Gaziantep: Into the land of the kebab…

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Gaziantep Backstreets

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.

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Hot Peppers!!
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Wandering the neighborhoods…

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.

kutnu1.jpgTraditional 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.

Gaz5Through 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.  

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Ali Nazik in the center being devoured…

Gaz13We 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.

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Ali Nazik in all it’s glory… meat floating on top of the eggplant yogurt puree

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.

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Çiğer on the grill…

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. 

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Beyran… ‘meat soup’ to cure anything

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.

Famagusta, Northern Cyprus Getaway…

Some days I find myself sitting and scouring the internet for flights to literally ANYWHERE.  I love Istanbul for so many reasons, but definitely its location to endless possibilities of weekend trips has its draws.  This is exactly how I came across tickets for Northern Cyprus… two tickets total for under $90—SOLD!

I have been wanting to check out Cyprus for a while but all I really knew beforehand was that it was a territory of Turkey and the island was divided into two parts.  I’ll be honest, I didn’t do enough research before the flight and even afterwards I found myself desperately ‘googling‘ the history.  The short version (please research on your own as it’s quite extensive and I will NOT do it justice for details) is that over hundreds of years Cyprus was inhabited by many civilizations including the Persians, Egyptians, Syrians, Venetians, The Ottoman Empire, and it was once even a British Colony.  After many years of conflict between the Turkish and Greek Cypriots, in 1983 the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus came into being for the northern half of the island.

Northern Cyprus is famous for casinos and night life…but I wasn’t really looking for that kind of trip…I wanted something quiet, historical, preferably within reach of ancient ruins. A friend of a friend, who just happened to be a Cypriot herself, told us that what we were looking for could be found in Famagusta, or Gazimağusa in Turkish.

Always trust a local’s advice! Famagusta was exactly the kind of weekend trip destination that I had imagined…complete with ruins, golden sandy beaches, and Shakespeare.  According to lore, the setting of Othello is Famagusta’s castle, which you can still see today.  Othello’s actual plot and characters are supposedly based on real events from Famagusta when it was under Venetian rule.

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Picture taken from the left side of the road…

Of course, no paradise is easily found.  We arrived late from Istanbul and went directly to rent a car.  There was the minor detail that in Cyprus, leftover from the days of being a British Colony, the cars drive on the left side of the road!  So, after I looked at the guy who gave us our keys and asked “Is it difficult?” (to his complete horror) we were off… my roommate being the one to drive.  In this situation the best advice I can give is this: remember always to go LEFT and don’t have your navigator set to ‘walking route’ (oh yeah, we realized that a bit late).  The trip took about an hour and a half.  We parked at the hotel- jittery and stressed- and went right to sleep.

Waking up the next morning, it was like we had been transported in time.  I can’t describe how peaceful…only the sounds of the seagulls were audible.  We had breakfast at the hotel… cucumbers, tomatoes, bread, jam…very similar to a Turkish breakfast we would get in Istanbul, only with the addition of HELLIMHellim, or Haloumi, is salty cheese that is grilled so it’s crispy and also melty/gooey….yessssss.  Cyprus is known for their hellim and it was one of the main reasons I wanted to visit.

After eating, we walked down to the main square and saw the 2 churches which were converted into mosques, the old port, Othello’s castle, and climbed up on the city walls. Bougainvillea was blooming everywhere-you could smell the sea and honeysuckle.  By Lale Mustapha Pasha Mosque (what used to be St. Nicholas Cathedral) we came upon a woman making fresh squeezed orange pomegranate juice.  We each got a glass, sat down, took sips, and nearly cried!  I am not exaggerating, that was the best juice of my life.  It wasn’t tart or sour, not too sweet… full of flavor.  I later learned Cyprus is known for its citrus fruits.  We wandered around a bit and then got frappes at the famous pastry shop, Petek Pastanesi…our first of 2 memorable visits to this café.

After our walk, we decided to utilize the car, figuring it would be less nerve-wracking in the daylight.  We drove up to Dipkarpaz Beach (known as Golden Beach).  This beach is has crystal clear blue water and is very clean because it’s a national park reserve, therefore it’s protected.  It’s famous for loggerhead sea turtles and wild donkeys… neither of which we saw…but the drive and the beach were worth it regardless.  I’ve never been in water like that.  You could see all the way down to your toes…and there were about 6 people on the whole beach including us.  We had the whole place to ourselves.

