Self empowerment is defined as an individual being “in control of his or her life and views the trials they face in life in a positive way. It’s also about building self-esteem and confidence.”

This little dish of Pasta with Bechamel Sauce represents the exact reason why cooking for oneself is not only an act of self-care, but also an experience in self-empowerment. Why? Because it embodies the art of knowing how to survive and thrive on less- less money, less stuff (in this case, ingredients), fewer cooking tools & gadgets, and more time for the things you actually want to do.

Since I’ve relocated to Turkey, I’ve had to learn to manage quite a challenging cooking situation: First of all, I’ve left most of my favorite kitchen gadgets back in Chicago. Although I did bring some of my most-prized possessions with me to use (i.e. lemon juicer, microplane, a mini grater, kitchen shears, immersion blender, spice grinder), I couldn’t bring what I really needed like my blender and food processor. I thought I would be fine without them- and I am– but, it has made the cooking processor longer, yet I take it in stride and call my intense chopping sessions ‘cooking therapy’.

Second, prices are higher here for things that are relatively cheap back in the US- in this case, pretty much all frozen foods, imported foods (including American products)- and gourmet foods like Parmesan cheese, all of which were normal parts of my grocery budget back in the U.S. and since I was an avid Trader Joe’s shopper, I got everything I ever wanted to cook with for what I considered fair and good prices there and a few other select places, like online at Amazon. Well, that simply isn’t the case here.

As a result, I’ve had to substitute for ingredients I simply can’t find very easily (like Fethiye’s Tulum cheese for the Italian Parmesan cheese). I have to stretch fresh seasonal vegetables from one market day to the next or until they come up in my balcony garden because they are also way pricier and not nearly as good quality in the larger grocery stores here like Migros, a common chain grocer all over the country.

This is simply not the case in the U.S., as you can still find great looking and tasting organic food products in many reputable grocers nowadays- but now I realize that it sometimes makes it more tempting to overstuff your fridge with fresh things that will quickly go to waste before you can use them up.

What else have I learned from this experience and how have I made lemonade out of the lemony feeling I got from many months of being a tad irritated, a little worried and allowing myself to spiral downward into the abyss of thinking my cooking career would be over without access to a million and one different and unique branded food products?

I became a real chef again. Just like driving a manual car versus an automatic one, I have to cook with my whole body, my imagination; I have to touch and feel and smell all of the ingredients again, rather than pour things from a bottle or pouch or jar – which happens not only when you’re busy, but when you’re presented with a slew of amazing and beautifully packaged ‘organic’ goods- but are you really in touch with the earthiness of those foods? With their real essence- their smells, their texture, their quality? Are you really in tune with who they are and how they’ll do in the dishes you plan to create?

I say not…

As a result of the challenges to my cooking, I tapped into my real inner cook, the actual chef inside of me who decided to come alive again and get the machine running as it should be, the way I first learned how to cook when I was just eighteen years old and traveled to Italy for the first time, seeing the open markets and bringing the freshest ingredients home where my aunt taught me the beauty of pushing your sleeves up and getting down to the nitty gritty of cleaning fish, peeling onions, crushing garlic, cooking tomatoes for sauce, choosing the best basil from the pots outside, and tasting what it really feels like to cook.

That’s also the first time in my life I felt empowered about anything at all.

I had lost that feeling in recent years. I’d lost it to the disease of busyness. I’d lost it to the idea that I needed to try a gazillion and one products and gadgets to be considered a modern cook. And I wasn’t happy. In fact, I was miserable. Deep down, I knew that all I wanted to do was to be back to nature, back to the earthy goodness of those fresh air markets where I could connect back to the ingredients that I would bring into my home and create the art I was meant to do. Coming here gave me that gift- even though I couldn’t see it right away.

There’s also an economic impact to this. Knowing how to cook has saved me from spending money on eating out, eating food I don’t enjoy, or even snacking instead of having a proper meal; and instead using my self-taught cooking skills to be creative and a master of stretching the food budget while never sacrificing on taste. Now that is empowering. 

The Béchamel recipe I referred to earlier is just an example of a time when I was very limited on ingredients at home and was actually craving pasta Alfredo. Since both recipes are in my head, I was able to churn out the Béchamel quickly, something that anyone can do if they simply put their minds to it and learn.

In my opinion, you don’t have to want to be a professional chef to empower yourself with these same skills.

But wouldn’t you feel like a Master Chef at home if you made something like this for yourself, without fuss, and took back your time, your money, your kitchen space and more? It’s doable, I promise you. And you don’t have to move abroad to get there.

Both recipes and easy instructions for making Alfredo and Béchamel can be found in the My Halal Kitchen cookbook and only require a few essential base ingredients: flour, butter, milk, salt, black pepper. Red pepper flakes on top make it more Turkish, but you can leave those out and add some fresh herbs or nothing at all. It’s your dish, so you do you.  

You can get the My Halal Kitchen cookbook here.


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