I’ve been wanting to attend a cooking course ever since I can remember. I’d always imagined it would be in the South of France, that the weather would be perfect, and I’d consequently spend the afternoon sipping wine, reading, and taking leisurely strolls. That dream is still on my bucket list, but in the meantime I found something that fit right into my schedule – a course at the Mediterranean Culinary Academy. They have a few to choose from at the moment, as well as a couple of one-off workshops that focus on a specific dish  (e.g. pasta) or cooking techniques (e.g. braising).

Kotopoulo Kollyva pilafi and Imam biyaldi in the making

There’s quite a bit to choose from even when it comes to the courses – from the cuisines of coastal France and Spain, to the cuisines of regional Italy, or the cuisines of the Maghreb and the Arab Levant. There was something about a memorable meal on a balmy summer night in Greece that steered me towards the Cuisines of Greece and Turkey.

That’s me in the MCA apron

The courses run over 4 weeks, with weekly 4 hour sessions that include time to eat what you’ve just cooked and chat over a glass of wine or two. During the sessions you learn a little bit about the history of the area, and that helps you appreciate the subtle differences in the flavours you’re about to recreate. It’s good to remember that each dish is the result of the cultural heritage of the particular area. That doesn’t just mean that the ingredients must be available, but also depends on the lifestyle, how long the inhabitants could be in the area, the political ongoings, the weather, the soil, and the means available to the locals.

There’s something about these recipes that felt deeply familiar, like a life I knew – and simultaneously, they tasted exotic and foreign, new.

Of course the chefs – Michael Camilleri, Stephen La Rosa, and Keith Abela – make it look easy. Their patience, enthusiasm, guidance, and light-heartedness are choreographed into the lessons. Besides going through the recipes at hand, you’re also encouraged to observe knife techniques and learn general tips and tricks. The MCA kitchen is super comfortable to use, and quality tools are at hand to make your life easier. Obviously the experience here is rather luxurious compared to cooking in your own home. Someone else has provided the ingredients and anything else you might need to prepare the dishes. It is communal and you can ask questions at any time. You’re also being supervised in a way, so that if you’re about to make a mistake or need help before messing things up, someone if there to catch your fall, or stop your pie from burning as it were.

I’ll never forget the first lesson where Chef Stephen La Rosa demonstrated how to butterfly a fish. My first thought was: no way, baptism of fire, I’m going to make a mess, my fish is never going to look like THAT. Surprisingly, by following the simple steps, every one of us in class got it right. We delicately removed the fish’s spine and other bones, replaced its guts with fragrant wild greens, closed it up and cooked it beautifully. I have rarely been so proud of myself in the kitchen. It’s amazing what a good demonstration can do.

Chef Stephen La Rosa demonstrating how to clean up the fish

During the second lesson, we were teamed up and given 3 or 4 recipes for each team. There were no demonstrations this time (which I found a tad disappointing) but by the end of it, we all completed our recipes successfully. Needless to say, there was a huge feast at the end of the lesson, more food than we could handle, so we all ended up taking a doggy bag home to relive the flavours again the next day.

Day 2 – a feast of mezes

Overall I would say that if you’re into cooking (and eating) this is a course that will continue giving after it is over. It helped me rediscover my cooking mojo, recognise what tools I needed to help me cook better, and regain confidence in trying out new flavours. A course that provides knowledge and joy that is well worth it in cost, time, and effort. Thank you, MCA for a very pleasant experience that will keep on giving.

Day 4 – You learn how to make a divine baklava

Level: Competent cook with basic skills

Value: This seemed too expensive at first, but considering the experience, the quality ingredients provided, and that dinner (i.e. the fruits of your labour) + wine is included – overall it is a fair price

Venue: It’s not so difficult to park close to Sappers Street after 5:30pm, the kitchen is well-equipped and very comfortable to use

Chefs: Knowledgeable (with specialisations in different fields), easygoing, approachable, patient.


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In a desperate (because the meat in Greece was SO! GOOD!) attempt to emulate the dish (above) that I shared with my bestie in Athens, Greece, in particular at this restaurant – I try my hand at making Souvlaki

You will need:

– Neck of lamb, chopped into cubes a little bit larger than bite size, about 200-250 grams per person

– olive oil

– mixture of herbs – I was lucky enough to purchase a ‘souvlaki’ mixture from Athens but you can make yours by mixing

2 tbsp oregano, crumbled
2 tbsp paprika
2 tsp thyme, crumbled
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp  garlic powder

– port wine

– pinch of salt

I just used enough of each ingredient to make enough marinade to coat all the meat pieces, play it by ear…

Marinade the meat in the oil, herbs and port wine (traditionally you should also add lemon juice to this mixture too), mixing thoroughly to make sure the meat is coated on all sides. Cover and place in the fridge for at least 3 hours or overnight. It’s a good idea to stir occasionally if you remember.

If your kebab sticks are made of wood or bamboo, you will need to soak them in water for at least half an hour.

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Pierce about 5 or 6 pieces of meat onto each kebab stick. Heat up a grill pan and cook for about 20 minutes, turning regularly, until the meat is cooked through.

Suggested serving:

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With feta, (local) rucola, tomatoes, capers, fresh beans and olive oil

Add some flatbread and a dash of lemon juice on the meat

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Tzatziki is a traditional Greek dip or sauce made with yoghurt and cucumber which I have found to be very versatile. It can be used on its own as an appetizer for example as a dip with pita bread, or else with crudites. It can also be used as a sauce with meat or as an accompaniment to other dishes.

I find that it is also useful to serve with curries to cool these down when serving a medium to hot or very hot curry to people with different tolerances to spicy heat.

In countries such as Cyprus, Turkey, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia  and nearby regions the recipe will change slightly, with differences found in consistency, amount of garlic, herbs or nuts added.

In India, Pakistan and Bangladesh this condiment is found as Raita and in this case other vegetables, fruit and pulses are often added.

You will need:

– 1 medium cucumber

– juice of one small lemon

– 250 g Greek yoghurt

– 1 diced garlic clove

– a handful of fresh coriander, finely chopped

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Method

– Peel the cucumber, remove the seeds with a teaspoon and dice

– Place the cucumber pieces in a colander on top of a large bowl

– Cover in rock salt and leave to drain for about one hour or until water stops dripping out

– Rinse the cucumber under running water and squeeze excess water out with your hands

– Transfer to a bowl and add the other ingredients, mixing thoroughly

Serving suggestion:

2013-06-17 20.58.04As a dipping sauce with Thai spiced prawns