6275cfae-d785-48ba-ab79-635808e01d65On the drive back from the beach we pulled into the only real cafe we saw along the street.  The sign said literally ‘Sea Front Beach Restaurant” with a smaller name below in Greek. Unfortunately I can’t tell you anymore information than this…but it was PERFECTION!  We sat on the back terrace and asked if the fish was fresh (to which the look on the waiter’s face was answer enough for us to understand we were stupid to have asked) and we ordered fried calamari and a salad.  Apparently the calamari came with french fries and assorted meze and our whole table was filled before our eyes.  The calamari is UP THERE for one of the best I have ever eaten… it tasted exactly of the sea.  Salty…fresh…crunchy…not greasy.  The meze they brought out were pickled beets, hummus, tahini hummus (or so we thought), and olives. The fries were also incredible…hand cut, not greasy at all, and I suspect they were double fried.  And… if there was ever a doubt that the seafood was fresh, while we were eating we watched a man spear a stingray right in front of us and bring it up to the restaurant…yup, that happened.

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The tahini is located behind the olives…

We drove back to Famagusta and walked around some more before dinner. Dinner was good.  The food was delicious and actually there was so much food that we had to tell the waiter to please not continue bringing out food. But…the atmosphere wasn’t one I would repeat. There was a woman singing very loud karaoke music and halfway through dinner a belly dancer appeared and danced on every table.  However, just on the food alone, it was a good example of the style of food in this part of Cyprus.  The restaurants are ‘meze restaurants’ serving menus that change daily with different cold and hot mezes that come one after another in a never-ending food parade to your table.  Our favorite thing was again the tahini hummus which we had at the seafood beach place for lunch.  We asked about it and learned it wasn’t hummus.  It was just TAHINI.  It was literally tahini paste with lemon stirred in… so we ate 2 giant tubs of sesame paste… and it was absolutely amazing…fluffy, creamy, tart, a nuttiness and richness of flavor… and mildly shocking that such depth of flavor can come from 2 ingredients.

The next day we woke up, had breakfast, revisited our juice stand, and went for visit number 2 to Petek Pastanesi.  We were on a mission: ice cream.  We had been told that this place was famous for KESME MARAŞ DONDURMA.  This kind of ice cream is traditional Turkish ice cream that has mastic added to it so that it is CHEWEY and NOT REALLY MELTABLE.  Yes.  The ice cream doesn’t melt.  Also, the word ‘kesme’ means ‘cut’.  This ice cream is made in a block, where the waiters cut off a slice of it, and then you eat it using a knife and fork.  We ordered vanilla and pistachio.  As much as I love pistachio, I had a bit of food envy over my roommate’s vanilla.  Mine was delicious– saturated with pistachios, creamy and nutty– but my roommate’s was that kind of dreamy creamy ice cream texture.  It’s a nice way to eat ice cream as it’s not often you can sit and spend time to savor it before it melts, making this extra special.

Afterwards we packed up our stuff and drove to the Salamis Ruins.  Salamis dates back to the 11th Century and at one time was one of the most important ports of Cyprus.  I’ve been fortunate enough to see lots of ruins and this one is seriously IMPRESSIVE.  First of all, it’s enormous, with a massive amphitheatre that you can climb all over and get views of the sea from.  Second…there’s no one there!  At the most there were 10 people while we were there.  It was really something to just be wandering around left alone with stones thousands of years old.

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We left Salamis and headed back to the airport.  We passed some roadside cafés overlooking the beach along the way.  Unfortunately I forgot to write down the name of this place.  It had a similar menu to the other cafés and also served various meze…but this time we went for the stuffed grilled squid.  Wow.  It wasn’t rubbery, it was soft and melted in your mouth like seafood butter…the only seasonings it had were lemon and parsley.   It was stuffed with tomatoes and cheese…I wasn’t sure but I thought the cheese was hellim, just softly melted instead of grilled.  It was served yet again with french fries…to which I can’t complain about.  It was a perfect end to such a memorable trip.

Considering I really had no idea where I was going, Cyprus ended up being a place that I feel deserves much more exploration and is somewhere that I know I’ll make a habit of going back to.  After all, it takes me less time to fly to Cyprus than to take a taxi from my house to the airport!