One of the greatest food discoveries in Turkey for me has been the introduction to the local food that real people eat at home. You don’t think people in Turkey survive on eating kebabs and baklava all the way, do you?
As a visitor to Istanbul you can get a flavor of homemade Turkish food if you venture into one of ev yemekleri, or “mama”-run places found aplenty in the neighborhoods like Moda. Moda feels old Europe with its culture, education and class, all of which have conditioned the abundance of matriarchal food institutions instead of the men-run and men-frequented kebab shops dominating the rest of the Istanbul food scene.
My luck got me beyond Moda though: when I first came to the farmhouse in Sapanca and got “adopted” by the farmhouse owner and talented cook Zeliha Hanım I realized what it means to have a Turkish mother and eat excellent homemade Turkish food.
Homemade Turkish food is always practical, seasonal, simple in taste yet requiring for some fuss, comfy yet light and healthy, and to my vegetarian satisfaction, largely vegetable-based. Just like mücver, or zucchini fritters, a popular Turkish dish created t to utilize the carvings after making stuffed zucchini and can be served hot or cold, as a snack, a starter or a meal in itself.
I first got introduced to mücver on a fine summer evening when Zeliha Hanım was making dinner for the family and staff. She appeared at the kitchen and put on her apron making it clear without words that she was up for something. I grabbed my Moleskin recipe notepad and planted myself closer to the kitchen counter where the action was about to envelop. Effortlessly, with a great sense of purpose and without a single measurement she combined grated zucchini, chopped herbs, crumbled white cheese, flour, egg and seasoned it with salt and black pepper
I ended up setting aside the recipe notepad and got busy observing things more important than the proportions of the particular ingredients – resulting texture, sequencing of actions and organization of working space. That summer I learned that in cooking, like in many crafts, observing a great master can be far more educating that reading tons of books and thousands of recipes. And I was grateful to find a master to observe and learn from.
Months later after my “crash course” I came back in the status of “adopted” daughter but with an interesting twist. I found myself in the fast-track relationship with Zeliha Hanım’s son, Özgür.
One fine day at the farmhouse in the midst of the construction undertaken as a part of the massive expansion of the property he came by and asked me if, as a matter of courtesy, I could cook something Russian that night. I could not deprive him of that pleasure, so I came up with a very Slavic version of mücver – potato fritters. You know, we, sons and daughters of the North, do not have the luxury of growing zucchini in such abundance to turn them into fritters, we are all about potatoes: come to my potluck dinner, my Mediterranean darling.
What was supposed to me a meal for two appeared a dinner for eight. Ali Bay, Özgür’s father, appeared at the kitchen, saw me running around in the apron and asked, “What’s cooking?” and rubbed his hands with excitement. Özgür was checking on me now and then, “Do you need any help, dear?“, planting a kiss on my shoulder and leaving just to come back in a few minutes with the same question. In a very subtle way it became clear how the stakes were rising. It was my turn to show some culinary skills to the local community and prove that they have made the right choice when considered me the official bride of the family. “At least the wedding car is ready“, Özgür joked referring to the car his friend borrowed for a wedding and returned back fully dressed in the flashy wedding veil, flower compositions and festive number plates.
Adem, Zeliha Hanım’s assistant, was asked to help me in my food endeavor, and I recalled the excitement when as a young strategy consultant, I was eventually given “a resource to leverage”, a junior consultant to work with, so I could handle larger responsibility and learn to delegate. Hey, I am becoming a big girl at the kitchen too!
As I was fussing with my potato fritters at the kitchen, Zeliha Hanım came by, inspected the process that got to the frying stage and without words took over the second frying pan. She inquired about the ingredients and suggested, “You can also add some white cheese for flavor and soda for more puffy texture“. As much as I appreciated her sharing the expertise I kept wondering – are the two of us too many at the kitchen? I was still under the impression of the morning instance when I was making eggs for Özgür and myself because everyone else had already finished their breakfast. Zeliha Hanım inquired what I was up to and recommended twinkling the proportions of the ingredients. So I thought – is this how it is going to be to ensure the standard of the food the beloved son is getting from my hands? What else but food will have to be up to the standard?
Former national athlete and a police officer, Zeliha Hanım is a woman of many talents, enormous charisma and tremendous energy. Those talents, charisma and energy ensured that she retired from her previous careers just to start another one – that of a host and cook at her farmhouse in Sapanca. She is one of those who have not got a formal training as a chef but still turns world-class food with great ease and dedication. You would imagine she is a recognized authority in many domains, and you should watch her when the local officials get together for a meal at her property – she is presiding at the all-male table. “A very strong mother he’s got“, Özgür’s friend told me as if hinting “Watch out, girl”.
.. Zeliha Hanım turned the last batch of the fritters with the cooked side up to and said, “Ok, I am leaving“. She left me with the time and space to do the last touch to the food and proudly serve it. As I came to the table, there were eight people already seated and anticipating the meal. Özgür put the last olive pit on his large plate where he had already laid out a big smiling face of olive pits as he was nibbling while waiting for the meal. Now, that’s the potluck – a patient boyfriend and his wise mother.
Turkish Zucchini Fritters (Mücver)
Zucchini seems to be only an excuse to make these delicious fresh-herbs-loaded fritters that can be served hot or cold, as a snack, a starter or a meal in itself. There is no carrot in the original recipe, but I like to add a bit of orange color to the otherwise green mixture.
Prep Time: 20 Min
Cook Time: 20 Min
Total Time: 40 Min
- 1 medium zucchini, grated
- 2 pinches fine sea salt
- 1 medium carrots finely grated (optional)
- 1/4 cup spring onions (white and green parts), finely chopped
- 1/4 cup dill finely chopped including stalks
- 1/4 cup parsley finely chopped including stalks
- 2 tbsp mint finely chopped including stalks
- 200 gram (7 oz) feta cheese crumbled
- 2 tbsp plain thick yogurt
- 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
- 1 egg
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour sifted
- 1 tbsp baking powder
- sunflower oil for shallow-frying
Prepare batter: In a colander combine grated zucchini and salt and set aside for 10 minutes (while you are chopping herbs). Squeeze the zucchini with your hands to remove excess of liquid. Add the chopped spring onions, dill, parsley, mint, crumbled feta cheese, yoghurt, egg, ground black pepper and mix well. Add sifted flour and baking powder and gently combine.
Fry fritters: Preheat a cast iron pan / non-stick pan on a medium heat and grease it with the vegetable oil. Make sure the oil does not burn, or so would your fritters. Like with the drop cookies, use a measuring spoon or an ice-cream scoop to drop the fritters in the oil to fit in as many fritters as the pan allows. Fry until golden brown on both sides. Use two wooden spatulas to flip the fritters, as they are rather gentle while warm. Place the cooked fritters on a paper towel to remove the excess of oil. Serve warm.