Fields of gold – a gourmet guide to Gaziantep, Turkey - Gaziantep, Turkey

Where to stay

Ali Bey Popular three-star in an attractive 100-year-old mansion near the bazaar. Doubles from £33. Tislaki Mahallesi, Kafadar Sokak No.6, 00 90 342 231 45 12, alibeykonagi.com

Anadolu Evleri One of a group of four charming old stone Anatolian guesthouses with courtyards, located near the fortress and close to Old Town restaurants. Doubles from £33. Sekeroglu Mahallesi, Köroglu Sokak No.6, 00 90 342 220 95 25, anadoluevleri.com

Divan Gazianetp Otel This smart outpost belongs to a chain that delivers four-star modern accommodation, primarily for business travellers. Comfortable and good value for money. Doubles from £50. Mücahitler, Sani Konukoglu Blv No.92/A, 00 90 342 999 13 33, divan.com

Hvahan Han The best small hotel in town and one of the best in Turkey. Overlooked by the castle, its elegant rooms boast stone walls and a monochrome colour scheme, and are set around a courtyard and restaurant, where hanging out after the heat of the day is bliss. Doubles from £150. Karagöz Mahallesi, Handan Bey Sokak No.23/1, 00 90 342 230 7777, hsvhn.com

Melek Lara Basic but friendly B&B with an English-speaking manager. Doubles from £20. Mustafa Baba Sokak, Karabese 46, meleklarabutikotel.com

irehan Hotel A largely remodelled han that’s large enough to attract passing groups but small enough to retain a measure of antique charm. Doubles from £46. Ismet Pasa Mahallesi, Eski Belediye Caddesi No.1, 00 90 342 221 00 11, gaziantepsirehanhotel.com.tr

Zeynep Hanim Konai Set in a lovely traditional mansion house, with a convenient, central location, this welcoming, family-friendly small hotel makes an excellent base for visiting some of Gaziantep’s main museums and must-see mosques. Doubles from £25. Bey, Eski Sinema Sokak No.17, 00903422320207, zeynephanimkonagi.com

Travel Information

Gaziantep – or Antep, as it is known locally – is the capital of the Gaziantep Province. It is located in the western part of Turkey’s south-eastern Anatolia region. The province has been an important trading centre since ancient times and is one of the country’s major manufacturing zones, its agriculture dominated by the growing of pistachio nuts. Currency is the Turkish lira (TRY). Time is three hours ahead of GMT. Flights from the UK take around seven hours. In August the average high is 34C and the average low is 21C.

Pegasus Airlines flies from London Stansted to Gaziantep Airport, with one stop at Sabiha Gökçen International Airport, Istanbul. flypgs.com

Turkish Airlines offers flights from London Gatwick to Gaziantep Airport, again via Istanbul. turkishairlines.com

Go Turkey is the website of the Turkish Culture and Information Office, and it is packed with information to help you plan your trip. goturkey.com

To offset your carbon emissions, make a donation at climatecare.org and support environmental projects around the world. Return flights from London produce 1.04 tonnes C02, meaning a cost to offset of £7.84.

Where to eat

Prices are per person for three courses and a drink, unless otherwise stated

Cumba Kuruyemis Modern dessert restaurant with delicious künefe, and ice cream wrapped in a pistachio crust. Desert from £2.50. Emek Mahallesi, Ali Ünler Bul No.71/A, 00 90 342 322 24 42, cumbakunefe.com

Dürümcü Recep Usta Fast-food joint selling pide bread and chopped liver. From £2. Incirlipinar Mahallesi 1, Caddesi No.9, 00 90 342 215 15 68

Imam Çagdas Near the castle – local equivalent of a brasserie. From £6. Eski Hal Civarı, Uzun Çarsı No.49, 00 90 342 220 45 45, imamcagdas.com

Kasap Halil Usta Arguably the best kebaps in town. From £15. Fatih Mahallesi, 24 Nolu Sokak No.9, 00 90 342 320 09 00, kasaphalilusta.com.tr

Kıyı Drive through pistachio orchards for an hour towards Birecik, and you’ll find Kıyı. The food – meze, kebaps and köfte – is superb. From £14. Karsıyaka Mahallesi, Saray Yolu Üzeri Birecik, 00 90 414 661 01 17, kiyirestaurant.net

Metanet Lokantasi Breakfast here on lamb’s neck broth made with potent chillies. From £3. Tabakhane, Kozluca Mahallesi, Caddesi No.11, 00 90 342 231 46 66, metanetlokantasi.com

