Ozlem Warren on Food, Family & Her Turkish Roots
Ozlem Warren talks food, family and the love of cooking and hospitality her home country has installed in her
Tell us a little bit about your early life – where you grew up, school life etc.
I was born and raised in Turkey and lived in this magical land for over 30 years – I feel very lucky to be so connected to the rich and welcoming Turkish culture.
My father was a lawyer within the government’s transportation department and due to his job, we travelled extensively in Turkey, living in the capital, Ankara, then in Elazig in south-eastern Turkey, and finally in Istanbul. My high school and university (BA) education was in Istanbul.
What were your experiences of food as a child?
I grew up with an abundance of freshly prepared food and the importance of sharing was instilled in us as children.
My mother, Gulcin, would cook hot lunches and dinners from scratch every day, with all of us helping her prepare the dishes. My dad, Orhan, would go to our local farmer’s market, pazar, a few times a week to fetch fresh seasonal produce.
My passion for sharing Turkish cuisine in particular was shaped growing up as a child in Antakya, southern Turkey, where my roots are from. My mother’s father, Suphi, was a food merchant, trading fresh and dried produce within the city and across the border in Syria. I grew up with an wealth of fresh produce and remember the excitement of grandpa delivering cases of figs, aubergines, tomatoes etc. which we always shared with our friends and neighbours.
We would prepare meals with my grandmother and mother at the courtyard of my grandmother’s 450 year old stone house in Antakya, and enjoyed many special meals under the fig, pomegranate and walnut trees. My grandma would always be sure to place spare plates on the table; someone would always turn up, unannounced, and would be warmly welcomed to our table. I think it is this love of sharing, generosity and Turkish hospitality that has stayed with me the most.
“My grandma would always be sure to place spare plates on the table; someone would always turn up, unannounced, and would be warmly welcomed to our table.”
What were the cultural influences around you from family and friends when it came to food? Are your experiences common in Turkish Culture?
Absolutely. Sharing, and general hospitality, is a big part of our culture. Antakya, where my roots are from, is a very diverse land. My grandparents were well connected within the community and everyone would support one another.
A mixed community of different ethnic backgrounds and religious faiths live in Antakya. My grandparents would celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah with their Christian and Jewish friends and during Ramadan, they would break fast with the Muslim community. I grew up with this celebration of diversity and tolerance, which in turn was reflected through our food.
Do you remember a point where you decided for sure that a culinary career was your calling?
I had a corporate background specialising in marketing when I lived in Istanbul prior to my culinary career. But I always loved cooking and sharing. After I married, we moved to Austin, Texas with my husband Angus (though my husband has a very Scottish name, he was born in Texas, and is originally from Wiltshire).
I loved Austin but I missed home and our delicious Turkish cuisine. I was eager to share our warm and welcoming culture with authentic Turkish recipes, cooked at home, with folks in the US. I started teaching Turkish cookery classes at the Central Market Cooking School in Austin in 2006; that was the main starting point of my culinary career. People showed great interest for Turkish cuisine and our rich culinary heritage, and with the classes, I started to publish my recipes on my blog. Fast forward 10 years, this passion led to my cookery book, Ozlem’s Turkish Table, Recipes from My Homeland.
What are your favourite types of food and favourite dishes to cook and experiment with?
I love fresh, clean ingredients; I am very passionate about Turkish cuisine as it utilises seasonal produce and is very healthy. Aubergine is one of my favourite ingredients; it’s very versatile and its meaty texture is perfect as a vegetarian option.
I love breakfast too; eggs done different ways, colourful salads with olives and pomegranate molasses (as we do in my hometown Antakya) and savoury pastries are some of my favourite things to cook.
As well as your passion for Turkish cuisine, are there any cuisines or dishes from other nations you particularly enjoy eating and cooking?
Thai cuisine is a favourite, as well as Italian. We love a good curry. Thai green curry or a pasta dish with a freshly made sauce would make me very happy. I very much enjoy Spanish cuisine too; we share a love of Mediterranean food and sharing culture – meze for us, tapas for them.
Your favourite foodie spots around where you are based in Surrey?
I love Aromas Artisan Café and Maya Bakery in Weybridge. Aromas serves freshly made salads, Eastern Mediterranean inspired dishes and great coffee, while Maya bakery offers outstanding sourdough bread. Nest Home and Café in Ripley is such a gem too.
Is there anywhere in Surrey and London you would recommend for Turkish food in particular?
Oklava London is wonderful for the modern interpretation of Turkish and Cypriot dishes. Baked Artisan Bakery in Maidenhead offers great baking goods, salads and some wonderful Turkish food too.
Your favourite / must-visit spots in Istanbul?
Istanbul is a fascinating city where old meets new. I love Old Istanbul, Sultanahmet region; home to the Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern and Hagia Sophia – this area would be high on my list.
As a foodie, I could spend a day at the Spice Market, Misir Carsisi. Make sure to stock up for spices, dried fruit, nuts and Turkish delight there. I would also highly recommend taking a boat trip along the Bosphorus and appreciate the beauty of both the Asian and European sides of the city.
Street food is also amazing. Try Simit; Sesame encrusted bread rings, our iconic street food. Ciya restaurant on the Asian side would also be a wonderful spot to visit and enjoy regional Turkish food.