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.

It’s that time of year…

                          Here’s a short and sweet tribute to my favorite thing:  BREAD.

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Since childhood, my favorite foods have revolved around bread–my grandmother’s southern biscuits…fresh out of the oven or the next day sliced in half and toasted…the best things on EARTH.  Who doesn’t adore a good frozen dinner roll?  What’s a hamburger without a good bun to support it?  When I lived in Italy, I became obsessed with ciabatta and focaccia and all sorts of croissants (il cornetto con marmellata to be exact).

So here I am in Turkey and it’s the holy month of Ramadan, or Ramazan in Turkish.  This coming Wednesday marks the eve of the holiday which lasts through Saturday to signal the end of Ramadan where people have been fasting during the day.  This culminates in a big holiday known here as Şeker Bayram or Sugar Feast/Holiday, where the elderly are honoured by the youth.  Children traditionally go door to door and wish their elders a ‘Happy Bayram’, and receive candy and sweets in return.

But, this month is also when the BEST BREAD IN THE UNIVERSE is made.  During Ramadan, as a kind of special celebration, this bread is made as a traditional food to break the fast with.  It’s made with yeast and is pretty calorie dense, as well as being shaped in a large circle…about the size of a medium pizza disc to give you a comparison.  The top of the bread has a triangular indentation pattern.  These indentations make it easy to tear or rip off pieces of the pide into chunks.  It’s easy to understand why this is a great food to break the fast with.  It’s heavy, filling, and sharable among the whole family.

Ramazan Pide is not just bread.  It surpasses what you think of as bread and transcends into its own food group.  It’s dense and chewey…but light and fluffy.  The outside is crispy, has a golden glow to it and is usually decorated with nigella seeds.  When it’s right out of the oven, it actually melts in your mouth.  Not as in the expression ‘it melts in your mouth’ but as in the reality of ‘it’s so soft and fresh’ that it melts.  It’s divine.  It’s not usually made outside of the Ramadan time period (although a few bakeries do make it year round) so that’s why it’s extra special.  Here in Turkey, bread is always good.  I have to say it’s a bread culture and they know what they are doing…But this bread… it’s truly something beyond.

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How many times can you honestly say something is so good that you have to change your route home to avoid the temptation?  My love for Ramazan Pide is so great that I’ve literally had to choose routes home after work that didn’t involve going past bakeries This is because at the time of day I’m coming home from work, the pide’s are being pulled from the ovens.  You can smell them blocks away, the scent secretly pulling you into the shops.  If I didn’t stop myself, I could eat an entire pide every day…alone.  Eat it plain.  With olive oil.  Eat it with labne (a kind of cream cheese) and tomatoes.  It’s a paradox.  I have to avoid the bakeries so that I don’t buy a pide every day…and yet…if I don’t eat the pide it will go away at the end of the month, not to be found for another year.

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A meal prepared by my close friend, served ‘family style’ and with Ramazan pide in the basket…the pide already torn and eaten by the time I photographed!

It’s part of the beauty of this culture.  It’s a traditional food originally for this special month, but it’s beloved and consumed by all.  Many people who aren’t fasting will also tell you they look forward to when they can start to smell the Ramazan pide wafting from the bakeries and that they can’t wait to buy several and place them on their table.  In Turkish culture, bread is something sacred, something to be respected and enjoyed, something to have at your table with every meal.  Ramazan pide is the ultimate bread, bringing people together.

…………To everyone celebrating, herkese iyi bayramlar !

Back to Antioch…

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

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Antakya Kahvaltı Evi

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.

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The courtyard at Affan Kahvesi

03C651B8-CC11-41EE-BEA4-3070F0F6F2F6After 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 265D1933-19DE-45CD-B17C-4073ACCEDA55their 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?

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The pink dessert….
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Tha pancakes waiting to be fried…

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.

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This is where you go…

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.

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KÜNEFE 

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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.

