Gaziantep Baklava : Tale of joy and sorrows…

This post is the follow-up to my previous one about my trek to Gaziantep, a city in Southeastern Turkey famed for Turkish cuisine.  That post focuses on savory meals like kebabs—- so if you haven’t checked that one you can read it here: Gaziantep: Into the land of the kebab

There are two major desserts in Gaziantep: Katmer and Baklava.

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Katmer

Katmer is made by taking a piece of hand rolled and stretched yufka (the Turkish version of phyllo dough, made with olive oil instead of butter) and filling it with a thick layer of ground pistachios and kaymak (Turkish clotted cream) then baked in the oven until everything gets a bit melty inside and the outside is flaky and golden brown.  The best Katmer Salon is Zekeriya Usta. The Katmer are as big as a large pizza…huge, enough for 4 people. That’s why…even though we were in fact 4 people…we always ordered 2 of them. Of course.

Katmer3Katmer4They are I think my favorite Turkish dessert…well…actually that’s a hard call, but they are up there on my list. They are sweet but not too sweet. They taste really nutty from the pistachios and are a bit salty… but the cream balances them out to be more mellow.  Think of like a flaky croissant type dough exterior with nuts and cream inside all gooey and drippy.  Mind you, when i say ‘cream’ this is not to be confused with pastry cream or sweet cream that has sugar added to it.  This is just fresh thick curdled cream…milky and rich. Over the course of our 2 day trip we ate 7 katmers. Yes. We did.  This is true.  I am not ashamed.

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Simit Katmer

Also on this trip, for the first time ever we sought out the Simit Katmer…a rolled version of katmer, found at the famed Akşam Simit Katmer Salon.  This is made from nearly the exact same ingredients but instead of laying the yufka down into a flat square, it’s rolled up into a ring, imitating the Turkish bread ring called ‘Simit’.  The rolled style gives it more crunch on the outside with more squishy softness inside…like how with a cinnamon roll the inside is soft and gooey (and usually the best part, who cares about the outside right???). My friends still preferred the original katmer best but I dunno…I was having a hard time (and still am) making a choice. They are both so good…and while similar are so different in texture.

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Baklava at Imam Çağdaş….looooook at the pistachios……..

Aside from it’s call to fame for spicy kebabs Gaziantep is also, according to lore, the ‘birthplace’ of baklava.  Now this is quite a controversial statement as baklava is fought over between many cultures and cuisines.  Not being one to want to enter into food politics, especially something that has been argued for hundreds of years, here is what I do know: In Turkey, it’s known that the style and traditional way of making baklava came from Gaziantep.  Regardless of where the tradition began, the level of deliciousness of Gaziantep baklava cannot be negated. Baklava can be found all over Turkey and there are many famous shops in Istanbul claiming to have ‘Gaziantep Baklava’. Really it is always good and I can’t say that I’ve ever had ‘bad’ baklava.  Can you go wrong with dough, nuts and sugar? But there are different levels of just how good the baklava can be. In Istanbul, the best baklava place is hands down Karaköy Güllüoğlü, who state they use the ‘traditional Gaziantep recipe and art of baklava making’. Therefore, when you are actually in Gaziantep, the quality and level of baklava is so good it’s mind-blowing.  

Each piece is stuffed bursting open with pistachios, turning the little dough packages green in color.  In Istanbul, to get the quality with that amount of pure pistachios and as large of a piece of baklava, you would pay maybe 3 times as much as what you pay in Gaziantep. There are of course famed places and people who will argue with you into the hours of the night about which Gaziantep Baklava Bakery is ‘The Best in Gaziantep’. There are people who only buy from their particular stores and won’t step foot into any other. Baklava in Gaziantep is so famous and beloved that in the more popular shops, entire walls of baklava will actually sell out completely each night, packed in vacuum sealed boxes and taken by the kilo home to eat or put onto buses or in suitcases on planes, bound for future gifts to people who live outside the city.

Bak6As you read this, are you starting to slowly comprehend now what I was alluding to in my previous post about the ‘Baklava tale of woes’ ?  I am trying to hint subtly at the fact that baklava stores DO sell out of baklava. And that’s what makes my trip a tragic comedy.  You see, if you haven’t guessed it, the stores (yes plural, stores) DID sell out. But even more tragic: it was my fault.

Locals may argue over which Baklava Salon is THE BEST, but a usual favorite is Koçak.  I also, having been to Gaziantep several times, firmly believe that Koçak is in fact THE BEST. So, fast forward to the Sunday evening the night of our flight.  We had already (thankfully) had a feast of baklava at Imam Çağdaş the night before.  Imam Çağdaş really doesn’t do anything wrong, and their baklava is amazing.  It’s a close second to Koçak…only Koçak is just a tiny bit better. So anyways, it’s Sunday, we have a few hours before we need to head to the airport, and all of us in our travel group have dreams of bringing baklava home with us.  For some of us it was for work, some for ourselves, and for one person for her boyfriend’s grandmother who requested it.

We arrived at the nearest Koçak…a small store only showing a few of the baklava styles. I didn’t see my favorite style on display and when we inquired we were told they only had the ‘traditional’ left.  There’s nothing wrong with the traditional, in fact, with nothing to compare it to, you would think it’s so good it’s a crime. But I HAD TASTED others before and I wanted the other style. Plus, I don’t know what came over me. I just didn’t believe that this famous store, with so many locations, didn’t have their other styles.

The waiter promised us that even at their other stores they also didn’t have anything but the traditional, that they were all sold out.  I didn’t believe him. I could not be told. So…with a stubbornness I had not realized I possessed, after we all ate one piece of traditional baklava, the square one with pistachios, I made us all get up and walk over to the other Koçak.  

As we neared the building, we saw tour buses lining the sidewalk. We then saw people with open suitcases in the parking lot stuffing gigantic boxes of baklava into these suitcases. Then a man from the Koçak store came out and very pleasantly smiled and said ‘I’m so sorry. All the baklava is gone. It’s all finished.”

Yes.  The whole store.  

We had no baklava for work.  Worse, we had no baklava for the friend’s boyfriend’s grandma.

So, we walked back to the store we had just left, determined to get boxes of the traditional I had turned my nose up at.  And what did we find? As we walked up the steps, the very waiter who had told me to buy the baklava from there looked at us with deepy pity as he said ‘It’s all gone.  The people after you bought the last of it.’

It was cruel twist of fate.

SO, we jumped in a taxi and had the driver speed us to Imam Çağdaş to buy their baklava…as I said, it’s a close second.  Only…as we entered the store…the wall filled with thousands of squares of baklava normally… was… EMPTY.

They too were sold out.  

At this point, I felt like the worst person on Earth.  My friends found all of this hilarious and were laughing and becoming hysterical.  They are truly good human beings. I will never forget their kindness because, truth be told, I’m not sure I would have been laughing if the tables were turned.  We eventutally did find some baklava to take to the boyfriend’s grandmother…but it was still an eye opening moment.  It was a valuable lesson in life about myself and about food.  Who knew the whole town sold out of baklava after 7 p.m. ?  Who knew that busloads of people would buy busloads of this delicacy?  Can I blame them?  Absolutely not.  I would have done the same if my luggage weren’t only 8 kilograms because we bought the cheap flights.

But here’s the biggest lesson I learned, a metaphor applicable to life in general: when you see baklava, get it and eat it while you can, enjoy it in the moment and don’t waste time walking to the other stores (or just believe the waiter when he’s trying to caution you that they are selling out).

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The one piece of ‘traditional’ baklava from Koçak

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.