Cooking with a Turkish mother-in-law is a terrifying proposition. Not only are Turkish women master artisans of the kitchen, but there’s not always a lot of variety allowed within dishes in Turkish cooking. Regional variances, sure, but you just put lemon in that soup? You want to eat dairy with fish? (obviously bagels with cream cheese and lox has yet to make its way to the Anatolian heartland, because even my husband still thinks the dairy+fish combination is poisonous).
I’ve also realized that it’s generally the urban young who are more food adventurous. Dozens of trendy bar-cafe-restaurants in the Kizilay-Tunali strip serve up mixed menus of traditional Turkish fare and more exotic imports, from fajitas to tiramisu to fantastic salads using new selections of seasonal produce. But while the tea houses are full of middle aged and older, and restaurants offering age-old favorites like pide, iskender, and doner with sides of green salad and soup are populated by people of all ages, the trendy cafes are still the stronghold of the young. There is incredible variety within Turkish cuisine, from the heavy spices of Hatay (Alexandria) to the thick and creamy dishes of the Black Sea region, to the savory-salty dishes heavy with meat in Central Anatolia to the lemon squeezed fresh fish and light salads of the Aegean. Most families I know cook what they know – either Turkish basics like kofte (meatballs), manti (small meat dumplings) and mercimek corbasi (lentil soup) or hometown classics – and stick to Turkish dishes when eating out, opting for pide, tost, stuffed baked potatoes, iskender, omelets, soup, fish, salads and soups, whether on the street or in the shopping malls. It is the youngest who (like their counterparts in all corners of the world) go for all forms of junk fast food, from Burger Kind blizzards to cheese sticks and chicken nuggets and cheeseburgers. People my age fluctuate – sometimes traditional Turkish, sometimes pizza, sometimes even sushi.
I think the dichotomy is best embodied by E’s oldest sister (in her mid-forties), who mixes Turkish breakfasts with boxed cereal, and will cook kofte and salad one night, and vegetable-loaded pizza or lasagna the next. (A silly side note: E was shocked to learn that lasagna in origin was Italian, and not Turkish).
So staying in their flat for two weeks, I decided to cook dinner on Monday evening. Turkish food was obviously out – E’s mother can take any ingredient from the bazaar and envision a single-dish savory feast. I grew up eating a mix of everything on offer in Minneapolis – from my stepmother’s East Cpast seafood to butternut squash soup to Tibetan momo to my mother’s health fixes like kale and goat cheese casserole topped with roasted pinenuts. Most American dishes are either boring or hard to make outside of the states. So I went for something accessible and at least mildly interesting: spinach and mushroom stuffed chicken breasts.
My mother-in-law had never heard of it before. When I said “stuffed chicken” she thought I meant a whole chicken, with stuffing inside – the way we Americans do Thanksgiving turkey. I showed her a few varieties on pininterest (also a new thing), and we got started, washing and chopping and sauteing and slicing and stuffing and roasting. While the chicken was actually a bit dry (we waited an extra hour for another family member to trudge home through the errant weather), my mother-in-law really enjoyed discovering something new in the kitchen – after 45 years of running a house, something with a completely different combination of texture and taste. Luckily for me she enjoys learning new things just as much as she appreciates my willingness to try everything. The Tuesday leftover sliced stuffed chicken on a bed of greens with beets and red onions and mandarin slices (?!) was, however, a bit too much.