Friday, September 25, 2009


Risotto. Who would have thought that one little word could make me this happy, that one small (well, not that small) bowl of mushy rice could warm my soul for several days.

Possibly the single most difficult thing for me living as an expat in a provincial Turkish city (i.e. not Istanbul, Izmir or Ankara), is the food. Or rather lack thereof, depending how you look at it. Don't get me wrong, there's no shortage of food; Turks love to eat! And the beautiful seasonal produce spilling off the counters and available for pennies at every manav and pazar is any westerner's dream.

But as much as I miss my friends and family; as much as it hurts to see my young nieces and nephews only once a year and to miss all the weekly and monthly milestones; as much as I miss bookstores and foreign films, it seems to be food I miss the most. There's something about a perfect meal that satisfies me in a way that touches my soul, inspires me, makes me excited about life.

What I'm hungering for is that perfect medley of tastes that only professional cuisine can put together: a beautiful piece of meat cooked in white wine; a cream sauce with truffle oil; anything with exotic mushrooms infusing their flavour throughout the dish. I admit I'm spoiled in this regard; coming from a large cosmopolitan city, I had the world's cuisine at my doorstep and could eat anything I wanted any time. Now, the closest I come is watching Top Chef and reading food books, like Kathleen Flinn's memoir, The Sharper the Knife, the Less you Cry.

It's not like I've left behind a life where I ate in hot and hip restaurants several times a week; nor am I a great cook. But I can follow a recipe, and I did so well enough, often enough and adventurously enough to consider cooking a hobby. But most recipes I'm interested in have at least two or three ingredients far too exotic for my local Migros supermarket, whose clientele is indifferent about new foods to say the least. I've brought back enough miso, black beans and fish sauce to last a few months, but how much food can I stuff in my suitcase before I feel ridiculous? And how could I have predicted I'd need xanthan gum, coconut oil, agave nectar and arrowroot, just a few of the latest exotic ingredients needed to make the recipes featured in Gwyneth Paltrow's GOOP newsletter?

It's the lack of variety that really gets me. Tomatoes, cucumbers and green peppers appear at breakfast, lunch and supper -- raw in the morning, cooked at lunch, and in a salad (again raw) at dinner. Turkish cuisine boasts thousands of dishes, but all are really just variations of the same ingredients: tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant. Interestingly, those are all members of the nightshade family, forbidden by detox programs and to macrobiotics.

Restaurants abound, but no one is a professional chef. This means that every restaurant either serves Turkish food with the above ingredients, or from-a-box versions of world favourites like an Italian pasta dish. Which inevitably end up tasting Turkish.

Which brings me back to the risotto. The other night we had dinner at the Hilton Hotel, which had just put out its fall menu. I could hardly believe it when I saw risotto with assorted wild mushrooms, truffle oil, white wine and parmesan. As I waited for my plate to arrive, I didn't dare get my hopes up; I've learned from countless disappointments, albeit at other restaurants. But the dish was indeed perfect, and I would not be exaggerating to say it affected my entire state of well-being.

Remember Under the Tuscan Sun? Or any film that shows people in the South of France or Tuscany sitting at a wooden table under an olive tree enjoying hearty meals made entirely of local fresh ingredients? I often try to look at my Mediterranean expat life from the outside, hoping that if I see what others see, I may appreciate it more. Or perhaps I'd feel the same way in Tuscany or France; perhaps their appeal to foreigners, and indeed Turkey's, is that they're just one of hundreds of choices big city diners have.

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