One of the 1st posts that I wrote here on GirlMeetsTurkey was about my trip 3 years prior to Antakya, or ‘Antioch‘ in English… in Turkey’s southeastern region of Hatay. That post focused primarily on my love affair with the way they make hummus and also gave some background history. If you want to check that out, click the link here: Hummus Along the Silk Road…
This past fall some friends and I returned to Antakya for a short weekend getaway to EAT… of course. We had all been to Antaky previously and had been wanting to get back to this part of Turkey that is really just kind of serenely magically beautiful. The city itself, dating back to Roman times where you can walk among the streets and walls that supposedly the disciples roamed (as Peter and Paul both were recorded being in Antioch), is something truly amazing to experience.
The thing about Antakya that always strikes me is how friendly the people are. There is a feeling of all cultures and religions being accepted here. You will see tour groups bringing people to historic churches that are next door to mosques and synagogues. Aside from the history, the food is also a blend of Turkish and Syrian cooking styles. Different food traditions were transported along the Silk Road and recipes were left and incorporated into the cuisine and then changed to have their own take on that recipe. That’s what I love about this area… there’s a harmony of cultures and beliefs coming together giving this city a general warmth and feeling of generations of people interacting. So here lies the account of a wonderful return back to this historical and charming city BUT most importantly, some of the best food I have ever eaten…
The Catholic Church courtyard pictured above
First things first: BREAKFAST. My love of Turkish breakfast cannot really be competed with. In general, BRUNCH in any country rates highly with me, but Turkish breakfast is really the best. It’s my favorite ritual in terms of Turkish cuisine, and the spread splayed before you at the Antakya Kahvaltı Evi ranks up there as possibly my favorite Turkish breakfast experience of all time. It was THAT good. Just look at the photos. Front and center is a mound of hummus(definitely NOT the typical member of a Turkish breakfast spread, and really a regional treat): creamy dreamy and cloud-like, with tons of tahini and fresh extra virgin olive oil poured on top, spiced with turkish pul biber(hot red pepper) and garnished with pickles. Radiating out from the hummus are different regional cheeses, local black and green olives, tuzlu yoğurt(salted yogurt), cucumbers, tomatoes, spiced cheese wedges, zahter salad(wild thyme with pomegranate), and various spicy and sweet breads. It’s enough to make you weep with joy.
After breakfast (as the very meaning of the Turkish word means ‘coffee after’), a trip to Affan Kahvesi was the natural next step. I absolutely LOVE this coffee shop. I still remember the first time walking inside this building and being told to go see the back courtyard and the sharp intake of my breath as I saw the adorable courtyard covered in ivy vines. While the front shop is reserved for men
playing backgammon all day long, the back garden is my favorite spot. The building itself has been around since 1913 and they still serve their coffee in the glass tulip shaped vials that are usually for tea. They are also famous for a rose flavored electric pink dessert. I’ll be honest, the dessert isn’t my favorite and we were stuffed from breakfast so we skipped it, but the waiter got a lot of fun out of requesting I take a picture of it. So of course, how could I not oblige him?
After coffee we headed to the main local market, or bazaar. This bazaar is really great because it’s one of the only bazaars I’ve been in where you can buy every single house appliance you could ever want and simultaneously get given free samples of every food from every booth as you work your way down the stretch of seller stalls. It puts COSTCO’s samples to shame. One of the big treats in this region is taş kadayıf which is a kind of pancake that is deep-fried and wrapped in a half-moon shape around walnuts or pistachios and soaked in simple syrup.
The last shop on the left side of the bazaar alleyway is a juice shop selling fresh şalgam suyu. Now, this drink is not for everyone, and while I love it, I know many people who despise it. That being said, it (like anything that is naturally fermented) has tons of healthy bacteria and antioxidants. It’s made from black carrots and is fermented with spices added to it. As we ordered it, the man suddenly looked at my friend and I closely and said ‘You came here 3 years ago. You live in Istanbul.’ I was floored. He then proceeded to make us sit down and he insisted we drink our black carrot juice ‘on the house’. He even had his son go over to the bakery across the alley and bring us bread sticks! It was so sweet and just really a touching experience. It’s these small moments like this that make traveling so special and endearing. It was like running into someone from your hometown. Suddenly, here we were, miles away from Istanbul, yet being treated as if we were family members come for a visit.
After all the sampling through the bazaar and the black carrot juice, we had worked up quite an appetite and decided it was künefe time! This is up there with one of the best things on Earth. However, once you eat it in Antakya, you won’t really be able to eat it anywhere else in Turkey. While its origins are controversial as other countries have similar desserts, Antakya is one of the historic places where this dish began. It’s basically cheese (don’t ask me what kind) encased in layers of shredded wheat and grilled so it gets all melty and gooey and then soaked in simple syrup with ground pistachios garnishing the top. It’s sweet but not too sweet. Salty but not too salty. It’s gooey and crunchy. Imagine the best grilled cheese in all it’s goo and crunch…but a sweet version of it. It’s essential comfort food.
Afterwards, in a food coma, we wandered around the bazaar, buying laurel soap (this is bay leaf to us, but it’s ‘defne’ in Turkish, coming from the Greek ‘daphne’ so named for Daphne, the nymph Apollo tried to chase and who was turned into a tree…which that very tree happens to be in Antakya) and pomegranate syrup, then headed into the old town which is a maze of alleyways with various cafes and restaurants hidden among the walls. The architectural style is that where from the outside, it’s just a line of stone walls, but once you walk through a doorway, you enter a quiet oasis with a big indoor courtyard.
I’m ashamed to admit that I can’t remember the name of where we went for dinner, but every single restaurant in Antakya is good. I mean it. All places serve similar food and the same style of dishes. It’s all delicious. We ordered several of our favorites including Ali Nazik Kebab and Tereyağlı Hummus(buttered hot hummus). Ali Nazik is usually served hot, but in Antakya, is served like a meze and is cold. It’s smoked eggplant mixed with yogurt and garlic with lamb on top. The butter hummus… does it need explaining? Pools of melted butter on top of the tahini cloud pillow of hummus. The addition of butter is truly transformative.
The next day, we woke up and repeated the breakfast extravaganza and set out for our journey around Antakya to see the Moses Tree(a tree that supposedly grew from where Moses rested his staff, the water there is still considered holy) and the Titus Tunnel(built over 2,000 years ago during Roman times to help with the flow of water), walked along the seashore, and headed back into the center of town for our final meal at Konak Antakya. The final meal was more of the same. More Ali Nazik, more peppery cheesy yogurt spreads, and one final hummus with melted butter. Perfection. It was a beautiful weekend…not just for the food (but really it’s SOOO good), but for the experience of the city itself. A city that is history on top of history on top of history and still continuing to grow and pulse with life…something nostaligcally of a different time and yet of today…and a place that will always be special to me.