Food & Drink

April 30, 2014

Learning over lunch: How a cooking class became a cultural exchange

“Turkish cooking classes” – that’s what piqued my interest in the Cook’s Calendar listing.

“Turkish cooking classes” – that’s what piqued my interest in the Cook’s Calendar listing.

I compile that list of food-centric classes and happenings every week and sometimes I find events that interest me and, schedule permitting, I can actually attend. That’s how I ended up learning how to make spinach and cheese pie in a class sponsored by the South Carolina Dialogue Foundation last Saturday.

The SCDF, founded by Turkish-Americans, has two offices: One in Greenville and the other in two adjacent homes on Shull Street in West Columbia. One of the houses serves as the SCDF office while the other serves as a temporary home for visiting students and teachers. There are about 10 Turkish families living in the Midlands, according to Paula Ludwig, executive assistant for the Lowcountry. The SCDF’s function is to promote dialogue between individuals and communities through educational and social activities to move toward a more peaceful and constructive coexistence.

Part of that plan are the aforementioned cooking classes and this Saturday’s Turkish Cultural Festival.

First, to the cooking class...

This class was not much different from others that I have attended in the area. Except, we had lunch first, before the actual recipe preparation – and I was the only student.

We started out with a chicken soup and bulgur-and-tomato salad along with slices of an already prepared cheese pie. The soup/salad/pie was a great combination of warm and comforting foods for a cool and drizzly Saturday. The soup was really just a version of a thickened broth. The salad included a medium onion and tomato, both chopped fine, along with a tablespoon or two of tomato paste mixed in with about three cups of steamed bulgur. The salad mix was finished off with a healthy shake of paprika for a bit more color and an added warm flavor. A small cup of very strong hot black tea (perfect) finished off the meal.

Turns out, the Turkish spinach and cheese pie – isplanakli, peynirli borek – is very close to the Greek spanakopita in preparation and taste. My instructor suggested using the recipe as a guide, adding or substituting ingredients to fit personal likes. For instance, she makes her own yogurt using whole milk and plain yogurt (as a starter) and uses that in place of the milk and water in the recipe. Also, some people may not want the sesame seeds or nigella (also known as black seeds or sanouj) sprinkled on top.

One final hint was to slice the pie into serving portions before baking to make it easier for serving later.

While Ludwig and I watched and took notes on the pie preparation, we got to talking about the upcoming festival and SCDF in general.

I admit, I had not heard of the SCDF before seeing the email containing the cooking class schedule.

Ludwig’s duties at SCDF include organizing events such as the upcoming festival and Dialog Dinners that bring together area leaders and interested community members to discuss various topics.. Past dinners have focused on Turkish cultural customs, the Constitution and the First Amendment as it relates to religion and the theme of empathy.

The SCDF also organizes trips and holds art and essay contests for middle- and high school students for a chance to travel to Turkey. Learn more about the organization and upcoming events and classes at

Spinach and Cheese Pie (Ispanakli, Peynirli Borek)

Serves 4-6

7 ounces fresh spinach leaves

7 ounces feta cheese, crumbled

4 ounces shredded mozzarella

3 eggs, beaten

1/2 cup milk

1/2 cup water

3 tablespoons olive oil

12 sheets of phyllo pastry

1 tablespoon nigella (black seeds or sanouj)

1 tablespoon sesame seeds

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Remove the stems of the spinach, wash and chop roughly. Mix together in a bowl with the feta cheese, mozzarella and two of the beaten eggs. In a separate bowl, mix the water, 1 tablespoon of olive oil and milk.

Grease a rectangular baking dish (about 9 x 13) with the remaining olive oil. Lay three pastry sheets in the greased baking dish. Spoon a little of the milk-olive oil-water mix (about 3 tablespoons) over the pastry sheets. Repeat this layering three more times, using three filo sheets at a time.

Spread all of the spinach and cheese mixture evenly over the pastry sheets and then continue to layer three more sheets of filo, pouring the milk mixture over each layer for three more layers.

Whisk together the remaining beaten egg with a little olive oil and brush over the finished pastry. Sprinkle with sesame and/or nigella.

Bake for 40 minutes, until the top is golden brown. Serve hot or at room temperature.

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