If Naciye Torun had grown up with stores nearby she might never have become the magician with food that she is today.
Fortunately, for anyone who is lucky enough to taste her mouth-watering Mesopotamian dishes, she grew up in a small village in Turkey where she learned cooking skills from her Kurdish mother.
At the age of 12, Torun was at her mother’s side helping prepare the meals. Her mother taught her the names of ingredients and passed along the recipes that had been handed down from mother to daughter for generations. An older sister also helped Torun with her hands-on culinary education.
Without buying their food from stores, the women created all their meals from what was available locally and processed food was a foreign concept.
“There were no stores to go to. I grew up not seeing cars. When the bulldozers came to make a road we all went out to look – men, women, children. Now it is different there. People have electricity and phones,” said Naciye Torun, who, along with her husband, M. Sid Torun, owns and operates M.S. Winery and Olive Oil plus a bed and breakfast on their 42-acre property in Napa.
In Xasko, the village she grew up in, women cooked over fire. Nun sele, a type of bread, was the first thing a young girl was taught to make.
“Kurdish cooks don’t use lots of spices. People go out to the mountains and grab herbs from the mountain. They dry the herbs or use them fresh,” said Torun.
“Every season has its own dishes. In spring, people climb the mountains and pick ‘gullik.’ It comes up in March and April. It is close to asparagus.”
“They pick ‘garri’ when the snow has almost melted. Mushrooms come underneath a large herb. They are out of this world delicious. This time of year, we eat out of the garden.”
Those who have eaten her food while visiting the couple’s M.S. Torun Family Vineyard Bed and Breakfast in Napa compare her meals favorably to the famous French Laundry restaurant. They tell their friends to eat at “the Kurdish Laundry” where they can enjoy her 22-course breakfasts or 12-course dinners.
“I love to cook. I recommend cooking everything from scratch. It gives food more flavor. It is fresh and healthy,” said Torun.
Last week, her husband, who grew up in Conag, a village that was 15 minutes walking distance from Naciye’s village, helped prepare the 10-course afternoon meal.
He gathered fresh eggs from the barn, brought vegetables from the garden and helped his wife in other ways.
“I do what she tells me,” Torun said. “The old Kurdish people respect the ladies in the home. Kurdish culture places women in high regard. I will give you an example.
“In Kurdish regions, political positions are held by both sexes: a male incumbent and a female co-incumbent. This is done so women can actively have a voice in the community and policy making. I believe Kurds are the only group of people in the world that have this requirement.”
The Toruns and their three children were forced to leave Turkey for their safety.
“It was an uncomfortable time for Kurds in Turkey, “said Turon, referring to 1989-92.
He had run an unsuccessful campaign for mayor of Kartal, a suburb of Istanbul with a population of 2.5 million at the time. Becoming well-known was “not an asset for a Kurdish businessmen.” Of the 120 successful Kurdish businessmen killed in their area during that time, four were his close friends.
After arriving in America, the family initially lived in Atlanta, Georgia, where he worked for Home Depot’s Expo Design and she became an executive chef for Kroger’s.
Using Kroger’s recipes, designed for American taste buds, she quickly distinguished herself when her kitchen, one of 5,000 in the company’s stores, was ranked eighth in popularity. After leaving Atlanta, she was executive chef for Andronico’s in Palo Alto.
These days, she prepares ample breakfasts and dinners for guests at the couple’s bed and breakfast as well as for people who call to make reservations.
Visitors enjoy tasting the homemade cheeses, olives, jams and wines in addition to her dishes made from secret family recipes, the couple said, adding that more than 90 percent of the ingredients in her food come from their own property.
“Everything in the meal came from our property except the quinoa and chickpeas. Only the poor people planted ‘garis,’ (quinoa) in our village. We were the poorest so we ate it,” said Torun, recalling his childhood poverty, before becoming a successful businessman as an adult.
Naciye makes special jams and other treats from the fruit the couple picks from their trees.
So far, the Toruns have 6,000 grapevines, plus the following trees: 7,000 olive, 400 mulberry, 120 walnut, eight pomegranate, 25 apricot, three pear, four apple, three orange, three lemon, one grapefruit, one quince, three loquat, two pecan, two chestnut, three pistachio, eight fig and many almonds.
In addition, they have their own honey, milk, cheeses and eggs, along with eight goats, two sheep, 13 chickens, two roosters and six partridge.
Their organic garden is filled with seasonal produce as well as herbs such as bay leaf, rosemary, mint, sage and oregano.
Shortly before the meal was served, Naciye made nun sele outside. “I love cooking outdoors,” she said.
Hands flying, she expertly shaped the nun dough, put a little flour underneath and rolled it with a long rolling pin she brought from Turkey. She slapped each piece back and forth between her hands before putting it into a heated, non-oiled pan.
The couple, who became grandparents Sept. 9 to twin boys – Mardan and Avan—treat guests like members of their own family.
Each intricate dish was delicate, leaving a guest feeling light rather than weighed down.
The ‘must u xiyar’ was refreshing with cucumber, yogurt, dill and garlic.
Her husband’s favorite dish was Kheske, made with yellow squash, egg yolk plus other ingredients. “Kids use it like peanut butter to spread on things,” said Torun.
Other dishes included chekiri (with spinach and goat cheese), miseqe (with eggplant, peppers, mushrooms and more), garis (quinoa), sewze (vegetables), Fasilia ter (salad), Xumis (humus), Seleta shivan (Shepherd’s salad), Incir u guz (a fig and walnut desert with honey and cream).
When told that a dish was flavorful and asked for the secret, Naciye laughed and replied that if she told, it wouldn’t be her secret anymore.