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Tereyağlı Hummus- Konak Restaurant

Weekend Getaway: Edirne and Ciğer…

Life always seems to turn a bit upside down when the new school year starts.  Summer vacation is always a whirlwind of going ‘home’ to the states and experiencing brief reverse culture shock, trying to see everyone, not being able to see everyone, and returning ‘home’ to Istanbul where you are suddenly thrown back into everything full force.

Things generally never get any easier once the school year begins either.  I can say that now things are wonderful and going smoothly, but the first few weeks of school are always critical.  You don’t know your students yet–likewise they don’t know you– and you have to tread lightly so that you can slowly start to build trust and ensure that things are going to be ‘ok’ for the rest of the year.  Not easy.

Let’s add to this being in a foreign country… in a city with a population 2 times that of NYC… and oh yeah, let’s not forget the language barrier too….

By the end of October, I needed a ‘mini-vaca’…. somewhere green and quiet… I needed to get out of the city…and so…to Edirne I went!

 

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Along the main street…

Edirne is just 3 hours north of Istanbul by bus and sits so close to the Bulgarian border that my phone didn’t know where it was for the full 2 days.  Its location is right at the intersection where the borders of Greece, Turkey, and Bulgaria meet.  Ten minutes on one side of Edirne you can pass over to Bulgaria, while ten minutes in the opposite direction leads you to Greece.  In comparison to the sprawling urban tangle that is Istanbul, Edirne is utterly quaint.  It gives the feeling of a small village.  There are old wooden houses, green rolling hills, decorative fountains down the main street, and people selling homemade jam, pickles and vinegar. There were peppers strung up on thread and hanging out to dry like curtains in the sun, and peppers sun-bathing on the ground.  There were even giant orange pumpkins!  This is monumental as I’ve never seen orange pumpkins in Turkey–only the green-ish exterior ones pictured below.  There were even a few (but just a handful) trees with leaves changing color. Finally, I could experience Fall!Edirne_2

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Orange Pumpkins (next to the usual gray/green ones)…

Edirne_12Each day I woke up and started by treating myself to breakfast.  In the fields along the river are outdoor cafes serving village breakfasts, ‘köy kahvaltı,’ where they fill your table with traditional Turkish breakfast, a spread of cheeses, cucumbers, tomatoes, eggs, olives, peppers, and various other things.  It doesn’t matter which cafe you choose, they are all more or less the same, similarly priced, and all delicious.

This was only my 2nd trip to Edirne over 6 years living in Turkey, and I spent the time walking around, taking in the fresh air, and stuffing my face with fried liver.  Yes.  That’s right.  Fried Liver.  In Turkish, it’s called ‘Tava Ciğer’, and it alone is worth the 3 hour bus ride to Edirne.  In fact, Edirne is really famous for 3 things: fried liver, oil wrestling (yup, exactly what you are imagining… but I missed the festival), and some of the most beautiful mosques by famed architect Mimar Sinan.  Whenever you mention Edirne, the first thing out of people’s mouths is usually ‘Did you eat the ciğer?‘…. Oh yes I did!  

 

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Tava Ciğer in all its glory…

Tava Ciğer, (pronounced jee-air), in my honest opinion, should really be considered a delicacy.  In general, I have always liked liver and onions and am not squeamish in the least about it, but this style of liver is the best I’ve ever eaten in my life.  After having this version of your old ‘liver and onions classic’, you won’t be able to eat it any other way. I think that the meat itself is one of the reasons why the liver is so flavorful.  It’s made from lamb’s liver instead of beef, and it’s rich and strong and velvety.  The liver is sliced paper-thin and then fried in oil.  It’s served straight out of the pan and onto a plate of sliced onions and fiery dried hot red peppers.  Sometimes another hot pepper sauce is served alongside hunks of crusty french bread as well.  The meat tastes like butter…like you are eating salty, slightly crispy, velvety rich butter.  It’s soft and tender, not tough at all… and it just melts in your mouth.  The perfect bite is to take a slice of the liver, put a few onions on top, and slather it with a dab of the pepper sauce… finish by tearing off a chunk of bread to help with the heat of the peppers.  With the added condiments, the taste is still like butter…but with more crunch and spice.  There’s no extra seasoning; there are no fancy tricks being played.  It’s just meat and onions…and it’s incredible.

