The mighty kettle
How does one cook Turkish coffee, börek (savoury crunchy pastry), toasties, stuffed meatballs, mashed potato, lentil kötfe and tantuni (spicy beef wrap) in prison by using a kettle? Mine’s sieves made of bath cloths, Mücella’s single-use soucepans, and more…
When mentioning prisons in Turkey, the first electrical appliance that comes to mind is a kettle; we owe this to the former Co-Leader of the HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party), Selahattin Demirtaş, who has been imprisoned for years. While we have not yet managed to tweet from our kettle (we haven’t given up), we learned that the kettle we thought was only good for boiling water in our kitchens was, in fact, a ‘quasi-professional cooker’ when we were put in jail.*
We were imprisoned on 25 April 2022. On 26 April, the first (we didn’t then know it would be the only) electrical appliance that came into our cell with Mücella Yapıcı was a kettle. Our white (and already having achieved veteran status) kettle performed its ordinary functions on day one: it boiled water to make tea with tea bags.
Kettle-made Turkish coffee recipe by Nalan from Kuştepe
One of the products we chose from the canteen was Turkish coffee. I naively looked for a Turkish coffee machine on the list. Okay, I thought there would be an old-school version at the prison, one that gets plugged in. Not one of those stylish Turkish coffee machines. But there wasn’t. Even the prison canteen (you won’t believe it) has its own logic. Because Turkish coffee is sold – by plain logic – there must be a way to prepare it.
Kettle Hatırası [A Memento for Kettle], 2022 || Illustration: Kemal Gökhan || Courtesy of Kemal Gökhan
As we would frequently do in the days ahead, we ‘referred to the courtyard’ immediately. (Referring to the courtyard means asking the question to the courtyard that the windows of the 10 cells face and waiting for the answer to come from one of the nine cells.) The courtyard, as it was going to do often over the following days, became vocal immediately. From one of the rooms, Nalan from Kuştepe offered the recipe: One soup spoon of coffee for one glass of water, put it in the kettle, and leave the lid off. Stir a little to begin with, wait for it to boil, keep an eye on it so it doesn’t boil over. I listened to the recipe, but as if I had made Turkish coffee using a kettle before, I didn’t like Nalan’s recipe. I put half a soup spoon of coffee instead of one. Why, I have no idea. As a result, our first try at making Turkish coffee was a disaster. It was undrinkable! I promptly blamed the kettle; what did I expect? As our first try at Turkish coffee had been a failure, we ordered instant coffee from the canteen. We remembered immediately why we didn’t drink instant coffee ‘normally’: Because it is really awful!
I had to go back to Turkish coffee in the kettle, cursing along the way, and this time listening to Nalan’s advice. You guessed it: This time it was perfect, with lots of froth, large, tasty and exactly right. The trick is that you have to wash the kettle straight away after preparing the coffee and remove all the coffee from it. Why? Because you can only have one kettle in your room. It is your benefactor; your utensil to make coffee, boil water, warm up food (I was not convinced of this last bit at the beginning), so you have to look after it as if your life depended on it. After you have been making coffee twice a day, the inside gets a little brown, but the common wisdom is that a well-used kettle has a life span of three to four months. So we are about to say goodbye to our white kettle these days; for example, its lid is broken, its inside is no longer very white. I think it’s on its last legs. We will give this one up and get a new one. Mücella wants a colourful one this time; let’s see what Lady Luck has in store.
If you have no kettle, you have no chance of a hot meal in the evening
So what was I saying? Food! The food provided by the prison is at around 11.30 for lunch, and around 15.30–16.00 for dinner. This timeline is brought forward at the weekends. You may think of it as 10.30–11.00 and 13.30–14.00. For lunch, it’s okay, but if you want to eat your dinner at a reasonable time, this means you have to somehow warm up your food, meaning if you don’t have a kettle or a samovar (the samovar is a separate topic to discuss) you have no chance of eating hot food in the evening.
