“Did you like the food I cooked last week?” queried Sibel, my cleaner. “Tabii ki” (Of course), I replied, remembering the large pan of peas in sauce that had greeted me on my return from work.
“Oo, let’s see what’s in the fridge today” was her excited response. The answer was -- not a lot, except a few potatoes and some spinach. But since I was not at work that day and as it happened just on my way to the post office, she politely suggested that if I bought some yufka (thin pastry) and maydanoz (flat leafed parsley), she would cook our evening meal again. This is a relatively new venture of hers -- and one I’m quite keen to encourage. I have long been aware of the importance of food in Turkish culture, especially in the workplace.
Three times a day I march my class of 3 year olds up and down several staircases through the school building to the dining room. When I first started teaching here, six years ago, I was stunned by the amount of times the kids needed feeding. Having taught in the UK for many years, where generally the only access to food was at lunch time, I couldn’t quite believe how there could possibly be enough hours in the teaching day in which to incorporate this amount of time on eating -- bearing in mind that each meal requires that every child must wash their sticky or paint-ridden hands first, an operation, even when conducted with military precision, that can take up to 15 minutes in itself.
If I was surprised by the number of times these children required feeding, I was amazed by the type of food the kids were tucking into. This was something that I had never in all my experience of both being a mother of three kids and teaching over the years in a number of different schools to a vast number of students from ages 3 to 11 had ever seen before.
When I taught in the UK, more than half the kids chose to bring their own packed lunch rather than risk the school dinners. As a Mum I had always battled constantly to get my own kids to choose healthy options -- with varying degrees of success. As a working mother I opted to pay the often extortionate amount of money for school dinners in the hope that they would learn to eat a variety of food, but mostly because I couldn’t face buying and preparing three packed lunches for fussy eaters every day. I’ve really no idea what or how much they ate at school and quite frankly I wasn’t particularly interested. To my mind they went to school to pick up enough social and academic skills to turn them into reasonably well adjusted adults and their dietary requirements could wait until they got home.
However, as a teacher rather than a mum, I would watch in horror as my UK students excitedly opened their brightly colored plastic lunch boxes and started tucking in. Although a few would produce a healthy sandwich made with brown bread, slices of raw carrot and maybe a carton of yogurt and a piece of fruit, the vast majority would gaze in pure delight at the sight of packets of crisps, biscuits, tubs of chocolate puddings, chocolate bars and fizzy drinks ensconced in their lunch boxes. These “lucky” children would, of course, eat the lot with no encouragement. Those, like my own, subjected to Britain’s infamous school dinners, would bravely plough their way through the dish of the day -- shepherd’s pie, fish fingers or sausages, generally succeeding in ignoring the over boiled soggy and tasteless vegetables.
School dinners -- Turkish style
In Turkey, the concept of “packed lunches” doesn’t seem to exist either on school days or weekends. Families may go on picnics, but these are a far cry from a typical British picnic which traditionally consists of little more than individually wrapped sandwiches and a thermos of tea. By comparison, in Turkey, picnics are banquets, with stoves to make fresh tea, barbeques to grill meat or vegetables and bowls of fresh salads, all to be shared. The same principle applies for school meal times too.
For the 3 and 4 year olds in my crèche each meal is a crucial part of the day and the majority look forward eagerly to each meal. Breakfast consists of cheese or egg, tomato or cucumber, bread with jam or honey. Lunches, cooked in a tiny kitchen on the school premises by a wonderful Turkish woman are invariably Turkish “village” food. Homemade soups, spinach in yogurt sauce, beans in tomato sauce, börek (pies), stuffed eggplant and peppers, mücver (zucchini fritters) served with rice or bulgur and always a piece of fruit to follow. The mid-afternoon snack is usually a slice of home-baked cake or gözleme (pancake) or maybe some pişi (deep fried doughnut) -- a useful energy boost to keep them going until home time.
That Turkish food is far healthier than the average British counterpart is self-evident. I know from my own experience that the majority of the food I now eat is bought from the markets and is made up of fresh, seasonal fruit and vegetables. Back in the UK, my regular shopping trips were almost entirely to one of the large supermarkets where I was enticed by the special offers to buy vast quantities of packaged, convenience food. On trips back home, I find that after a week of indulging myself in all the foods I crave while here -- English muffins, bacon sandwiches, roast dinners, curries, etc. I am desperate to return to the Turkish diet.
On the whole, most of the children are happy with the food on offer at crèche and unlike their English counterparts are not fazed by the copious amounts of vegetables, with minimal amounts of meat -- this is often used more as a flavoring than a main constituent of the meal. As in any country there are of course a few who require an enormous amount of encouragement to tackle their dinners.
I am, however, always dumfounded at the start of each school year by one aspect of the eating habits of young Turkish children -- their seeming inability to use a spoon or fork. Most have clearly been spoon fed by their parents or minders and the expressions on their faces when they realize that the spoons and forks provided at school are for their own use are priceless. When eating out in restaurants around Antalya, I have frequently witnessed much older children having their food cut up for them and then fed to them, often being chased around the restaurant by concerned and increasingly aggravated parents. I cannot imagine any self-respecting British 10 year old allowing their parents to behave in this way. Some recent research reported in the Guardian newspaper indicates that children who have been encouraged to feed themselves from an early age are less likely to suffer from weight problems in later life.
So, as I tuck in to my patatesli börek (potato pie) accompanied by spinach and rice in a tomato sauce with a yogurt and garlic dip on the side, all courtesy of Sibel (eline sağlık or health to her hands), I am glad that I have had the opportunity to change my British eating habits and to learn the Turkish way -- especially when it has been cooked for me. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that the traditional Turkish diet does not succumb to the fast-food revolution sweeping the globe.