Muftak Sanatlari Merkezi Palatial,
it showcases the best of the region’s cuisine, and also has a shop. From £10. Gazi Mahallesi, Zübeyde Hanım Blv No.39, 00 90 342 777 7676, mutfaksanatlarimerkezi.com.tr

Orkide Ali Baba’s cave of pastries made with skill. Pastries from £8. Gazi Muhtar, Pasa Bulvarı No.17, 00 90 342 215 15 00, orkidepastanesi.com

Sakip Usta This smart eatery serves classics, such as head-to-tail lamb, in unique ways. From £15. Alleben, Kemal Köker Caddesi 55-53, 00 90 342 220 18 19, sakipusta.com

Tahmis Kahvesi Serving the finest coffee and menengiç in town for 300 years and with the loyal following to prove it. From £5. Suyabatmaz, Eski, Bugday Pazarı Sokak No.8, 00 90 342 232 89 77, tahmiskahvesi.com.tr

Yesemek On the fringe of the bazaar, visit to sample myriad meze dishes. From £9. Kavaklık Mahallesi, Ordu Caddesi No.12/A, yesemek.com.tr

Food Glossary

Armenian cucumber – usually eaten pickled
Ali nazik
Chopped or minced lamb on yoghurt and aubergine
Antep tırnaklı pidesi
Local flattened finger bread
Yoghurt drink made with cow’s or ewe’s milk
Pistachio-packed, syrupy filo pastry
Grape leather, made with grape must, nuts and flour
Batma kaymak
Half-cooked sunken bread and cream
Lamb or mutton soup with (in Gaziantep) loads of chilli
Lamb or mutton soup with (in Gaziantep) loads of chilli
There are dozens of varieties used in local dishes
Meat- or cheese-filled patties
Çig köfte
Spiced lamb and bread tartare (veggie version with walnuts)
Pistachio, the region’s ‘green gold’
Içli köfte
Minced and fried lamb stuffed with bulgur or spelt pilaf
Fresh cheese and pistachio in a single filo pastry layer
Chopped liver and peppers
Prized lamb fillet kebab
Turkish flatbread pizza (with garlic in Antep variation)
Flatbread, available in several varieties
Wild pistachio coffee
Aubergine, served in a myriad of ways
Grape, fig or pomegranate molasses made in villages
Sun-dried pepper paste, purée or relish (sometimes with tomato)
Chilled yoghurt soup with olive oil, mint and lamb forcemeat

Food and Travel Review

Describing some of the exquisite pastries at his Gaziantep patisserie-restaurant Orkide, Mustafa Özgüler remarks, ‘Every dish has a story’. His soft batma kaymak (‘sinking’ bread), served lathered with ewe’s milk cream and dripping with honey, is an example. It reminds him of the dish his mother used to make before sending him to school.

Çig köfte, a paprika-red lamb tartare customarily stamped with the cook’s knuckles, was and still is a speciality of the hammams (public baths). Bridegrooms-to-be fortify themselves with it between sweating and massage. Bastık, a sweetmeat, comes from villages where men tread grapes and women turn it into a fruit leather to fill with walnuts on winter evenings.

Gaziantep belongs to an elite club of Unesco Cities of Gastronomy. To think of it as a centre for fine dining would be doing it a disservice. Eating well pulses through every level of society. The market traders rising at 4am know where to buy the best beyran (peppery soup made from neck of lamb). Shop and office workers queue for chickpea-filled flatbread at Dürümcü Recep Usta during lunch breaks. Competition for the best katmer (cellophane-thin pastry filled with nuts and cheese) is fierce. And we haven’t mentioned baklava or the 40-odd kinds of kebab for which the town is famous. The centre of a province bordering the Euphrates, it bulges with fruit and vegetables from the Fertile Crescent.

‘The market traders rising at 4am know where to buy the best beyran (peppery lamb soup). Shop and office workers queue for chickpea-filled flatbread during lunch breaks. Competition for the best katmer (pastry filled with nuts and cheese) is fierce’

Women squat outside houses coring red peppers for stuffing, drying or making into salça (sauce). Tapering aubergines, spindly cucumbers, juicy tomatoes, garlic, purslane, parsley, tarragon and thyme pack the greengrocers’ displays in the bazaar.