Warming up food is one of the most important functions of our beloved kettle. One of the most important supplies in prison, on the other hand, is freezer bags. I am sure that the 1,300 women in Bakırköy Women’s Prison use up an important proportion of Istanbul’s total consumption of ‘medium-size freezer bags’. If you add all the prisons in the country, half of the medium-size freezer bags are consumed in prisons. I cannot prove it but I am sure.
You need two essential things to warm up food: kettle and freezer bags. And of course to protect our beloved kettle’s health, clean water, because tap water is also a threat to the health of our kettle. (I should note that the cost of a bottle of water is 3TL for 1.5 lt.)
Food arrives on a trolley in prison; we put our plastic containers that we bought from the canteen through the peephole to receive the food. Large-size containers don’t fit through the peephole, while the smaller-size ones are good only for too little food; so the ideal size is medium. Everything is best in medium size here. Plastic container, freezer bags, human. (Okay, this is unrelated, but I am too big for here, for example. I am 1m 75cm and can’t fit in the bed. My feet are out of the bed from the ankles down. Were I medium size, I would fit.) Well, okay, I go back to the kettle.
Food has arrived; we have received it from the peephole. The first action is draining the fat and water and putting it through hot water, depending on what the food is. Since we have a good amount of people around us who have been in and out of prison for decades, we had more or less heard of these, but believe me, living it is something else ☺
Yes, so, where were we? We drained the food. If we are eating it immediately, great, there is no worry about heating it up, the food is hot, but if it is the evening meal, then that’s an issue. After draining it, we try tricks like putting it in the container, wrapping it up in a towel to keep it warm, putting a few containers on top of each other, but the results are not very successful. This is why our beloved kettle and our medium-size freezer bags take centre stage in the evening.
Then the food is transferred from the container into doubled-up freezer bags. Two freezer bags are important. Our kettle is generally well-behaved and very cooperative, but the risk of the bags taking in water is real. This is why it is important to make sure with two bags. We tie up the bags very tightly, then we insert them into the boiling water in our kettle. The kettle is a smart gadget that carries on working when its lid is open. We keep the bags in the water, which continues to boil just long enough. For soup, longer than for other meals, for example. Yet it takes between 5 and 10 minutes for it to be done. Making sure you don’t burn your hands and arms in the steam (we did in the early days, now we are professionals), we take the bags out and go back to the containers. The food is lovely and hot, ready. With experience, courage also increases. You start warming two meals in separate bags at one go, for example, or putting your bread or flatbread on the open lid of the kettle so that’s also ready in one go. All this is down to experience!
Börek and toasted sandwich recipe from the courtyard
‘Ask the Courtyard’ is the most important experience-sharing network in prison. From ‘voices’ whose faces you have by and large not ever seen, you receive recipes they have probably learnt from voices they have not seen. I had really been mesmerised by the Turkish coffee and meal-warming instructions, but I would have never guessed the next level: cooking food, well that is!
If I remember correctly, the first time I heard of the cooking phase was the second week of our imprisonment, with the news from the ‘courtyard’ about börek (savoury crunchy pastry filled with different fillings such as cheese, potato or minced meat) and toasted sandwiches made in kettles. Just like with the Turkish coffee, at first I was not convinced at all. (I didn’t yet know that, later on, I would be eating toasted sandwiches, börek, even stuffed meatballs made in the kettle.)
Let me start with the easiest: toasted sandwich! The prison authorities give each detained and convicted prisoner a loaf of bread each day: You can choose between white, brown and unsalted bread. We generally prefer brown bread but once a week, we also get the unsalted bread which we call puffy bread and which somehow reminds us of pastry buns. Both are suitable for toasted sandwiches. The best toasted sandwich is made with bread that is one or two days old. First, you put whatever you like inside. We, however, are limited by what is available from the canteen, not what we like. Here, the cheese selection is not bad. Kashar cheese, plaited cheese, tulum cheese, strained feta and labne cheese can all be bought from the canteen. Of course, this is a question of purchasing power. If you don’t have the means to shop from the canteen, and this is very likely, you will need to make do with the largeish (but thin) single slice of feta or a single triangle cheese provided by the prison once a week. If you can shop at the canteen, you can buy butter. If you can’t, you will have a small, hotel-size packet of butter once a week. If you are asking whether it is just cheese toasties, you need to head back to the canteen again. Soujouk, salami and pastrami are all available for purchase, yes, you guessed it, if you have money. Let me note that canteen prices increased four times between 25 April and 25 July. Prison is not immune to inflation, of course.