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Peynir Helva

Aside from the fried liver, there’s not much by way of famed cuisine in Edirne apart from a few sweets.  These two desserts, while not my all time favorites, are definitely interesting and can only be found near and around Edirne.  Those are the Peynir Helva and the Hayrabolu Peynir Tatlı.  Peynir Helva is made from cow’s milk cheese (the texture is like mozzarella) where it is heated and boiled until it gets stringy…then flour and sugar are added and stirred to it.  It’s a bit like a chewy sweet cheesy porridge.

 

The Hayrabolu Peynir Tatlı is also made with cheese.  However, this one has cheese inside of semolina that is baked golden and then soaked in simple syrup.  It’s served with tahini sauce drizzled over top and sprinkled with nuts.  This one plays more with sweet and savory and with textures.  It’s cake-y and bread-pudding-like, with its spongy cheesy center…and the tahini adds a nice bitterness.  I couldn’t eat these every day (as with the ciğer you would have to fight me to keep me away) but they are satisfying in that it’s nice to have something sweet after all the saltiness of the liver.

After stuffing myself with fried liver all weekend, slowly savoring breakfast spreads that spilled off the tables, strolling through the little streets, and going in and out of every beautiful mosque and gazing at the tiles, Edirne revived me enough to head back to the hustle and bustle of city life.  After all, it’s only 3 hours away…that’s nothing for a journey when there’s ciğer involved!

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Selimiye Mosque designed by Mimar Sinan

 

Reminiscing Over Summer “Street” Food…

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Istanbul’s Buyukada (one of the Prince’s Islands) in late June

It’s officially FALL everywhere in the world and surely some of you out there are already planning Halloween costumes…but today…in going through photos of this past summer, I found myself really wanting a few local summertime snacks.  You see up until a week and a half ago, it still very much felt like the dead of summer here in Istanbul…  97 degrees ‘dead of summer’ to be exact.  There was a moment when I wondered if fall would ever come to Istanbul…or if I would be doomed to deal with my 1 hour daily commute sweating to death in the humidity.  Then right when I had given up all hope, the weather drastically dropped, and I got the flu.  Typical.  As much as I welcomed  and desperately wanted this weather change, it happened overnight without leaving me time to properly prepare for the food change.  My neighborhood markets stock only seasonal items.  In just one day, nearly all summer foods were gone from the shelves . So now, let me take you back just a bit to the start of summer in Istanbul and my favorite snacks that helped me survive.

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When I think of Istanbul in the summer, I think of three things: the sea, fish and cold beer.  It’s usually so hot outside that the only thing I want to do is sit somewhere with a nice seaside view, drink something cold and eat something light.  This can easily be accomplished here in Istanbul as seafood is such a huge part of the culture.  When my brother came to visit last June, he was surprised by this cultural aspect.  He was expecting to eat kebab every day and generally have really heavy food.  He didn’t expect there to be so many fish places.  After thinking about it a bit he looked around and said ‘But you know… it makes sense…there’s water everywhere.’  Precisely! Istanbul is surrounded by the Marmara Sea and has the Bosphorus literally cutting the two sides of the city in half.  In the summer, Istanbul is in its glory (if you can stand the heat) with outdoor seating everywhere.  The Prince’s Islands are also only 50 minutes by ferry and are the perfect day-trip getaway to soak up the sun.  So what do you eat?  Seafood: fried mussels, calamari, octopus salad… and while fall is the true fish season (when markets overfill with huge fat bellied Palamut and Lufer) nothing beats a plate of fried seafood with a beer in the summer.
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balikEkmekOne of my favorite summertime street foods is actually the very first food I ever ate in Turkey.  By the ferry-boat ports, especially over in Eminonu, you can find boats serving up this delicious meal.  Balık Ekmek translates literally to ‘fish bread’… and the simple translation states all that there is to know really.  It’s a sandwich made of fresh grilled fish, covered in raw sliced onions (sometimes with lettuce and tomato-but not always) and stuffed in between a hunk of crusty french bread.  There’s salt and lemon juice that you can squeeze onto your fish  bread… depending on your own taste.  That’s seriously all there is to it.  There’s no sauce, there’s no extra seasoning.  It’s absolutely perfect.  The fish tastes like the sea and is spicy from the onions and tangy from the lemon.  It might be one of the best things I’ve ever eaten and there’s nothing fancy about it.  It doesn’t need to be overstated.  It is exactly what you imagine when you hear those words ‘fish bread’ and in that way it’s probably one of the truest food experiences you’ll have.

