How do you write about one of the best if not THE BEST food experiences of a cuisine? It could easily be argued that every experience I write about here I call ‘one of the best’. While that may be true–as I do love food– the dishes from Gaziantep really stand out to me as some of the most exceptional representations of Turkish cuisine. This is what immediately comes to mind when I think of Turkish food….my favorite style as it strangely makes me feel at home. It’s heavy comfort food: kebabs, meat, spices, lots of bread, and sugary sweets. It’s wildly different from what I grew up eating in the states and yet oddly familiar. Gaziantep food reminds me of being at a big family dinner: eating food that you kind of want to hug.
Located in Southeastern Turkey, Gaziantep is famously home to some of the most beloved Turkish dishes. When people say they are going to Gaziantep, the assumption among everyone is that they are going there for one thing: TO EAT. I know people who have flown down in the morning, eaten at just one restaurant, and flown back in the evening. Yes…it’s that important of a culinary destination. Gaziantep is famous for being the birthplace of the kebab (in general) and also very controversially of baklava for sweets. The food is known for being heavy, spicy, and not fit for vegetarians.
My latest trip to Antep was for exactly the sole purpose of eating. I had been a few years back, making this trip my 4th of 5th (I honestly lost count) and when the opportunity arose for a food trip with friends, I jumped on it…imagine that. This trip, while only 2 days, was filled with so many food memories that it’s impossible to make just one post.
I’ve decided to split it up into main course and dessert: my tragic escapade in baklava hunting will come later in a follow-up post.
We began our trip at my favorite coffee place, conveniently next door to our hotel this time around. Kır Kahvesi pictured above isn’t as old or as famous as Tahmis Kahvesi (which is in all the guidebooks being as it’s dated from 1638), but it’s dearer to my heart. I genuinely feel that the coffee is better but also, the decor is just for lack of a better word, quaint. There are red and blue stained glass windows and the whole experience makes you feel like you are sitting inside a candy house. I could spend hours in there drinking coffee after coffee…but alas, I was with other travelers so we moved along to the bazaar.
Wandering the Bazaar of Gaziantep is a feast for the eyes in itself. Many of the products from Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar are actually made by craftsmen in Gaziantep, so while there you get the opportunity to see the artists at work. Antep is also where most of Turkey’s spices are produced: pul biber, isot, dried eggplant and peppers to be used for dolma, tomato paste and red pepper paste in giant vats that you buy by the kilo.
Traditional textiles called ‘kutnu’ are also made in Gaziantep. Half cotton and half silk, woven on a loom…these fabrics are soft and have a shiny glittering sheen to them because of how the silk is spun. In the past I’ve bought everything in sight– fabric that I have been told were actually tablecloths that I bought and used as scarves and shawls.
Through the maze of the bazaar you may turn the corner and find yourself in the Tütün Hanı. On Saturday nights the middle courtyard is filled with locals coming to smoke nargile and listen to live music. Before the music kicks off, in the daytime the shops around the central courtyard are open and there are beautiful antique textiles and kilims. It takes a bit of searching through piles of forgotten and dusty fabrics but can be really worth it in the end.
After exploring the bazaar (with a short visit to gorge ourselves on Katmer… a pistachio cream pillow from heaven which I’ll go further into detail with in my follow-up post about dessert), we stumbled across a Chickpea Wrap Street Vendor. I’ve never seen this before in any of my prior travels and it was amazing. We found the street vendor as all street vendors are usually found: by noticing a giant circle of people and going over to investigate. In the center of this circle was a man serving up spiced chickpeas with parsley, onions, peppers and tomatoes on fluffy pita bread. It was delicious… savory, smoky, very spicy, but also fresh because the chickpea and parsley was very “salad-esque”. We knew we would hit the kebabs hard at dinner, so this was the perfect mid-day snack… and still very filling.
We walked around more, observing neighborhood football games and getting lost in the stone alleyways before heading on to DINNER which in Gazinatep MUST be had at İmam Çağdaş…the most famous restaurant. It’s always packed full but you can always get a table. However, if you want the full meal complete with dessert, don’t go too late as they do actually sell out of baklava (foreshadowing of my baklava tale of woes). We ordered 2 Ali Nazik Kebabs, a mixed kebab, a few lahmacun , and finished with baklava of course. I had forgotten how in Gaziantep, when you order kebab they also bring out hot peppers, onions, parsley, and sometimes radishes and spiced potatoes to garnish your kebab. They also never leave you without fluffy pita-like bread.