When your cheese and whatever you will put in the toastie are ready, you can start making it. You put a bit of butter, cheese, soujouk or whatever you want in a piece of slightly stale bread and you spread some more butter on the bread. Then, yes, it is again the turn of the medium-size fridge bag! We wrap the bread, taking out all the air in the first fridge bag. Then, we wrap the second bag in the same way, tying it up tightly. The kettle has already been on, the water has already boiled. We put the bag in the kettle. I cooked two toasties at the same time. Tried making three, but it didn’t work.
The time to cook the toastie in the kettle is 10 minutes. The lid of the kettle is open, it is working constantly. (Prisoners pay for the electricity from the mains, this excludes the lighting in the cell/wards, so we pay for the electricity we use, and it isn’t the domestic tariff, it is from the industrial one. In our 9-square-metre, single-plug cell, our bill for one month’s electricity usage came to 130 TL [7USD], for example.)
Okay, I go back to toasties! We take the toasties in the bags from the kettle after 10 minutes and this is the trick: We take the toasties out, put them on a plate, then brown both sides with a hair dryer. It does work, I swear; you can try it for free!
We are not going to eat toasties every day. We want börek. (Okay, yes, it isn’t the proper börek you know, but so what?) For börek, again the stuffing is whatever your heart desires. This time, the wrapping changes from bread to flatbread from the canteen. It is possible to turn the flatbread into a spring roll. Put whatever you want in it. The trusted fridge bag and the kettle. Again for about 10 minutes, there you have the melted cheese-filled börek if made with cheese, the cooked meaty börek if made with soujouk or pastrami. The last touch could include the hair dryer, but it isn’t essential.
Çiğdem Mater, Bakırköy Closed Women's Prison, 2022 || Photo: instagram.com/freecigdemmater
Çiğdem Mater, Bakırköy Closed Women's Prison, 2022 || Photo: instagram.com/freecigdemmater
Mücella’s two discoveries that could spread to other prisons
After toasties and börek, ‘Ask the Courtyard’ taught us how to cook packaged and canned food like kavurma (braised beef), or canned mackerel. Cans are easy: You put the can in the kettle, it boils and boils, then it warms up. Kavurma, on the other hand, as one of our main foodstuffs, deserves its own separate and longer heading.
I don’t know of another meat that is like kavurma in this world. It tastes like whatever it is the replacement for. On top of rice, it tastes like döner kebab; in flatbread, it tastes like tantuni (finely chopped and fried meat with parsley, onion and tomato, wrapped in a flatbread). Described like this, it sounds like a meat lacking personality, but it isn’t; I respect it hugely. Kavurma is a very precious discovery. Long live whoever thought of salting it to preserve it. Where was I? Yes, kavurma is vacuum-packed and, of course, is a product from the canteen. When we arrived here, 150 g costed 20 TL, now it is 33 TL. We are looking with trepidation at its future price. So yes, vacuum-packed kavurma is put into the boiling kettle, and it’s cooked. Of course, we asked the courtyard, got the recipe, and made it. This was before my cellmate Mücella’s much-appreciated discovery, passed on the grapevine in the courtyard. That discovery transformed our kitchen. A recipe I will describe later has arrived here from the Çanakkale prison via Silivri prison. I am certain Mücella’s two discoveries will also travel between prisons!