 

midyeDolma2My next favorite has to be Midye Dolma.
These are steamed mussels that are stuffed midyeDolmawith spiced rice and served cold with lemon wedges.  When I say ‘spiced rice’ I mean rice that is very similar to what you wold find in a yaprak sarma, or Turkish style stuffed grape leaves.  The rice is seasoned with onion, dill, currants, often times pine nuts, and red pepper and cinnamon.  So it’s hot-spicy and also a bit sweet.  It sounds like a strange combination I know, but somehow it matches perfectly with the salty mussel and then just a squirt of lemon on top.  They are soooooo good that I even don’t know how to describe just how good other than again, so simple and yet so straightforwardly satisfying.  I could easily eat about 30 of them myself and actually have been told that large grown men sometimes compete with each other over who can eat the most midye dolma.  This is definitely a “street” food being that you most often see these in giant trays being prepared and sold on the street.  Several people have also told me that midye dolma originated on the very streets of Istanbul and that other cities copied the idea later… in that case making it a true “Istanbulu” delicacy.  However I haven’t been able to find any real proof of this claim, but I do like the idea that when I’m eating this food, I’m taking part in a time-honoured Istanbul tradition.  And yes, these pair perfectly with an ice cold Efes beer.

After all that salty fried food, how can you not end with something sweet right?  What’s the perfect cure for your sweet tooth…when it’s a million degrees outside…and you need something light? LOKMA !  These are Turkish ‘mini doughnuts’, very similar to Greek loukomades, or Italian zeppole.  In fact, the word ‘lokma’ in Turkish literally means ‘small bite or morsel’ which explains perfectly that these are perfectly bite-sized treats.  The lokma is made from a light, airy batter that is dropped and fried in oil, then the dough balls are soaked in simple syrup.  The outside skin is crunchy and the inside is soft…almost cloud-like and bursting with the sweet syrup.  According to local legend, these doughnuts were created by the Sultan’s cooks to please the royalty of the Ottoman Empire…which is interesting in that today they are mostly served as ‘street’ food and usually considered a kind of fast food.  Something you grab and eat on the go, walking around Istanbul with friends.

For most of the summer, I wandered Istanbul’s streets, taking the time to stop and grab something to eat and sit by the water to watch the sunset.  With the end of summer vacation and having to go back to work, the heat of the summer lost its appeal and I found myself begging for colder days.  Although now, I find myself dreaming of summer again and days with my stuffed mussels and beer overlooking the Bosphorus!

 

Kadı Nimet Balıkçılık…a break from the ordinary…

Coming back from semester holiday, work hit full force.  The big art/drama tournament took place just 3 weeks after school started back up and with that over, it’s been an interesting several weeks to say the least.  Spring usually brings me clarity and a renewed energy…which this year has me thinking of some big changes in the future…as well as mulling over what’s been going on here in Turkey.  Whatever is ahead, for now life goes on as usual and regardless of the day-to-day grind, something I can always count on to fuel my soul is FOOD!

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Center:  ‘mevsim’ (seasonal) salad  Bottom Right and Around:  sea beans(with lemon juice, olive oil and garlic), hot pepper spiced yogurt, fish dolma( sea bass stuffed with pine nuts, herbs and garlic), white cheese with sweet red peppers, and smoked eggplant salad.