At night, passengers flying in on TK2228 from Istanbul see it as a tangle of will-o’-the-wisp lights. On the ground, the clutter of streets and alleys around its medieval castle have the aura of a glittering souk. They give way to an urban mass of low-rise blocks through which traffic clags and snarls. It’s an industrial city designed for death-defying jaywalkers with developed instincts for survival.

Under the Ottomans, the Aleppo Province governed Gaziantep. Then, it was a prosperous staging post on a branch of the Silk Road. After the creation of modern Turkey, it severed ties to Aleppo. That past came back to haunt it during Syria’s civil war. Little more than an hour’s drive away from the border, it faced an influx of some half a million refugees.

Since then the camps have closed. Local laws let Syrian families stay, but many have returned home. On the surface, at least, scars have healed. In restaurants, freshly coiffured women share gossip with friends wearing hijabs. Business doesn’t stop when the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer. Old men in the cafés go on playing cards. Coppersmiths in Bakırcılar Çarsısı continue to tap, tap, tap at their pots and pans.

From the city to Lake Birecik, a dammed stretch of the Euphrates, the landscape veers between bald hills and plains crammed with pistachio orchards. To the landowners farming them and the factories processing Antep fıstıgı they are ‘green gold’. Their growth, harvest and endless culinary uses touch everyone. The Kurdish picker, climbing trees to snap clusters of nuts from branches, scratches a living. Village co-operatives supply the processors. Their graded kernels and roasted nuts feed into the local markets. Exporters trade on a world-beating reputation. Trees yield two crops (sometimes three) a year. The first (late July, start of August) provides the finest pea-green fruit. Sun-dried, they are what pastry chefs crave. The second, harvested 20 days later, is destined for the nuts we nibble with our G&Ts.

Antep – the familiar name of Gaziantep – is home to the best baklava in the world. Ophthalmic surgeon Dr Oguzhan Saygılı has dedicated a museum to it in a restored caravanserai. He doesn’t claim that the city invented a pastry that spread throughout the Islamic Mediterranean and to Greece. The sultan’s kitchens at the Topkapı were baking it five centuries ago. And yufka (filo) pastry is much older. But he does have an opinion as to why it was better here than anywhere else. ‘I’ve tried it in many other places, too,’ he says. It isn’t just the pistachio nuts or the quality of the butter. It’s because of the hot, dry climate. Istanbul is more humid. You can’t roll the dough the same way.’

He would also argue that pinning the 30 or so layers with a broomstick-long oklava significantly improves on mechanical rolling. Turkey’s three biggest players – Koçak, Imam Çagdas and Güllüoglu – produce up to a tonne of baklava per day. Mehmet Çolak, his master baker’s recipe calls for 3kg batches, cut into squares known as ‘söbiyet’.

Mustafa Özgüler’s father and grandfather were both baklava chefs. For Orkide, his shop and restaurant, he buys the best, early-season nuts (‘greener, less oily, stronger flavoured’). He hires women to shell them by hand because, he says, they do a much better job than machines.

‘Antep is home to the best baklava in the world. It isn’t just the pistachio nuts or the quality of the butter. It’s because of the dry climate”’

He opens at 6am because breakfast is an important meal in Gaziantep. ‘Turkish people eat pogaça, small stuffed rolls, simit, like bagels, or börek, pies made with buttery pastry and homemade local cheese,’ he says, adding, ‘we like rich food too much’. Baking bread is an all-day event. At ten o’clock at night, squads of bakers are still shaping, rolling and flattening dough. Antep tırnaklı pidesi takes its name from the finger marks pressed into it. The leavened loaves emerge from the oven dimpled by thumbprints. Lahmacun, a thin-crust pizza with lamb, peppers and tomato, minced with a scimitar-bladed knife, is always eaten hot. Gourmets claim that it’s the garlic in the topping (not used elsewhere) that gives it an extra kick. There’s a delicious quince version, too.

There are two types of lavas. One is an oversized, puffed-up pitta bread that deflates dramatically when torn. The other, soft as a face flannel, large as a tea towel, is the classic wrap. Mehmet Beger, chef-patron of Kıyı, a terraced lakeside restaurant at Birecik, artfully demonstrates how to wind it around his ever-popular lamb and aubergine kebaps.