The star of dinner was the Ali Nazik Kebab. This kebab, the first time I ever tasted it years ago on my first trip, brought me to actual tears. It’s made of spicy ground lamb with lots of garlic and grilled on skewers. They then place the meat into a bed of smoked eggplant that has been mashed and pureed with yogurt, more garlic, and lemon. It’s dusted with a heavy sprinkling of hot red pepper (turkish pul biber) and olive oil. It’s amazing. It’s rich and velvety. It’s spicy and smoky. It’s buttery. It’s salty. It’s comforting. It tastes nothing like Thanksgiving cornbread dressing but it totally reminds of that exact feeling. Although the flavors are entirely different, it’s that kind of dish that transports you back through time to a moment of eating a special meal…It’s my all time favorite kebab…EVER.
Here’s the thing: they make this in other Turkish cities. I have ordered it from various restaurants ‘claiming’ to be from Gaziantep... places that I trust. But this dish is not the same. It is only this mouth-wateringly-good when it’s made in Gaziantep. I don’t know why… I can’t understand it. The ingredients are the same. It’s just not the same. But isn’t that the way you feel about Thanksgiving dinner? If your grandmother doesn’t make the meal, it doesn’t taste like anything does it? Sometimes you have to go to the source. This one dish alone sets İmam Çağdaş at such a high-caliber as it is culinary genius. I’ve never tasted anything like it anywhere else. And yet, it tastes of home. One is not enough to share–you will want your own.
We left the restaurant full and practically ready to burst. The next day we wandered the back streets and the bazaar again, had more katmer (in the next post) and for lunch I ran into a shop for a Çiğer kebab. I love çiğer. Love love love love. It’s liver and onions: only they grill the liver so that the outside gets charred and crunchy. Then they add lemon juice and hot red pepper and place it on fluffy bread and add parsley and onions on top. It’s your grandma’s liver and onions, another comfort food, only amped up about 50% to something char-grilled and spicy. It still has that metallic tang to it as with all liver dishes, but the lemon juice and parsley help to mask it a bit. I dunno…to be perfectly honest, I could eat normal liver and onions all the time and I’ve always loved it. Just this version is EXTRA YUMMY. It’s different from the fried liver that I’ve written about before and it’s very spicy…lots of red pepper dry rubbed before grilling.
For dinner, we found a kebab place recommended by a friend. It was really good and I’m ashamed that I can’t find the name of it anywhere. But really: ALL KEBAB PLACES IN GAZIANTEP ARE DELICIOUS as here is where the kebab really began, thus existing as a true art form. We started the meal with a bowl of Beyran Çorba, which is a spicy lamb soup only made in Gaziantep except for a few places in Istanbul (but you have to seek it out). It was very tasty with lots of garlic. I firmly believe the broth alone of this soup will cure the flu…like being a kid and needing chicken noodle. Again: comforting.
We also got a mixed kebab. For the kebab they filled the table with all sorts of spreads and vegetables: cucumber yogurt dip, pickled cabbage, radishes with spices and lemon, spicy roasted potatoes, çiğ köfte (a spiced bulgur ‘meatball’ that was once made with raw meat but now not anymore), sliced white raw onions, hot peppers and roka (wild peppery arugula). All of those are meant for garnishing the kebab, depending on if you want to make small wraps using the veggies and meat or just if you want to snack on the veggies to balance out the heat of the kebab (because it’s quite spicy). Kebab places in Istanbul don’t seem to bring out the extra garnishing free of cost and plentiful. It’s really a Gaziantep treat.
We finished dinner and went for a walk to go and buy our final baklava before heading to the airport. It was a short trip, with some of the best food dishes I’ve had in years. It was also just nice to be in this part of Turkey…a quieter city still full of history and with tradition. A place where you don’t feel hassled to bargain for prices as you see the craftsmen busily at work, a place where you can literally taste the artistry of food and a place that connects you to memories through food.