Hatice Seflek plunges her right hand into the bowl of raw ground beef, pepper sauce, rice, chopped tomatoes and onions and squishes the ingredients together. She smiles, shrugging, “This is the best way to mix it.”
I am playing sous-chef in her aroma–filled kitchen because Hatice, whose daughter and mine were good friends all through Berkeley High, graciously agreed to teach me to cook something from her homeland, Turkey.
We’re making dolmas, (meaning “filled things” in Turkish). Turkish cuisine features many stuffed vegetables: peppers, okra, squash and eggplant. We chat as we prepare the meat filling that will cook inside hollowed out zucchini tubes and special small eggplants that you can’t get here. Every time she visits her family in Turkey, Hatice brings back bunches of hard, dried eggplant halves, strung like necklaces, whose gourd-like skins produce a pleasant clacking sound – to the consternation of U.S. customs officials. We put them in a pot of boiling water to soften.
As we scoop out zucchini innards and drink endless tiny glasses of tea, Hatice plunges into her story of growing up in Istanbul, in an observant Muslim family with her parents and five sisters.
“My father, a construction worker, was strict. He wouldn’t let us girls go to high school. He wanted to protect us. The government changed the system and girls with headscarves couldn’t go to public school. So we all had to stop after elementary school. I was 11. We stayed home mostly. The only other option was marriage.”
Now we stuff the zucchini with the meat and rice filling, but only 2/3 full, because the rice will expand while cooking. Hatice tells me she got married at 17 through a matchmaker.
“When the economic crisis hit Turkey in 1994, my husband lost everything overnight. He decided to start a new life in America and came here alone for a year to set things up while I stayed with my mother and our two small children. When I was 27, we came to join him, our son Mehmet Ali was seven and our daughter Beyza was three.”
We stand the stuffed zucchini halves upright in a pot and tackle the cooled eggplant. A little more challenging because their softened skins tear easily.
“I didn’t think it would be a big deal to move to America, but when I got here I was shocked: everything was so big. Even the vegetables. I remember going to the grocery store the first time and seeing these HUGE bell peppers. I thought, ‘how will I ever stuff these?’”
Now we add some butter to the pots – but not as much as in Turkey, where Hatice says they like a lot of butter – and heat the covered pots on the stove until they sizzle.
“Because we follow Halal, the Muslim dietary laws,” Hatice explains, “in the beginning, shopping was very hard. I had to know the all the ingredients in the products. It took me more than an hour to choose a cake mix. I tried to read the label to make sure there was no gelatin or alcohol or lard, but I didn’t recognize all the words. I found Indus Middle Eastern Market on San Pablo Avenue, but the only Turkish things they had at that time were feta cheese, olives and tea.”
After we hear the sputtering sizzle of vegetables, Hatice adds some water. While the dolmas cook gently for another 20 minutes, filling the house with an enticing aroma, we take our tea into the living room, where Hatice continues her story.
“One day I was at Indus Market with my little girl and another shopper heard us speaking Turkish. She was Turkish too and invited me over to a women-only get-together. I learned a lot from her and her friends; about the farmers markets where I could get fresh fruit and vegetables, even some of our peppers from back home.”
“The other Turkish women and I decided to ask the people at Indus if they could get us the foods we really missed. We made lists of what we needed. They were very nice and said they would try. And their wholesaler in LA found us lots of Turkish products. Now they carry so many things: a variety of olives, jams, cheeses, yogurt, Turkish coffee, soft drinks, cookies, halvah, pickled unripe peaches and hot cabbage.
“But what I miss most is the bread, especially in the morning. Turkish breakfasts are special: Turkish tea, olives, feta cheese, tomatoes and cucumbers, eggs, my mom’s strawberry or peach jam and of course, honey. We always eat honey, especially in the winter; it keeps you warm and gives you energy. But you need the ekmek – crusty white bread. That was my job as a child to run to the neighborhood bakery in the morning and buy a loaf of it, still warm. Of course I couldn’t help it, on the way home I had to break off and eat the crunchy end of the loaf.
My other favorite bread is called simit. It’s a ring, like a big bagel but thinner. The dough is dipped in molasses, sprinkled with lots of sesame seeds and baked in a clay oven until it’s warm and crunchy. We used to have it on the weekends. I tried to make it here but somehow it doesn’t taste the same.”
Now, whenever we go back to Turkey, the first day we arrive, the family sends the youngest child to run out and get the bread, just like I used to do. And we all sit down to a big breakfast. It’s worth the 15 hour flight.”
We head back to the kitchen where our daughters, Lila and Beyza, chatting happily after their first year at different colleges, are making a salad. Then Hatice’s 6 year-old daughter, Sara, asks her mother to make sigara borek, fried pastry rolls filled with feta. As I crush garlic with a marble mortar and pestle for a yogurt sauce for the dolmas, Hatice fries the golden brown borek and tells me how food helped her make the adjustment to living in America.
“The first year was hard. My husband was busy with work and my son off at school. I was depressed, without friends or relatives here. But then I told myself, ‘If you are going to live here, you have to find a way to make it work.
“And food helped me make friends. My neighbors in the first apartment building were Asian and Mexican-American. I invited them over and then went over to their places. We learned to cook each other’s dishes. One neighbor didn’t speak much English, so I learned by watching how to make quesadillas and chicken enchiladas. My kids love my enchiladas, but they say it still tastes a little Turkish. Less saucy and lighter, not too spicy, I guess. My Asian neighbor taught me how to make fried noodles. I taught them Turkish pastry and salads.”
As we all sit down to the lovely dinner, I remember the first time I met Hatice a few years ago, she was acting on her belief that food helps people bridge differences. She invited us, through Beyza, to attend a culinary cross-cultural event at Berkeley’s Congregation Netivot Shalom. Hatice and her husband are members of Bay Area Cultural Connections (BAYCC), a Turkish Muslim group that organizes interfaith exchanges. That Sunday, four women from BAYCC spent six hours (with the help of four women from the temple) preparing two large pots of ashure, enough to feed 100 people.
Ashure is a porridge-like pudding that commemorates the landing of Noah’s Ark. When the ark finally alit on Mount Ararat, in northern Turkey, those on board wanted to celebrate, but their provisions were almost gone. So they cooked up whatever food was left into a festive pudding.
I felt touched that the women had spent hours cooking this special dish so that we could taste it and compare our cultural traditions. One of the oldest desserts in Turkish cuisine, ashure is a warm medley of barley, wheat and garbanzo beans, topped with nuggets of dried fruit, nuts, sugar, cinnamon and pomegranate seeds. The tradition is that one makes a large pot of ashure, to share with friends, neighbors, classmates and co-workers, regardless of their religion as an offering of peace and love.
Anna Mindess is a freelance writer and sign language interpreter who lives in Berkeley. Follow her food adventures on her blog, East Bay Ethnic Eats, where this article first appeared, or on Twitter @EBEthnicEats. This is the first in what Anna hopes to be a series of pieces on the immigrant experience as viewed through the lens of food.