There must be an explanation to the sweating at the kitchen to roll that fresh pasta instead of cooking a package of the store-bought one. To reading culinary books and planning your own endeavors when others are watching a new episode of Fatma Gülün Suçu Ne? (popular Turkish series). To yet another time twist the tried-and-proved recipe of the dish instead of just cooking it the way people already like it anyway? There must be a good reason to why we cook. Different for each of us and yet sort of common ground for all.
I started to cook in a serious way in Norway when I got fed up with carrying to school soups-from-a-package in a mug. The soup and brown cheese sandwiches wrapped in the aluminum foil helped me get through a long day of lectures and working on the projects without spending fortune on nothingness-by-any-standard-of-deliciousness at the school canteen. My dormitory was 5 minute walk away from school so I could cook lunch and then dinner: I would look up a new recipe on a popular recipe website and cook it. Almost every day.
This was the time when I also ran intensively which – combined with cooking – helped me stay in the best shape I have been in my life: I knew what I craved for and I cooked that having full control of what goes inside and what does not – less processed food and more fresh produce.
It was also in Norway where I have learned a good deal about Middle Eastern food because if you want to stay sane in Norway with its extremely boring grocery stores you have to shop from Middle Eastern shops. That way you will inevitably get exposed to such ethnic ingredients as red lentils or cured olives which I had no idea existed before.
In India my desire to control what I eat has been slightly suppressed by the variety of food which was readily available about anywhere but still I made a whole lot of my own lunches which I took to the office. Indian office lunch custom assumes getting together at a dining room and putting on the table whatever you have. You take a fare serving of your own lunch which you brought from home or ordered from outside and pass it around for the others to take some. If you have cooked your own you are the part of discussion on “how-to”, a discussion grown-up women would engage in.
Also in India I embraced the idea of hosting dinner parties (my first experience of cooking for a crowd) where I first applied my bold approach which has helped me a lot later in Turkey: I reproduced the dishes I have tried outside at my own kitchen – sometimes to find out I have missed an important ingredient but more often than not to get a praise from the locals impressed with my take on the traditional dish (as much as my boldness).
Back in Russia cooking was a misery. I could never find the ingredients I want without sighing at the ridiculous premium paid for it. As I moved in with my then boyfriend I have become really functional with my cooking. I ordered home delivery ones a week which had lots of chicken, salmon steaks and pasta: easiest things to cook. I was in luck with my Turkish boyfriend because Turks love dining out. So I did not get too bored with cooking chicken, steaks and pasta. Dinner party happened once with another bold take on a regional cuisine: I have prepared a humungous tray of lasagna which in my opinion was average and which most of my friends still remember as exceptional. This is when I have learned that the outcome of your cooking is not measured by our standard but by that of the eaters.
Cooking in Ukraine was not really necessary: my colleague hired a cleaning lady that has also cooked for him – an example I could have followed but I have enjoyed the fact that my dining out expenses were covered by my employer so I could truly choose the places with the food I love. But then it was in Ukraine I have discovered a luxury nearly forgotten at the former Soviet Union – small Sunday farmers’ market – exactly like one where my grandma used to take me to help her sell her flowers, pickles and excess of seasonal produce.
Since that discovery I visited every Sunday to buy fresh cheese, honey, bread, forest mushrooms, seasonal produce. And the more I did the more I felt like celebrating my Slavic roots and everything Slavic has appeared to be more real and better preserved there in Lviv. I have progressed in making dumplings with cherries and Ukrainian cheesecake as well as using seasonal produce from the farmers’ market has helped me tack into the international cooking.
In Turkey cooking has all of a sudden become everything to me: a living, a way to help my family, a way to learn about the country, its food and culture, a way to connect with people. I cook to experiment with an interesting seasonal ingredient, to feed a crowd at our country house, to be near my mother-in-law and learn more about her cooking, to remind I am there, to get recognition, to share my knowledge with my curious customers, to prove to myself I can.
I cannot imagine not being able to cook. And if I don’t cook for a few days in a row I feel as if I am not existing, that I am speechless, my hands are tied and no one sees me. Until I put on an apron, get to the kitchen, collect my ingredients and get them to say things I could not without them.