So today I am sharing a place that is more of a ‘special occasion’ type place- a place that welcomes you and lifts you up and into a different realm momentarily, and is really all about the ambiance.  Right smack in the hubbub of the crazy and always loud Kadıköy Fish Market, is my favorite place for ‘rakı-balık’, Kadı Nimet Balıkçılık.  It’s a bit more upscale in terms of price and decor, but that’s also why I really love it- sometimes you just need to ‘treat yo self’-if not even for a special occasion but just for YOU.

Eating ‘rakı-balık‘ is not just dinner… it’s an entire cultural experience consisting of two major factors: rakı (liquorice flavored powerfully strong alcohol) and fish (balık).  When you go for ‘rakı-balık’ or if you go to eat at a ‘meyhane’ you are not going to just sit for a quick bite to eat.  Oh no no no.  You will most likely instead spend probably 2 hours (and that’s the short version) or potentially all night eating slowly, ordering course after course, drinking, talking, eating, drinking and talking.  Eating for hours while socializing all evening… what’s not to love about this? This kind of ‘hours on end’ meal centering around light but filling meze and fish is very typical of meyhane restaurant culture.  These are traditional restaurants dating back to the Byzantine Empire that started popping up mostly in seaside areas where tradesmen and merchants would come in to port and have a meal and wine.  This tradition continued into the Ottoman Empire and somewhere during that time(it’s unclear exactly when), rakı replaced wine as the traditional alcohol served, according to lore.

The experience starts with first ordering meze– these are kind of like appetizers in that they come before the main course.  They are typically small little plates served either cold or hot.  They usually feature vegetables in olive oil with yogurt and topped with lots of fresh lemon juice. A few of my favorite are sea beans(super salty and with lots of chopped fresh garlic on top), haydari(thick yogurt with mint and dill),  and patlıcan salatası(smoked eggplant drizzled with lemon and mixed with roasted peppers, tomato and parsley).  After meze you go on to order the mini-main course.  This is usually calamari or a similar small fried fish like hamsi or istavrit (small sardine-like fish from the Black Sea region).  Here you can also order midye dolma which are actually traditional to Istanbul itself and are mussels steamed and mixed with spiced rice and currants, then put back in their shells.  After the mini-main course, it’s time to order the full main course, which is THE FISH.  When I say fish, I mean a whole fish with head and tail attached, waiting for you to pick out all its bones!

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Rakı, with white cheese and melon

If it sounds like a lot of food and a lot of courses, well…it is…but the intention is that you share everything with the people at your table, keeping in with the social theme to this kind of meal.  All food is placed in the center and everyone serves themselves.  The whole time the eating is taking place, rakı is being poured!  Rakı is made from distilled grapes and flavored with anise seeds (hence the liquorice flavor).  Of course, drinking rakı has its own ritual.  There is a specific order as to how one must pour and serve rakı.  You first pour yourself a generous amount, then fill the glass up with water, then last…ALWAYS LAST…add ice.  When you add water to rakı it turns a strange milky color, giving it the nickname ‘lions milk’- the drink of strong ‘lion-like men’.  Yes…they really do say that.  The first time I ever tasted rakı I absolutely despised it.  Now, it’s something that I really enjoy paired with the freshness of the meze and fish.  The liquorice flavor surprisingly pairs really well with the acidity from the lemon in most dishes and it’s good with fruit and cheese…although speaking honestly, it really can be an acquired taste.  Recently a friend of mine came to visit and after one sip of rakı, immediately ordered a different drink…much to the shock of the waiter.  It’s also very very potent stuff.  You aren’t ever supposed to just drink it, but always order it with some food…the purpose I think is that the food helps you not feel so wobbly when you go to stand up at the end of the night!