It all started with Mücella giving me a look as I was holding a milk carton. I am someone who throws everything away immediately; I never think ‘if it is useful for something else’, meaning I am the wrong type of roommate for prison. (Well, I have been trained a little bit, I never throw anything without asking Mücella, and because she always says ‘Keep it’, we barely have any rubbish.) The milk was finished; as I was heading towards the bin, I was stopped in my tracks! From then on, the half-litre milk cartons became our use and throw-away cooking pots! (Yes, they are unfortunately single-use. If they could be reused, Mücella would no doubt reuse them 40 times, but they can’t be.)
Mücella took the carton, opened its top, washed it and said, ‘Here is a cooking pot’. I think it was 15 days into our imprisonment. Ever since, we cook and warm everything up in the milk cartons; when I say ‘cooking’, don’t think small: I am talking about frying onions and everything! Because the inside is metal alloy, it is ideal for single-use cooking. The carton is resistant to hot water, the inside acts like foil. As I was saying, with the discovery of the milk carton, our lives have been transformed. Apart from exceptional situations (for example, mashed potatoes: washed potatoes in the double fridge bags go into the kettle) we’ve said goodbye to our freezer bags.
Mücella’s lentil köfte and stuffed meatballs
Mücella plays for high stakes in the kitchen. As soon as she discovered the milk carton, she started dreaming of lentil köfte! I need to remind you that nothing that can be ‘cooked’ is sold in the canteen, so your respect for what I am about to tell you will increase! The lentil soup that came for lunch was set aside. In the cooking pot, olive oil, onions and tomato paste were left to sizzle. Extra-fine bulgur is available for purchase from the canteen to make kısır (a kind of tabbouleh made with bulgur, spring onions, tomatoes, cucumber, parsley and mint with a seasoning of olive oil and spices), for example. Within a few hours, a massive plate of lentil köfte that I will never be able to forget the taste of was ready! Not just me, anyone who ate it was overwhelmed.
After Mücella successfully made lentil köfte, she aimed higher. She said, ‘I will make stuffed meatballs.’ Because I have no idea of how stuffed meatballs are made, even in fully equipped kitchens, I could only say, ‘What do you need?’ I only know about production; I cannot comment on the rest! Let me say the conclusion before the end: She made it! The cooking pot and the kettle were in starring roles again! Browning the onions has no news value anymore, you are used to it. Kavurma that takes every shape and taste is centre stage. There are walnuts in the canteen. The preparation for the stuffing is complete. I couldn’t fathom how the external dough was possible, of course. Then I found Mücella kneading in a large bowl. Bread crumbs, bulgur, starch (because there are children in the women’s prison, some unusual ingredients are sold in the canteen, and starch flour is one of these. There are around 50 children under the age of six in Bakırköy prison, of all nationalities and languages. During the day they are at the nursery, and after that in the cells.) OK, I go back to the stuffed meatballs. Mücella kneaded the dough and made the stuffed meatballs while remembering her dearly departed mother-in-law, speaking of Antep. Yet the most critical part was boiling them.
We returned to our beloved fridge bags. After lightly oiling the bag, we put three köfte into the kettle, yes, you guessed it, double-bagged. The köftes must not be wet! Mücella made incredible stuffed köftes at her first try, 12 exactly. The number is important! None fell apart, they were all delicious. The final touch is again the hairdryer – a small frying operation. I have never eaten anything like it. Yes, the dear kavurma was in the minced meat role this time!
With the expansion of our kitchen utensils and the possibilities increasing, of course Mücella raised the bar! Köfte, or meatballs. Kavurma became minced meat again; with onions, garlic and parsley, it became a great mix, into the pot to be cooked! We were salivating for köfte for many days, and it happened!
Tantuni recipe from the ‘Ask the Courtyard’
After all this activity in the kitchen, inevitably I was also on fire. I got stuck into making the tantuni following the ‘Ask the Courtyard’ recipe. OK, I accept it, it’s incredibly simple, but never mind. I got started. Put the Kavurma in the kettle inside the cooking pot, prepare the spring onions and tomatoes on the side, make cumin and thyme ready, warm up the flatbread on steam: There you have tantuni! Dearest kavurma is also amazing as tantuni meat!
