An impressive Byzantine-era castle rises above Turkey’s southern city of Gaziantep. Circling the base of the hill it sits upon, you can feel the weight of the country’s history represented by this single, immense structure, defying the bright blue sky behind it. The Turks defended their city against the French, Italians and English during the Turkish War of Independence in the 1920s, losing 6,361 people. Once known simply as Antep (City of Kings), after the war the city added “Gazi” to its name, meaning warrior. This castle, originally a Roman tower built 5,000 or 6,000 years ago, was the centre of the city’s valiant defence against attackers, and stands as an impressive reminder of hometown heroes.
Local pride runs strong throughout Gaziantep, and not just for its bravery under attack. This smallish major city (2 million people) was recently declared a UNESCO Creative City in the category of gastronomy. Claiming more than 300 unique dishes, Gaziantep can proudly say it’s an integral pinpoint on the foodie map of Turkey. Some of these local dishes have names recognisable to your average visitor to Turkey, but Gaziantep puts its own spin on each one of them, arguably improving them through its vast oeuvre of spices, ancient techniques and agricultural bounty. My quest on a four-day trip? To let my tastebuds find out what all the fuss is about. The bonus? A lovely glimpse of a city rich with cultural offerings across the board. This plucky little city outshines gastro-hubs like Istanbul and Bodrum for eleven reasons (and then some)…
1. On first glance, Tahmis Kahvesi could be one of the many cafes in any Turkish city, or even the Middle East. When I visited, fragrant cherry-flavoured smoke pillowed out of shisha pipes, old people in headscarves played backgammon, lute music prevailed. But the outlier of this familiar tableau was the coffee, which is not coffee at all but ground pistachios with milk—creamy, nutty, and totally unique. It’s only found in Gaziantep, one of many delicious secrets this city holds. The great thinkers of Gaziantep used to gather in the garden of this very cafe to discuss the big issues of their time. Looking around, I wondered if the tradition continued. If so, they were hashing out the refugee crisis and the city’s five-year-long efforts to help Syrians. But they may very well have been talking food, as central as it is to their culture.
2. Pistachios are the “edible emeralds” lining the treasure chest that is Gaziantep cuisine. This city produces 65% of the country’s crop, just outside the city. Their variety is grafted from the wild terebinth pistachio—smaller and slimmer than other varieties, with purplish coats and vivid green meat. The nuts’ sweetness and dense flavour makes them obvious additions to candies, desserts and ice creams—plus that incredible “coffee”, terebinth menengiç. But this star player also underpins a whole host of savoury dishes, and can stand on its own as a snack.
3. Where there are pistachios, there had better be baklava. Gaziantep is its birthplace, and the dessert takes centre stage at every special occasion, but pops up at almost any meal and all over the city, even in bus terminals. In Gaziantep master bakers use durum wheat from the Harran Valley and early-harvest pistachios, and cook the baklava in stone ovens. Techniques are passed down to apprentices in a respected, ancient tradition, such as at İmam Çağdaş restaurant, where they’ve been turning out exceptional trays of the stuff for 125 years. In three cavernous rooms above the restaurant, old men toil alongside boys at large metal counters, flogging phyllo dough amid swirling clouds of flour, the whole production blanketed in a dreamy haze. Each tray gets 20 to 40 layers of dough, ground pistachios and an oil mixture, plus cream for a truly decadent variety. The takeaway version is drier, to last longer, but the kind served at İmam Çağdaş is probably one of the best things your mouth will ever receive: a complicated parcel of dripping wet layers with varying textures and richly complex flavours, thanks to the efforts of 50 floury men.
4. Like its baklava, Gaziantep’s cuisine is layered, multi-enriched and old school. The city has emerged out of an incredible history spanning the Palaeolithic, Neolithic, Chalcolithic, Hittite, Mitani, Assyrian, Persian, Alexandrian, Seleucid, Roman, Byzantine, Islamic, Seljuk, Turkish-Islamic and Ottoman civilizations. Techniques and recipes have sifted down through the ages, leaving behind a near-perfect collection of about 300 dishes that are considered unique even within Turkey. Given its geographic position, Arab and Syrian influences are discernible, and recipes showcase the grains of Mesopotamia, fruits and vegetables of the Mediterranean, and spices of Asia. Although characteristically Turkish in its reliance on meat, Gaziantep gives almost equal billing to regional fruits and vegetables for colour and nuance. ‘Nouveau’ and ‘fusion’ aren’t part of the vocabulary. The city’s restaurant menus feature popular staples that date back to ancient times. Kebabs, stews, pastries and flatbread pizzas may seem like a limited offering to an outsider, but within that oeuvre lie hundreds of subcategories, divided by method of cooking and by choice of spices and sour ingredients that distinguish their colour, aroma and strength of flavour.
