Getting used to the food is a big part of settling into life in a foreign country.
I haven’t really had many restaurant meals here so far (mainly due to spending most of my money on flat deposits and bureaucracy fees, and most of my time at work or waiting around for my estate agent), but I’m being introduced to the basics of Turkish cuisine in the same way that I first tried most Korean foods: school lunches.
What I’m trying to keep in mind – and what is, in turn, keeping me quite open-minded – is how much I hated Korean food when I first moved there. I mean, I hated it. Kimchi was the stuff of the devil, and the various ‘weird’ side dishes were unfilling and deeply unsatisfying to my inexperienced palate. I lost quite a bit of weight in my first few months there, mostly due to not being able to find any “real food” as I called it in an early blog post! It’s so strange for me to read back over that now, when I can quite confidently say that my list of favourite foods is made up almost entirely of Korean dishes. How can you go from genuinely hating the taste of a food to craving it?!
But that’s what happened, so I’m not making any harsh judgements yet – and I will say that my opinion of the Turkish school lunches is nowhere near as bad as my initial feelings towards the Korean ones. Although some of the dishes are strange or unappealing to me, I generally eat most things offered to me at the serving hatch.
The school has a huge cafeteria more like the ones I remember from my own school days – in my little school in Daejeon, the English teachers were served lunch at the tiny kids’ table in the cooking classroom. Here, I swipe my school ID card to get through a turnstile, and pick up a tray and cutlery to slide along the counter and receive dishes ladled out by the dinner ladies.
The plates are small, but there are several of them. Usually there’s a meat dish (chicken skewers, meatballs, casserole-type mixtures, etc.), some carbs (rice, pasta, dumplings…), soup (usually lentil, vegetable, or a creamy mushroom one), and some kind of vegetable in sauce.
Then you move along to the condiments table, where there are various bowls of herbs and spices I don’t quite know how to use. I just chuck some red pepper flakes in a bland-looking sauce or soup now and again and hope for the best. You pick up a sealed plastic cup or two of water (can’t drink the tap water here) and move along to the salad bar. This usually has a couple of leafy salad options, and maybe a cold pasta salad or couscous, and some more vegetable options.
Being a thoughtful person, I have taken some photos of my lunches on days that I remembered to do so, just for you. How thrilling, I know! Apologies for the fact that some days I didn’t remember straight away, hence the photos of partially-eaten meals. I’m such a pro.
The third picture was taken on some kind of freaky food heaven day, when we returned hungry from our impromptu trip to the theatre to discover all the nice food in the whole world was waiting for us. Spaghetti bolognese, pizza, cheesecake, fresh bread, cheese… all on top of the normal lunch options. There was a whole extra self-service table set up! Apparently there were special visitors to the school that day, but we were all quite cheerful about benefitting from the school’s desire to impress them, whoever they were.
The other pictures show more typical lunches. So far, there is only one thing I simply will not eat (and so it’s not in the pictures!), just as I refused to eat those teeny-tiny little dried crunchy fish for about 2 years in Korea before I decided they were actually really nice. I don’t actually know what it is, but it tastes like a sour yoghurt or creme fraiche, and they ladle it over pasta and meat dishes. I have now learned to look at the sauces as I approach with my tray, and politely tell the serving lady that I want my food without that white sauce. One particularly delicious lunch was ruined by the fact that this sauce was slopped all over it, and I had to try scraping as much of it off as I could in order to enjoy the roasted, stuffed pepper underneath. Sadly, the sauce seems to be an essential ingredient, for it appears at least three times a week in one dish or another. I might have considered trying it on its own or with some fruit as a dessert, but to my taste buds it just tastes acidic and plain wrong with savoury food. Bleughhhhh.
Similarly, the one thing missing from all my pictures is the little carton of Ayran we get with most meals. That’s the watery yoghurt drink mixed with salt (soooo strange!) I mentioned once before. I’ve taken it a couple of times and can see it growing on me…. but I’m not quite there yet!
My main “this is just not right” issue at the moment, though, is with the vegetable options. They look so good, damn it! Sauteed leeks and onions, fresh carrots and broccoli, various peas and beans, brussels sprouts, cauliflower…. all very nicely cooked and presented, with lots of lovely olive oil. And every single time, as I eagerly load up my side dish and open my mouth for my first bite, I forget that they are cold.
I don’t mean that they have gone lukewarm from sitting out. I mean that they are intentionally served stone cold. My brain just can’t cope with this yet, but I’m hoping my taste buds adjust themselves soon because apparently this is A Thing. Vegetables cooked in olive oil and served cold with every meal. They’re called “zeytinyağlılar”, meaning “those with olive oil”. And they taste great, but… but… they’re meant to be hot! Served cold, they seem all slimy and wrong to me. If I had access to a microwave I would just zing them for 30 seconds and be happy as Larry, but as it is I just try to take a bite of hot food at the same time to try and fool my brain into thinking they’re also warm. Why, why must they be cold, why?! Why specifically wait for them to go cold after they were lovely and steaming and piping hot when you cooked them?! Yuck, yuck, yuck. (I started the topic of “food” with the kids this week, by the way.)
In general, though, school lunches are fine. They do the job required of them, and they’re helping me to learn about Turkish food by constantly annoying my colleagues with “….and what’s this called?” type questions.
I still haven’t encountered anything that beats the old doner kebab, though!