There are no handy tips or recipes today. I am still gathering my courage to continue posting any. I had a cooking failure. Failure to use the right ingredient and do justice to it. Failure to cook something decent in the eyes of Zeliha Hanım, a strict judge of all my cooking endeavors in Sapanca. Failure to show up at the kitchen for a few days after.
I was always smiling at the stories of young ladies entering families of their grooms without knowing how to cook something as simple as eggs. Well, menemen in the Turkish context. I consider myself a capable cook. So capable that my friends and family are rubbing their hands with delight when they spot me running around the kitchen. So capable that attendees of my Istanbul cooking classes leave satisfied with the learnings and taste of delicious food.
But here in Sapanca I appear as someone how can’t even make menemen. With all the track record of happy family, friends and customers my confidence gets shuttered when Zeliha Hanım, a big authority on Turkish food for me, would not even taste the food I make on the premise that I have used the wrong recipe, done wrong thing with the ingredients and ended up with such a failure.
One day Zeliha Hanım found me making pilaf with Swiss chard and caramelized onions where instead of bulgur I decided to use wheat berries.
– You have burned the onions! Look! – she took a plate with browned onions and started picking ones with the browned edges. I got wondering how you could caramelize onions without burning a few.
– This is how they are meant to be, – I tried to keep her gaze. It’s a confidence game, not the Iron Chef competition.
– Which cuisine is this?- she asked.
– Middle Eastern, – I replied stepping on the dangerous field as Zeliha Hanım’s family is originally from Egypt.
– Impossible! – she left no room for argument. – In Middle Eastern and Ottoman cooking onions are not cooked like that. They are cooked with the rest of the food, not separately.
– What about couscous with caramelized onions? – I asked.
– Couscous is a different thing, – and she ventured into the explanation of how couscous is made. I silently swallowed the knowledge I have already possessed in the same fashion as you eat out of politeness when already full.
– It is all made of wheat, if you ask me, – I smiled trying to keep the cheer but knowing that any further discussion would not do me any good.
– I can’t believe you have gone wrong with choosing grains for pilaf, – she said after a pause. – I have showed you three times (once in the dark storage room I was given a three-second introduction to who-is-who in different types of bulgur).
– Well, I have picked up wheat berries and bulgur is just cracked wheat so I am only experimenting, – was my final attempt to defend.
Zeliha Hanim shook her head realizing that I was hopeless. And still to her credit she gave me a brief lecture on her food philosophy and the rules at this particular kitchen.
Then she silently picked up ingredients for her signature mücver, zucchini fritters and started a sequence of actions she has repeated hundreds of times. Watching this perfection was a sheer pleasure but also an humiliation. Because that evening for staff dinner she served the food that she has made.
I started realizing why I was so reluctant to enter this kitchen before. Because I was so frightened by the prospect of the competition. Because my mere act of entering that kitchen would be a call for competition. Because being a former national athlete Zeliha Hanım is bound to the competitive.
With the little experience in professional sport I happened to have sufficient education in the field. I have listened to enough tales of my ex-boyfriend about his rock-climbing past and observed enough professional horse-riders who trained at the same course with me.
My horse-riding coach in Western Ukraine, short and robust blond lady in her late 40s called Veronika used to talk about the difference between sportsmen and amateurs. Sportsmen always push the limits of their physical capacity and coach is a big authority whose instructions have to be followed without a single doubt. Amateurs always think they know better and each command from a coach becomes a token of discussion.
I was the latter. Always. I wonder if it’s being an amateur. Or just being that type of person. At school quite a few teachers were threaten by the authority I had among my classmates; later in university I drove Soviet-groomed professors mad with going into polemics from my seat without asking a permission to speak; then at work I demanded logical reasoning for anything I was asked to do. I was always a nerd but a troubled one for the teachers and mentors of any sorts. Hence, only few really liked me.