 

 

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2 Pics Above: fresh swordfish outside the restaurant.  Pic Below: View of the rooftop terrace seating

For all of that, Kadı Nimet is not your typical meyhane… and I don’t even think it qualifies as an actual meyhane. For one thing, due to its casual off-the-street market location, you don’t need to be dressed up to get a seat.  The downstairs rooms have tables out on the street and you can watch the fishermen calling to passersby to buy fresh fish from the restaurant.  I have also bought fish from here and taken it home to cook.  You just choose a fish and then they take it inside, wash it and clean it at the counter.  Here you can sit on the sidewalk with some fried fish and a beer(yes beer is ok, rakı isn’t a must) and relax-not feeling forced to order the full multi-course experience.

 

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Outside the terrace window

However if you want the more upscale feeling and a quieter atmosphere, reserve a table on the rooftop
terrace.  Here, the noise of the crowded streets below float into something momentarily forgotten.  You know that old Drifter’s Song ‘When this ole world starts getting me down, I climb way up to sit up on the roof…’, I can’t really explain it… but sitting up on the rooftop of Kadı Nimet feels exactly how I’ve always imagined I would feel in that moment of the song.  Up there on the roof, if timed right, you can watch the sunset over Kadıköy with a drink in your hand, eating fresh clean food, slowly taking your time to savor it all while chatting with your friends, and then order more, eat more, chat again, and relax.

The prices of Kadı Nimet are reasonable-most fish places serving meze are usually on the pricier side.  I recently ate here with several friends to celebrate both a birthday and an engagement-between the 6 of us we each paid 100 lira.  This might seem like a lot, but keep in mind we had a huge bottle of rakı as well as other drinks, two table salads, maybe 8 meze, 2 orders of calamari and other various fried fish, and 2 large whole fish… all for the equivalent of $35 including tax and tip.  As for the food I really think the meze are the stars…but I could personally just make a meal out of them anytime, any day.  The fish is delicious but very simple.  It’s not much more than just fish…however the beauty in the simplicity is astounding.   It’s freshly caught and clean…it’s not greasy and doesn’t even smell ‘fishy’…just cooked and sprinkled with a bit of salt and served with slices of onion, lemon wedges, and wild arugula (roka).

Of course, it’s a special experience usually reserved for special events… which means you can splurge every now and then…and sometimes that kind of splurge is just really necessary.  Sometimes all you need is good atmosphere, simple food, friends, a drink and a place ‘up on the roof’.

Hummus Along the Silk Road…

 

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– Hummus in all its glory –

Two years ago, I took a trip down to Turkey’s southern region of Hatay specifically to see the historical city of Antakya, or Antioch as it’s called in English.  It’s claimed by historians that Antioch was actually the first place where Christians were given the name of “Christians” and called so by others.  It is also said that St. Peter himself set up the church there in Antioch.  Today the actual city still lies within the original Roman city walls and St. Peter’s church carved into a rock cliff is still there.  Being an enormous history and architecture fanatic, I really wanted to see this place and visit the historical sites…what I had not expected however was some of the best food of my life, and an other- worldly experience with HUMMUS.

Everybody knows and loves hummus, it’s become a super trendy food in the states and you can buy huge tubs of the stuff in nearly every grocery store.  You can even buy hummus made from beets or edamame or avocado.  The thing is, living in Istanbul, I can’t very easily just go and buy hummus from the store.  It’s not really a traditional food.  You can find it here and there and occasionally it will be on the menu in a few restaurants, but it’s really not a typical meal.  However, this is not the case in Antakya.  It’s on the menu in every restaurant and is a staple of their daily cuisine, even serving it up for breakfast.

Located very close to Syria, Antakya was very important throughout history for its pivotal role in trade with spices and goods, as part of the famed ‘Silk Road’ trade routes.  It was originally inhabited briefly by Alexander The Great before being a part of Byzantium and later the Ottoman Empire.  The region has always straddled both Syrian and Turkish cultures and most of its citizens speak Turkish and Arabic. Therefore, although still within Turkey, you feel almost as if you have traveled to a completely different place, stepping back in time-of which the food has a distinctly different flavor than that of Turkish food in other areas.  This food tends to be seasoned with much more spice and heat, and many things that are typically more Middle Eastern dishes can be found as local dishes here.  This makes sense as to the importance of hummus here in Antakya- a food probably brought to this area along the Silk Road establishing itself as a favorite among its people.

