, a painting and design practice, and a vocabulary of Turkish words in my stash. Now, working full time on my book, I often turn to my kitchen to unwind, use my hands, and think through story problems. Somehow, as the food becomes alive, so does the part of my brain that wrangles with words.
At the end of seven years of living in Turkey, turning the corner on my eighth, I am not a Turkish national like my duo-citizen children are, nor am I a Turkish food connoisseur, but I can talk börek and döner like the best. Hours of sitting in my mother-in-law’s kitchen before I could say more than a few sentences in Turkish taught me what kind of olive oil to use for salads, which vegetables are best bought from the local bazaar in which season, and how to serve impromptu guests that knock on your door at all hours. Her delight at hosting taught me that true comfort comes from good company, and endless cups of tea.
Born to a Jewish-American mother and a German father, and raised in a mostly Norwegian corner of Wisconsin, my culinary tastes were not inspired by my upbringing. My father, for years after my mother died when I was a child, did the best he could with hunger-filling roasts, split pea soup, and the occasional La Choy Chow Mein. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I discovered Mediterranean food and Middle Eastern food, and later in college, sushi. The only Turkish food I knew I adored with certainty before I moved here was chewy, bitter Turkish coffee.
When Turkish people ask if I can cook Turkish food, I say yes without hesitation. If they are to press further and ask me what I make, they are often surprised to hear that I like Turkish food more than my husband. I’ve grown to love the tomato-based bulgur dishes, the simple salads of cucumber and tomato, the uncomplicated Aegean and Black Sea flavors that highlight one or two ingredients rather than many. Of course, there is adventure to be found in the spicy Adana region, and I see a growing awareness of international food that was missing a mere seven years ago, but my insatiable craving for foods I missed has passed now that I feel more confident as a cook.
I hope to impart the sense of pleasure and delight in good food to my children. In our hybrid household, on most Saturdays, you can find us whipping up good old fashioned chocolate chip cookies, testing out pizza dough, or eating cake batter out of the pan. I tie on the apron my third-generation Belarusian mother made, with a nod to her domesticity and that pinch of history that shows up even in my kitchen in Turkey. I entertain the idea of opening a gourmet pizza place, of offering a lunch only daily special at a corner cafe, or inviting friends over for impromptu Thai food. I pour myself a glass of Turkish tea into a little fluted cup, and hands coated in flour, watch as my children sprinkle the kitchen with that something special that makes food, wherever you are in the world, taste so good.
Perfect Pancakes, For Real
After trying nearly every pancake recipe under the sun, I swear by this recipe. The yogurt I use is full fat, Greek-style, preferably homemade. Nonfat would probably work, but the fat in the yogurt makes it possible to go light on the oil or butter.
1 banana, mashed
2 tablespoons plain, full fat yogurt
1 tsp baking soda
¼ cup wheat flakes
2 tbsp flour (I like whole wheat)
1 tsp cinnamon
2 lg eggs
2 tbsp milk
1 tsp oil or butter
1 tbsp real carob molasses, or pine honey
In bowl, mash banana, add eggs, milk and yogurt. Mix or blend by hand. Add dry ingredients and oil or butter. I like to puree this so it is not lumpy, but mixing works just fine. In a non-stick, ungreased pan at medium heat, ladle pancake batter, and flip when it bubbles up nice and right. Drizzle with molasses, pine honey, or real maple syrup. If you’re feeling adventurous, add a drop of tahini to the molasses for a real Turko-American treat.
Serves four hungry people, two big, two small, for Sunday morning brunch.
Rose Deniz is a Wisconsin-born writer nesting abroad in Izmit, Turkey, where she is finishing up the first draft of her futuristic young adult novel. Happy to say she grew up on a farm in the middle of nowhere, she always seems to venture back to Wisconsin when there is a blizzard. Rose has a BA in Art from The University of Wisconsin, and an MFA in Painting from Cranbrook Academy of Art. You can find her on her website, on Twitter, and on Facebook.