Back to the horse-riding though. Once I joined a friend for a training session in Moscow and we share the same coach who worked with him. Short and thin with stentorian voice featuring traces of cigarets and alcohol Elena was a professional trick-rider and a coach. We started with a warm up – walking, exercising on the horse back and jog trotting. Then she asked me if I want to do gallop with a long leash or on my own. A long leash is used in horse riding when you start learning new elements as the coach can fully control the horse that way. I said I am fine without the leash. She suggested we use it for starters.
So she fixed a leash on the harness of my horse and raised the horse to gallop. I got frightened. Since the first gallop I have developed a fear of falling and being hurt by the horse. I dreaded falling so awfully that at some point any further development of my skill was paralyzed. I actually told my coach I was going to do jog trotting only.
Whenever the horse breaks into gallop you need to do three things right: hold the bridle tight to lead but at the right length to give enough freedom to the horse, straiten the back to relief the front body of the horse and squeeze the horse between the inner thighs for control. As simple as it sounds I was such an emotional mess of frustration and fear that I could not compose myself to do these three simple things. My coach Veronika has found a right way to deal with this and help me relax. She realized that creaming that I am a useless jerk does not help; she used lots of logical reasoning and few therapy tricks. But this time there was a new horse and a different coach.
Elena was not working with amateurs so I clearly looked like a miserable case in her eyes.
– You %$&*#! Hold that %&^**$ bridle! Tighter, tighter! Why %##^&% are you releasing it? – Every mistake of mine would get her even more infuriated. – You wanted to do this without the leash! I will show you “without the leash”. Learn sitting on the horse for starters, ^&%$%^!
My problem was that I could not react to what she was saying. In the critical moments like this you are supposed to exactly follow the commands of the coach. But because hers were so spiced up with the &%##%$ and personal insults I did not see them as life-saving commands of the coach but rather as her attempts to put me on the learning curve she’s been through.
I was supposed to feel so humiliated by her pointing at my lack of skill that I would keep pushing my limits to prove that I can do that. Simple rule of the Soviet professional sport system that has produced so many world-class sportsmen. Professional sport system in any country, for that matter.
But because I am an amateur or just a person of this kind this instance of humiliation has not produced a desire to compensate in me. I has taught me nothing besides that I was lucky with my coach, Veronika, who has found the right approach to deal with me.
What has taught me a lot was when I felt down. Because I remember my physical sensations better than verbal offense. I was galloping on the course. It was early morning so only 3 ranch owners were working out their horses besides us. My old stallion decided to show the class to the young chaps. So he burst into full gallop.
I tried to control him for a while but his speed and energy magnified all of sudden scared me so much that I decided to fall down. So I took my foot out of stirrups, released the bridles, bended my torso to the right, slid down and softly landed on my right side. The horse ran off the fenced course and was standing now in the high grass and looking aside. Veronika ran to me to check out if I was a whole piece and then ran off to catch the horse.
Usually a man of few words one of the ranch owners paid some attention to the instance.
– Are you ok? – he asked and I saw a sign of respect in his eyes. – Mind you, now you owe a bottle of vodka to your coach.
Veronika got back and flashed a smile, “Congratulations!“
An hour later I found myself bragging about my falling to my ex rock-climber boyfriend over phone and him congratulating me. He also explained the comment about vodka:
– Your falling is a kind of milestone. It shows that you got to the level when you can fall down and handle it. And you own that much to your coach.
The most important thing when you fall is to get back on the horse immediately and repeat the trick. So that you get your self-confidence back and the horse knows that you are still in control. After my fall shaking from the shock I climbed the horse and we did gallop. My stallion was a good guy that time. And I felt victorious.
Back to the last kitchen episode in Sapanca I would like to think that it was not the example of the wrong coach but simply a fall down. That I will learn from supportive reasonable feedback and will be cheered when fall down. So that I can easily continue by jumping on the horse-back again and start cooking at that kitchen. Because I cannot let the fear of picking up wrong ingredients or ignoring existing kitchen discipline hold me back in experimenting and creating delicious food.