Lentil köfte, tantuni, stuffed meatballs, we found a way. Turning potatoes into potato salad is now child’s play. We completed two months here. Then, with Mücella, we moved from our 9-square-metre cell to a block called M12, designed for 12 people, and were joined by Mine, our co-defendant. At last.
After our inventions in the 9-square-metre cell, it is like a dream to come to a place with a kitchen worktop. Washing the dishes in a proper sink, not in the toilet basin! I might start loving washing up, to tell you what a blessing this is!
Mine’s hummus is now a must in the fridge
Our new place has increased our creativity as well as our possibilities. We now have two kettles and a samovar, for example. Mine turned chickpeas into humus in our first week. (You guessed it, there is tahini and molasses in the canteen, if you have money, there is quite a lot. The key question is: Do you have money?) I must remind you that we don’t have any kitchen utensils. The hummus is mashed with a fork with just manual power. And it is magnificent, a must in the fridge.
On arrival at the new place where space is not an issue, Mücella made another round of lentil köfte. Again it was delicious. Now she is planning for lahmacun (spicy, lamb-topped flatbread), or stuffed meatballs. She will also make the köfte again, though she was not very happy with it the first time round, but I loved it.
Moving to the samovar and semolina kuymak
But our exciting novelty is the samovar! You can imagine the samovar as the next-level cooker after the kettle. It is in fact treated as a cooking pot. The meals that can be cooked in the samovar are extremely varied. There is even a saying in the courtyards: ‘If there is a samovar somewhere, there is also hope there.’ In her book, Denizin Dibi (The Bottom of the Sea) in which she wrote about her time in Bakırköy prison, pop singer and songwriter Deniz Seki tells of how they prepared semolina halva in the samovar, for example. I can’t quite imagine this, but if anyone prepares it, I’ll definitely eat it.
The water reservoir at the bottom of the samovar is our cooking pot. The samovar is electric so the water reservoir warms up. It is possible to cook everything without water in it. For example, semolina kuymak (melted cheese with cornmeal)! Mix the cooking oil with butter, add semolina, stir to brown for half an hour. Add a bit of milk, some water and salt, bring to the boil. Add a packet of grated cheese, cook well, and voila! Or the breakfast sauce: Stir tomato and pepper paste, add walnuts and garlic. And you are done.
Sieve made of bath cloth
Small spaces and impossibilities expand your imagination hugely. Every second in prison is brain exercise! For example, the sieve. In the beginning, we were poking holes in plastic bottles to make a sieve. With fatty meals, it was harder to clean and not very functional. Then, one day, it was of course Mücella who had her eyes on the bath cloth. We asked for it from the canteen. Those bath cloths were opened up and now we use them as sieves. It works like a dream. It is also not single-use. Wash and use again and again!
I’ve talked about the toasties in the freezer bags. Those were, of course, our apprenticeship period. Also, as I’ve said, nothing is being thrown away. Even snack packs. Another one of Mücella’s discoveries is making toastie packs with snack packs. The results are definitely much better than fridge bags because their internal qualities are similar to milk cartons – they lock in the heat. Yes, you guessed it: We are no longer throwing away snack packs, either. Toasties are first in the fridge bags, then into the airtight snack packs. We haven’t yet used it, but we have a sealable instant coffee pack. I expect a very high performance from it. The coffee in it was not great, but at least the pack will be of use!
Preparing tea in a jar (our pre-samovar era), using a bath cloth sieve on top of a jar (Mine’s invention), making holes in the bottom of plastic bottles to keep knives and forks, and you have a kind of Survivor meets MasterChef situation. You build a life, you invent things you could never have guessed or imagined, and you carry on living life in the way you know, with laughter and joy. Who cares if you have been imprisoned!
PS I am keeping a recipe book here. I write down every invention, every recipe. I am sending recipes in letters to my friends. Because why not!
* This article was published in Turkish at Bianet Independent Communication Network on 1 September 2022.
Translation by Milena Büyüm