Gripping it with one hand, he tears off a swatch big enough to cover a dinner plate. Next, he peels away the charred aubergine skin and spreads a thick ridge of the pulp through the middle. On top he piles the meat, crushed tomato and, finally, raw onion – ‘better-tasting if you tear it with fingers’. Its bottom tucked in and the overlapping sides pulled together, it is ready. Everything, the lamb bought direct from the farm, melting aubergine, wood-fire charring, the herbs, the sweetest tomatoes and the tender flatbread has the intense flavour that haute cuisine can never equal.

It’s a cliché that the French eat every part of a pig bar the grunt. In porkless Gaziantep, no part of a sheep goes to waste. The head supplies the broth for soups and Sakıp Usta restaurant dishes up brains scrambled in butter. Ali nazik is a peppery hash of cheaper cuts, served on yoghurt and baba ganoush. Chitterlings are stuffed. Cooks measure their dexterity with lozenge-shaped içli köfte, stuffed with bulgur or spelt. Self-service roadside restaurants sell kavurma (spiced, chopped liver). Skewered küsleme, chargrilled lamb fillets, at Halil Usta is one speciality among the two dozen kebaps on its menu. Every historic Turkish town centre had its four essentials. The hans (inns or caravanserai) welcomed travellers. The public baths, or hammams, served public hygiene. Mosques watched over citizens’ spiritual wellbeing. And last but by no means least, were the bazaars.

In the warren of streets and courtyards below a castle built by the Emperor Justinian in the fifth century, Gaziantep’s medina compresses the past and present. It has a cinematic vitality missing in Istanbul’s made-over Egyptian market: a posse of police arguing with traders; a film crew shooting a scene; an impromptu auction where a villager sells his fresh sheep’s cheese to noisy buyers; waiters carrying trays laden with glasses of chai through covered arcades; a butcher dicing the topping for the day’s lahmacun.

Its coppersmiths are famous. Aside from decorated bowls and trays, they hammer out basins the size of bathtubs and handled jugs for pouring strong Turkish coffee. Coffee merchants grind wild pistachios to make menengiç, a smooth, dark brew that’s unique to the city. Cobblers on stools deftly stitch multicoloured Yemeni shoes. Hardware stores display racks of skewers; one shaped for mixed kebabs, another for offal, a third for ground meat and a fourth for chunks of küsleme.

Sun-dried peppers strung up in clusters hang from awnings. Milled, they form pyramid shades of red in the spice stalls. If there were a single variety, it would be impressive, but there are dozens. The dark Middle Eastern Urfa is mild. Yeni sezon advertises the new season’s crop. Acı biber is always hot. Ipek Maras pul biber, sometimes hot, sometimes mild, is ground extra fine as a seasoning. And the list goes on. Fresh and sweet, they form the base of salça. Is it a sauce, a relish, a paste? The answer is all three. Making it can be a collective, extended family affair. Men harvest and grind the peppers. Women spread a carpet of the fresh pulp to dry, turning it day by day under a baking sun till the flavour concentrates. Knowing how to select and dose each kind personalises every dish. It’s part of a salad dressing flavoured with sour pomegranate juice; the key ingredient of acı biber reçeli (chilli jam). Kadir Boyacı, chef at Hısvahan Han, uses one kind for his çig köfte, two others for omaç, a vegetarian forcemeat, and another for acur, a cucumber pickle. For atom, a palate-blowing meze dish, he fries dried Urfa biber for a few seconds, sprinkles chilli powder on top and then serves it on a bed of tangy strained yoghurt.

Local government has taken its reputation so seriously that it has opened its own restaurant. Mutfak Sanatları Merkezi Culinary Arts Centre hovers on the palatial. It’s where dignitaries hold banquets and entertain ministers; where cooks come together and tackle the mise en place for the annual gastronomic festival. Its database reflects research into hundreds of regional recipes and variations. At one level, it offers the safe route to sampling an unfamiliar cuisine under expert guidance. The waiters are groomed. The chefs in pristine whites cook over the latest-model, glossy stainless-steel ranges. There’s no question over a recipe’s authenticity. And its shop stocks the spices, syrups, oils and cereals which seem so exotic when encoutered in the market.

Surely though, the better way of eating one’s way through the city is to pull up a seat and people-watch. If an old man is chewing dürüm nohut, a chickpea and salça wrap, in a scruffy takeaway and a student two stools away is doing the same, chances are it will taste good, even though it costs around 70p.

Words by Michael Raffael. Photography by Mark Parren Taylor. They travelled to Gaziantep courtesy of the Turkish Culture and Information Office. goturkey.com

This feature was taken from the Aug/Sep 2020 issue of Food and Travel.

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