 

 

As all food that begins in one culture and is brought to another, the hummus in Antakya has taken on its own style and become a truly different and delicious experience.  For example, you can find it for breakfast doused heavily in olive oil and pickles.  Yes, pickles!  Pickles, or in Turkish turşu, are a popular part of Turkish cuisine, usually served with salads or sometimes served with rice-but in Antakya, you get your hummus with pickles.  I have to say, the ‘brine-y’ sourness added from the vinegar really lightens up the richness of the hummus giving it a very refreshing quality.  For dinner, you can find hummus on the menu again-but being as it’s night-time and you might want something heartier, it’s served with melted butter and cooked in the oven.  Nope, I am not making this up!  They pour melted butter with toasted pine nuts over hot hummus, bake it in the oven so that the edges get a little crispy, and serve this with bread!  It is rich and warm and gooey and salty -a sinful side of heaven!

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Notice the pool of butter, not olive oil, on top…

When you visit Antakya, you will walk along streets laid down by Romans, you will see mosques, churches and synagogues all sitting peacefully side by side, and you will eat amazing food.  You will meet some of the friendliest people who can’t wait to share their culture with you, as the city is accepting and inviting. It’s a continual melting pot of history and modernity with cultures coming together to share in traditions.  Hummus is itself an important food across the entire Middle Eastern region, with each culture having their own particular way they feel it’s best made.  Here in this part of Turkey is yet another example of this food that spans cultures and puts its own twist on this Middle Eastern staple.

 **Continue reading for a recipe and pictures of the process and as always, Afiyet Olsun!**

Hummus How-To: This is something I kind of taught myself how to make and again, I asked a lot of people for advice.  My best friend’s mom has an awesome hummus recipe that she got from her friend who is Lebanese.  I used that recipe for years before trying to copy the style I had eaten in Antakya.  In her recipe, she used canned chickpeas, but her secret was to save the liquid from the cans and to incorporate this into the hummus.  My mom also always told me to add a pinch of baking soda to anything that could be …well… gaseous.  If you are cooking cabbage or collard greens, throw in baking soda.  The same is true when you soak beans!  The hummus in Antakya is extra crazy smooth and also it has lots of tahini in it.  There are so many hummus recipes out there in the world and many ways to make it that are easier…but I like it this way, so I’m sharing.

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I made this one!

Ingredients:
* half a bag of dried chickpeas
* 4 Tablespoons Tahini paste
* 1 teaspoon salt
* 1 teaspoon ground cumin
* 3 cloves fresh garlic
* 1-2 cups of liquid that you cooked the chickpeas in (don’t pout it down the sink!)
*1 lemon
*red pepper flakes, and good quality olive oil to spread on top

 

OK, so first you have to deal with your chickpeas.  Soak them in a bowl overnight with 1 teaspoon of baking soda added to the water.  Rinse them the next morning and cook them- you just want to simmer them on low heat until they are tender (1 hour).  They should be squishy.  Drain them, let them cool… and peel them.  Oops, yes, I said that… to get them smooth, you have to peel them.  It’s totally annoying, I know… but it’s worth it!  I asked many people and they all agreed…you have to squish the chickpeas out of the white skin.  Once they are peeled (you should have at this point 5 cups of peeled chickpeas), start pureeing them in a food processor.  Add the garlic, salt, cumin, tahini, and the juice of the lemon.  Now, start adding in the reserved cooking liquid.  You want to add enough so that it’s watery.  Don’t be afraid- it will thicken with time so you should get it pretty thin while blending.  Pour it into a dish, spoon olive oil and red pepper flakes on top and stick it in the fridge (if you can wait!) to cool for a bit.  If you want to ‘do as the Antakyans do’ so to speak, you can bake your hummus in the oven until the edges crisp and pour butter on top!  Enjoy!