Ali carefully wrings water from the spinach, twisting the strips slowly, holding tightly and bobbing his hands to shake the final beads of water before moving them to the Dutch oven. He turns the heat down and pulls a bucket of couscous from a cabinet. He points at it and then at the pot, flashing 10 fingers.
Ali, the cook at the hostel where I stayed in Goreme, Turkey, while traveling this fall, agreed to teach me to make a Turkish dish, but knowing no English he’s doing so by simply pointing, gesturing and flashing cooking times with his fingers.
Turkish coffee is made, and we lean against the counter smiling, two people communicating without speaking. We sip our coffee and enjoy the friendly silence as we peer out the back windows at the mountains of the central Turkish desert.
A week later, back in Istanbul, I wander through a cramped city grocery store to see if I can re-create Ali’s meal in my backpacker hostel’s minuscule communal kitchen. The butcher has no ground meat, or simply can’t understand my attempts to explain, so I settle on lamb sausage as a substitute. Yogurt is sold in containers so large it takes me minutes scouring the fridge case to find the loose single serving container I’ll need, tucked in a single row at the end of the case.
The man at the checkout counter smiles and flips the readout of my total toward me so I can count out the lira. He asks if my Chicago Bears T-shirt is a “football” team. I explain it is, but not the sort of football he means.
At the hostel, I lay out the groceries in the cramped kitchen under the near-orange fluorescent lighting. The fillet knife, the biggest available, is dull as I break down onion, garlic and hot peppers. I’ve set the spinach to soaking when the hostel’s owner comes around the corner. He pulls his son off the front desk and speaks to him in Turkish.
“He wants to know why you’re throwing away the good part of the … what’s the word in English … kard? Chard?” the son says.
OK. So you try telling spinach from chard when the label is in Turkish.
I head back to the store. No spinach. Down the street to a green grocer, but he doesn’t know the English word and offers me parsley after my feeble attempt to sketch spinach on a produce box. Back to the hostel, standing outside to catch the Wi-Fi signal, I Google Translate “spinach” into Turkish: “ispanak.”
The green grocer has none but he points me down the street. Two blocks down, I stand in front of the Ispanak Cafe, a cafe and bar, and hope I haven’t been sent on a wild-goose chase. Then, I see the vegetable stand down the street.
They have ispanak.
In goes the garlic, onion, pepper. Then the tomatoes and tomato paste. The cheap pot is so thin I can only have the burner at the lowest possible setting or the simmer becomes a full-on boil.
In goes the diced sausage after I clear out of the 4 feet between the stove and sink so another guest can put on a fresh kettle of tea. Salt and pepper and sumac to taste.
Then the spinach, wrung dry just as Ali did. The greens simmer until they turn a deep green. In goes the couscous, and the pot is covered. I check every few minutes until the couscous has softened, then ladle it onto a plate and top it with yogurt.
The elderly Indian woman eating with me in the kitchen offers me some of her coconut rice. The rice is sweet, the tomato sauce spicy and slightly smoky from the sausage and the spinach sops it all up nicely.
A new dish with no hard and fast recipe required. All I needed was help from friendly strangers half a world away and a single word: “ispanak.”
Spinach with couscous
Prep: 15 minutes
Cook: 35 minutes
Makes: 6 servings
While no formal measurements were used when I was taught this dish by the hostel’s cook, these approximations should suffice. Look for sumac in ethnic markets or spice shops. The dish goes well with a salad of finely chopped lettuce, mint, cucumber, tomatoes and shaved carrots, dressed with lemon juice and olive oil.
1 bunch spinach, stemmed, cut in long strips
2 hot peppers of your choosing, diced
1 yellow onion, chopped
1 large tomato, chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 pound lamb sausage, diced fine, or ground lamb
3 cloves garlic, smashed
One 16-ounce can crushed tomatoes
One 5-ounce can ºtomato paste
3/4 teaspoon salt, about
Freshly ground pepper
3 handfuls couscous, about 1 cup
1 to 2 cups water
Soak the spinach in very cold water, 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a Dutch oven, cook the peppers, onion and fresh chopped tomato in the oil on medium heat until the onions begin to soften, but before they become translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the sausage; cook, stirring often, until lightly browned, about 10 minutes.
Add the garlic and the canned crushed tomatoes; cook, stirring once, 3 minutes. Add the tomato paste; season with ¼ teaspoon salt and pepper to taste. Heat the sauce to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer. Wring out spinach; add to the Dutch oven and cover. Let simmer, at least 10 minutes.
Add couscous, water, remaining ½ teaspoon salt and pepper to taste; stir and cover. Simmer until couscous is plump, 5-6 minutes. Taste for seasoning. Serve sprinkled with sumac and with yogurt on the side.
Nutrition information per serving: 296 calories, 10 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 25 mg cholesterol, 39 g carbohydrates, 14 g protein, 537 mg sodium, 7 g fiber