5. Gaziantep’s markets and bazaars, or hans, are as charming as they are useful, offering ubiquitous items in a vibrant, non-pressured shopping environment. Colourful piles of mostly dried ingredients get weighed out from tall tubs, and sun-dried vegetables hang from awnings – peppers, aubergines, squash, fuzzy cucumbers – ready to be rehydrated, stuffed and roasted as side dishes. There are also pyramids of the ubiquitous Turkish delight and some less-familiar treats: bright-green cylinders of ground pistachios and honey, and Şira, which look like sticky, amber-coloured seedpods—they’re nuts tied on a string and dipped in a grape juice–wheat starch mixture for drying. Typically, locals shop for their main meal in the morning, moving from butcher to grocer to baker, informing each what they intend to make. The shopkeeper doles out the appropriate amount of ingredients, some already prepared with spices. The integral nature of this practice means grocers, butchers and bakers are always found next to each other, making shopping an integrated experience that benefits everyone.
6. Wood-fired ovens have endured throughout the ages without losing popularity. They lend a savoury, smoky quality that beautifully complements regional sun-dried ingredients, pastries and breads. Gaziantep lays claim to several breeds of flatbread, known to most of us as pides. They’re fired in wood ovens, then served hot or cold alongside stews, soups and other dishes. Many home kitchens have such ovens, but if you need a large or special one for a particular dish, chances are your baker will fire his up for you.
7. Kebabs are the cornerstone of Turkish gastronomy, and here the default is local hallik lamb, with mutton, beef and chicken playing understudy. After careful calculation of the fat-to-meat ratio, it’s sliced or ground into chunks, then the Gaziantep factor comes into play: marinades add a umami punch with white truffle, loquat or garlic. If it’s minced, the meat might also be mixed with bulgur, garlic or mint. Then it’s skewered alongside artichokes, tomatoes, aubergine, onions, garlic, plums or apples before being fired on a grill over oak charcoal. The custom is to fold a flatbread around the skewer to nudge the meat off, then top it all with parsley, mint, tomatoes, peppers, ground sumac and ground sweet pepper. It may look like your Western-style kebab, but all those local flavours and home-grown additions make it taste like fire and freshness dancing the tango.
8. All that meat can tax your digestive system, which is where yoghurt and its probiotic properties can save the day. It’s the main component of a tart but satisfying drink, ayran — the perfect accompaniment to a rough-and-tumble lunchtime kebab or a multi-course banquet. Yoghurt is also a critical enhancement to many Gaziantep stews and soups, its tang countered by fresh spring produce, herbed butters and meat. A much-loved example is yuvarlama, a labour-intensive dish of lamb chunks, chickpeas and tiny, delicate dumplings in a yoghurty stew flavoured with mint and pepper. If you’re used to only having yoghurt with breakfast, take a page from the Gaziantep playbook and your cooking will reach a whole new level.
9. Lahmacun is the local version of a flat, streamlined pizza. Pizza isn’t uncommon in Turkey, but Gaziantep leaves its mark by making it with fresh garlic instead of onion. It’s finely chopped with minced meat, other seasonal vegetables (parsley, tomatoes, peppers), pepper paste, and sometimes cumin. A curved knife known as a zirh helps the chef work it all into the consistency of a pate, before adding salt and red pepper. A very thin layer of the mixture is patted over an equally thin circle of dough and slid into the wood-fired oven on a long board. As with a kebab, you can roll parsley and other salad embellishments into a lahmacun and achieve what’s surely the best of all possible worlds: a pizza-salad-burrito.
10. A popular local breakfast option is arguably a dessert. Katmer is made with wheat dough that’s flattened and heaped with cream, pistachios, sugar and butter…a sort of Danish pastry on steroids. It’s folded into a square-foot parcel, and fired for 5 to 6 minutes in a wood oven for crispy, gooey results. Traditionally, a groom’s parents deliver katmer to a bride on her wedding night, but locals can enjoy it daily (cholesterol count notwithstanding) at a few bakeries. An unpretentious and seriously authentic operation takes place at Metanet Lokantasi, a family-run business that’s been perfecting katmer for 130 years, rivalling any French patisserie for speed and efficiency.
11. Love it or leave it, offal lends a distinct element to many Gaziantepian dishes. Popular choices include stuffed intestines, known as mumbar, as well as gahırdak, which is minced sheep tail, roasted and drained of fat to form a dry pulp used in pastries and soup. Even breakfast doesn’t escape this wild-card ingredient: beyran çorbasi is a pungent, spicy mutton stew simmered overnight and then topped with fried rice, crushed garlic and red-hot peppers. Similarly gut-bracing is kelle paça, another garlicky breakfast soup made of sheep’s head and feet. If the smell of these breakfast sucker-punches doesn’t get you out of bed, you’re probably in the wrong city.
Special thanks to the Turkish Tourism Board and London’s Turkish Culture and Information Office for making this story possible, as well as Aynur Tattersall