My mother-in-law’s kitchen assistant has left and the weekend has come. 30 hours at the kitchen. I don’t know if I should write about the complexities of working with the family members (read – husbands), the joys of having good relationships with your Turkish mother-in-law, the power of yoga to keep your body going after you fall on a wet staircase and hurt your back, mundanity of skinning tomatoes, dreams of hamam, reminiscences of my consulting job which also required working under pressure, the irony of fate which got me back into long hours after I ran away from them and emptiness in my head after all that. There must be a major theme to this weekend and to the post. And I think it is how being bound can be so empowering.
When changing career I have gone through a many ideas on what to do. I wanted to be near food. Which you can get by doing a whole lot of things. Producing food, running a restaurant or a catering company, photographing food or writing about it. I decided to test-drive the most obsessive ideas I had and one of them was running a restaurant. At that time I had very few people around me anyhow involved in gastronomy. A business school graduate and a consultant myself I ended up knowing a whole bunch of other consultants, investment bankers and marketing folks at best. So I went traveling for three months to meet new people and develop my food-related business ideas.
One fine day I came in Saraevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Think Saraevo and think gastronomy – and a possible gap between the two. But in years I have learned that while my logic can fail me my intuition can’t. I’ve immediately loved the town and decided to stay for a few weeks and explore.
I made a list of places to eat at. All pointed at Karuzo, a small restaurant serving vegetarian and fish food authored by the chef and soul of the place Saša Obućina. I walked into a restaurant an hour before it closed for the afternoon break. I still have very vivid memories of the spicy carrot soup, a glass of my favorite Herzegovina white Žilavka, unlaced army boots of the chef and divine cherry liquor over which we had a final deal: Sasha was looking for an assistant and I offered my temporary help for two weeks until he finds a regular one. Here was my chance to test-drive the idea of having a restaurant.
It is amazing how many people entertain this romantic idea of receiving friends at your small cozy restaurant, cooking in front of them with that humongous knife and tossing a pan to flick the ingredients into the air. Everyone applauding to your kitchen skills and delicious food. You bowing in humbleness and fulfillment. Little they know (and so did I before my test-drive) that your restaurant life will be like that maybe one night in a year. Because mostly you will be busy doing much less sexy tasks with way less visibility and admiration.
Helping Saša at Karuzo I soon figured the major tasks of controlling the kitchen: buy ingredients and make sure to store and use them so they don’t become garbage before you know, prepare and store anything which keeps and makes your cooking faster – boiled beans and portioned meat in the deep-freezer, sauces and marinades, desserts, run like crazy to cook the orders and after you close spend an hour or two after to clean the kitchen. And don’t fancy the idea of outsourcing most of this tasks because the small restaurant its economy would not let you hire a super-star chef. Hope for an assistant and a dish-washer. Whom you will be coaching and controlling all the time.
After two weeks with Saša I figured that restaurant was way more demanding and binding than my consulting job I had just left. I was eternally grateful for the opportunity to grasp all that before I would try to get into a professional kitchen out of ignorance. So I started asset-light-effort-moderate Istanbul food tours and cooking classes.
Nothing but ironic that 1.5 years down the line this is where I got – to a kitchen of a small place that can feed up to 40 people a day. Which my mother-in-law runs. I went through different stages from attempts to claim her full attention and compete with the numerous helpers doing the same to the ultimate denial when I would not show up at the kitchen for weeks. Until I became one of the women in the family.
I then realized my serendipitous role in the lineage of the great women – anne’s grandmother of Balkan origin, her mother-in-law of the Greek roots, herself of Egyptian decent, my own grandmother of Russian and Ukrainian origins – and the knowledge they had and passed about food but also about creating and sustaining their families and sawing the seeds for the future generations.
Just like anne did when a decade ago she bought a land on the hill of Sapanca and turned into a small hotel and restaurant seeing the potential of the area very few did back then. I came for her food, stayed for her son and only later realized that I came to continue the legacy of those great women. Which is a serious labor and commitment. Sometimes – after 30 hours at the kitchen – you feel bound like that little fish wrapped in the grape leaves … until you realize the power of that little fish to feed many.
Ultimate Red Mullet Recipe: Wrapped in Grape Leaves and Baked
Adaptation of traditional Aegean and Mediterranean recipe when a small fish with few bones is wrapped in grape or fig leaves and grilled on the charcoal.
Source: The Sultan’s Kitchen by Özcan Ozan
Prep Time: 40 Min
Cook Time: 15 Min
Total Time: 55 Min
- 1 kg red mullet peeled and trimmed
- 1 onion coarsely grated
- 2 tbsps lemon juice
- 4 tbsps olive oil
- 1.5 tsps ground cumin
- 1 tsp salt
- 200 gs pickled grape leaves
- Soak grape leaves: Soak the marinated leaves in plenty of water and set aside. If you use fresh leaves then boil in large quantities of water for a few minutes and transfer into cold water to prevent further cooking.
- Marinade red mullet: In a bowl that will be used for the marinade mix the grated onion, lemon juice, olive oil, cumin and salt. Rub the marinade into every fish and place the fishes into the bowl. Cover the bowl with stretch film and put into the fridge for 30 min.
- Prepare grape leaves: Thoroughly wash the leaves and lay them on a clean towel – with stalks closer to yourself and the smooth side down. Remove the stalks with scissors and smoothen each leave. Preheat oven to 220 C.
- Prepare red mullet: Place parchment paper on a baking sheet. Get the marinated fish from the refrigerator. Put in front of you a stack of prepared grape leaves. Place a fish on a grape leaves with the head sticking out and wrap a tight parcel (see the photo instructions for making sarma if it’s the fist time you deal with grape leaves). Lay the wrapped fish seam side down on the baking tray. Repeat with the remaining fish laying the parcels tightly next to each other. In the end, sprinkle the remaining marinade over the fish parcels and send the tray to the oven. Bake for 15 min until the fish flakes. Serve immediately – grape leaves can be discarded or eaten, if you prefer.