Istanbul's mosques will astound, the markets delight, the views of the bright blue Bosphorous and Golden Horn will steal the breath from your chest, but it's the food in this Sultan of cities that will break your heart. With each olive, slice of cheese, piece of baklava, cheese pastry, toasted pistachio and dried apricot I put in my mouth, I am overwhelmed by the feeling of 'this is the best,' then, 'no, no THIS is the best.' The dueling deliciousness is on my mind as I ascend the hills of Pera, tromping along narrow cobblestone streets, flanked by romantic 17th and 18th century 'hans' (Turkish for 'inn').
In one such building, fitted with floor to ceiling windows for a sweeping view, you will find a church of cuisine, Istanbul Culinary Institute — a place I reveled in, worshipped at and enjoyed as a devout foodie.
The Istanbul Culinary Institute is a young institution, open just over three years, offering an array of courses to amateurs and professionals. The site also has a cute café, showcasing seasonal menus — local and Mediterranean foods —that change every two to three weeks. The coffee is strong and the risotto decadent.
However, more important than a visit to the restaurant, is signing up for a cooking class. With a minimum number of four and maximum of twelve students (my class had 7 students), the courses are intimate, informative, relaxed and fun.
I participated in the Intro to Pastry course. During this two-part experience (Friday night and Saturday afternoon), my classmates and I created four desserts: profiteroles, lemon cheesecake, apple tart and almond tiramisu. Along with recipes (mine translated into English) and striped aprons, we were given easy-going instructions and practical pastry instruction. A task daunting for even a seasoned home cook, such as making petit choux from scratch (a science project dressed up as a light puffy pastry), was broken down into manageable steps by our light-hearted instructor, Feyza. The social experience of cooking — sharing cultures, stories and laughter —was the main ingredient. While we whisked, cracked, zested, crushed and pre-heated, we also got to know one another. As a foreigner in an entirely Turkish cooking class, I got an insight into Istanbulite life I haven't found at any monument or historic site on a tourist map.
The desserts we made had European origins, but were all made with a local twist — the pervasive use of lemon in Turkish food (both sweet and savory) showed up in the cheesecake, the tiramisu called for the local giant almond macaron cookies as a base instead of typical lady fingers, profiteroles were made in the style they are served on Istiklal Cadessi (the main street in the European neighborhood), smothered in dark chocolate sauce and the apple tart was about as far from an apple pie or tarte tatin as you can get — more of a cinnamon, almond, apple pudding concoction baked within a tart shell. I learned a lot from the class — from technique to ingredient preferences and origins (the dairy products here, so rich and amazing!), to proper kitchen tools (when are we Americans going to switch to baking by weight?) and handling delicate pie dough.
I can still hear my partner translating, "Play with the dough as little as possible." Most importantly, I learned to laugh with my classmates and our teacher — pastries, a Friday night, the most dazzling city on a hill — life is so endlessly delicious.
If you go:
• Istanbul Culinary Institute Meşrutiyet Caddesi,
No:129 Tepebaşı, 34437, Istanbul T 0212 251 22 14 F 0212 215 22 18 M firstname.lastname@example.org
• Book class in advance — at least a week, as classes on popular topics fill up.
• Request an English-speaking staff member to be available during the class to translate as needed (my classmates also helped to translate).
• Remember to have a macchiato or café Americano in the restaurant downstairs (the most heavenly coffee in the city) before or after your course.
(Images: Leela Cyd)