Antep fıstığı yemek (The pistachio meal)

Last week, Jeremy and I finished our second full week of Turkish classes. I always leave class a lot more confident about my abilities and now the world around me is a giant puzzle to solve. Previously banal awnings and billboards become fascinating enigmas to decode and I feel a burst of pride when I can decipher an entire phrase as opposed to just a few words here and there. The trick with Turkish seems to be in learning the suffixes that get piled onto a root word. A whole sentence can be constructed on one word, just by adding several key syllables to a verb or adjective. These gluttonous words grow like hungry caterpillars through the garden rows of my notebook, as they accumulate shades of meaning. The only other languages in the world that work this way (I’ve recently learned) are Finnish, Japanese, and Hungarian. Learning this and some of the suffixes has changed the way that I listen to the language, now focusing on finding the root instead of getting lost in the storm of syllables.

Still, it’s one thing to practice sentences in the structured format of our class and quite another to venture into the real world of dialogue, where curve balls are coming at you left and right (me to a shopkeeper: “You were supposed to say, “(quote from the dialogue we practiced in class)” and then I say, “(response to first quote from dialogue practiced in class)”… and then we understand each other and all is good. Let’s try it again from the top, shall we?”). Like infants who are learning a language, I am still at the listening stage and attempting approximations of language on my own. 

Learning Turkish in a structured class has been a lot of fun. It’s encouraging to finally put sentences together and internalize vocabulary through repetition and visuals. It’s also comforting to look around the room at a particularly puzzling moment and realize that every single person in the room (minus the teacher) dons the same perplexed expression as you. At the end of each class, everyone’s bags under their eyes are accentuated and we look as if we’ve all just pulled an all-nighter. The more I learn about Turkish, however, the harder it seems- as soon as you think you’ve gotten a rule down, there’s a twist in the plot.

Last night, I got to put my new Turkish skills (as raw (çiğ) as they are) to the street test, as I went shopping for the dinner I had challenged myself to cook on an unassuming Tuesday night. The idea behind the dinner, which I pitched to Jeremy last week on an inspired whim, was to pick one ubiquitous ingredient that would appear from beginning to end in every dish. Kind of like Iron Chef, but without the competition… or the professional skills. The ingredient I’d chosen was (drum roll)….. pistachios!  I had used them with fresh pomegranate seeds and parsley in a delicious relish for a Turkish chicken dish I’d made the week before and was curious about how else these flavorful little nuts could be used. As always, I turned to my trusted website,, and entered “pistachios” in the search bar. Hundreds of recipes turned up- entrees, salads, loads of desserts. I saved a dozen and then narrowed them down to: an arugula salad with chopped up dried apricots and pistachios, pistachio-crusted salmon with spicy yogurt (recipe calls for halibut, but I didn't find any), and pistachio and almond cake. After making a grocery list and translating key ingredients into Turkish, I was ready to hit the markets and corner stores.

The service bus from school drops me off near the British Consulate, a hop and a jump away from Balik Pazari- a street off of Istiklal with tons of small fish restaurants and fish vendors. Going to a market always makes me nervous- especially if it involves buying meat or fish, because I’m still not confident in my abilities to discriminate fresh from overly fishy and because of my minimal Turkish skills. At all the fish stalls, vendors display their good, deep red gills on show, like a blue (red?) ribbon of freshness. I, however, was getting salmon , or “somon,” sold already separated from its gills, and wasn’t sure that I’d be able to pick a good piece.

I put off buying my fish by first stopping at a nut stand to get the almonds that the dessert called for. I rehearsed my new vocabulary in my head before letting myself get caught in the vendor’s net of beckoning words: “çiğ badem, çiğ badem, çiğ badem…” and stepped up to the baskets filled to the rim with walnuts, almonds, and pistachios.

“Hoşgeldiniz, buyurun,” said the vendor (“Welcome (literally, “I am happy to see you”, yes please?”).  

“Hoşbulduk. Çiğ badem var mı?” I replied (“I am happy to be here (approximate translation). Do you have raw almonds?”).

He showed me the raw almonds and the roasted ones and invited me to try them. This is part of the ritual of shopping at markets, rather than supermarkets, that I enjoy- the tasting of the wares- where you are invited to taste and assess the freshness of the food. The raw almonds passed the test. Next came the other part that I often trip and stumble through- determining and communicating how much. It has happened in the past, that because I hadn’t figured out how to express quantity, I came home with kilos of produce that I was too embarrassed to say no to once they had been bagged. This time, I relied on the tried and true strategy of using gestures, making a small bundle with my hands, to show I wanted far less than a kilo. The vendor snuck an extra spoonful of almonds, even after I’d signaled the cut-off, weighed them, and after, paying, I was on my way to find fish.

A few feet up from the nut vendor, was a fish stand with salmon steaks for sale. The stand was very simple- just a few fish and an overall tiny operation. After the initial rally of greetings, I asked,“Somon, ne kedar?” (How much is the salmon?) I had no way of telling whether or not it was fresh, so I put my faith in the vendor, who wrapped them up for me. “Nerelisin?” he asked. (Where are you from?)
“Istanbul’da,” I replied (I’m from Istanbul).
The vendor knew I wasn’t from Istanbul and asked where I was from originally, so I told him San Francisco.
“Your Turkish is good,” he said.
“Türkçe kursu gidiyorum,” I replied, which translates to “I go to Turkish class.”

And with those words, I sealed a semi-competent, but still pretty rough conversation that went beyond the “Hello. How are you?” phase… and bought some really cheap and (as it turned out) fresh fish. I felt a great sense of accomplishment and strutted home, proud as a peacock, stopping at a few more stores along the way for fresh pistachios, butter, and lemons, and to work in a few more of my new Turkish phrases here and there.

As soon as I got home and started preparing the meal, I knew I’d gotten in a little over my head. The most tedious part was shelling the pistachios, which took me the length of a “This American Life” episode to shell. Once that was done, things went a lot more smoothly, except that our kitchen is made to Lilliputian dimensions and so anytime you put something down, let alone several things, the counter gets as crowded as an Istanbul sidewalk at rush hour, and, well… things get bumped and fall. Who knew that even inanimate objects could take on the character of the city in which they exist! There were a few comical (nearly tragic) mishaps. One, for example, when a sudden rearrangement of containers caused a crash and the container in which I’d been so meticulously placing my shelled pistachios tumbled to the ground. Fortunately, most of the nuts stayed aboard, otherwise I might have had a small breakdown. Hearing all the crashing and clanging I was doing, Jeremy must have wondered (maybe worried) what the end product would be. Since he wasn’t allowed in the kitchen- I wanted the secret ingredient to remain secret, of course- Jeremy took a walk to the grocery store to grab some wine.

Several hours, many shelled pistachios, and a few broken containers later, the meal came together… and I have to say, that it was good! It even had a little Turkish flair, as it was served with yogurt mixed with dill, lemon juice, cucumber, and crushed red peppers. After that huge production- I was exhausted, but happy and satisfied. I thought of the new Turkish words I’d learned and of the fun interactions I’d had in Turkish on the way home. The world opens up when you interact with it, I thought, and I am happy to be gaining the skills to interact.

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