Turkey's culinary delights

Sweets for sale in Gaziantep

Gaziantep, 40 miles from the Syrian border in Southeastern Turkey, has been in the news lately as a staging ground for journalists covering the war, a sanctuary for Syrian refugees, and a gateway city for ISIS recruits.

"It’s a destination for spies and refugees, insurgent fighters and rebel leaders, foreign-aid workers and covert jihadists—all enmeshed in Syria’s multisided war," is how the New Yorker's Robin Wright described the city in 2014. Perhaps this was the case then more so than today, although the U.S. State Department still warns against traveling here and in other  areas in Southeastern Turkish including the Kurdish cities of Sanliurfa and Diyarbakır. I went to all three cities in 2011, and would visit again in a heartbeat for their unique cultures, history, and of course, food.

Before the war, Gaziantep or "Tep" as the Turkish call it, was best known as the culinary capital of Turkey.  Its claim to fame was being home to the world’s finest baklava, the honey-soaked pastry. People from Istanbul came for the weekend, the way we might go to Portland or San Francisco. The old city is filled with beautifully-restored 16th century mosques, inns and 19th century stone mansions....and shops selling nothing but baklava and a sister-sweet called kadayif, a delicate pastry with shredded wheat and cheese, butter and honey. Both are made with pinkish, half-ripe pistachios harvested locally.

Kadayif with a side of pistachio ice cream 

There are more than 150 of these shops, one or two every block it seems. Imam Cagdas, a big busy shop founded in 1887, ships its baklava worldwide, but I prefer the smaller, one-man shops where you either order a box to go, or eat it there at one of a few tables in the back. Most keep things simple and offer little else besides water or tea. If it's coffee you're looking for, maybe you will be lucky as I was a few years ago to run into a traditional coffee seller carrying a copper urn.

Starbucks not

Men dress up like this in Istanbul to pose for pictures with tourists, but no one in Gaziantep puts on a show just for tourists. This guy was for real. Notice the string of paper cups around his neck. He opened the lid on the urn to show me hot coals in the bottom keeping the coffee hot. The coffee, called murra, was thick, sweet and scented with spices. I was about to buy a cup, when the coppersmith on the left, bought one for me, the posted for a photo with his cat.

Like many of the cities in this area, Gaziantep was an important trading center with its Middle Eastern neighbors and China. It was a stop on what was known as the second Silk Road that went to China via Iran and Afghanistan. Much money has been invested in restoring the Ottoman-era bazaar quarter filled with spice and nut sellers. A few of the old mansions have been turned into boutique hotels. At the Asude Konak where my husband and I stayed, it took the owners 10 years to restore the 108-year-old house into a five-room inn on a pedestrian street above the town center.

Kabab party

The owners love to cook and guests can arrange to have dinner here. It was Mother's Day, so they  invited us and another couple to join in a family kebab party - sort of like a Sunday barbeque. They made a half-dozen different kinds of kebabs, including our favorite, eggplant and lamb. The table was filled with plates of fresh greens and mint, yogurt dips, bread and salads. Some drank Raki, a high-powered anise liquor that produces a cloudy drink when mixed with water. Others had Ayran, the refreshing yogurt drink made with water and a dash of salt. Antep is surrounded by fertile farmland and has a climate ideal for growing olives, pomegranates, many types of fruits and vegetables and raising sheep.

Urfa's Fish Lake 
Sanliurfa (Urfa) is another lovely town of about 400,000 near the Euphrates river. The outskirts are settled by Kurdish, but it's mostly Turkmen and Arab Turks in the city center, and there's a distinct Arabic feel, with many men wearing flowing red and white checked turbans, and women (and some men) in traditional violet or purple head scarves  decorated with delicate white flowers.

The town is a major center of religion and an important pilgrimage site for Muslims, and even some Christians. Legend has it that Abraham, the prophet, was born in a cave here. According to the story, the king ordered him burned to death for refusing to worship pagan gods. But God turned the fire into water and the burning coals into fish. Abraham was hurled from a hill, but landed safely in a bed of roses. The whole scene is recreated in a peaceful, park-like area on the edge of town. The lake above is filled with well-fed carp. It's considered good luck to feed the fish, but try and catch a fish, and you'll risk going blind, or so the legend goes.

Anyone who's been to Morocco or Egypt, or even the touristy parts of Istanbul will find being in this part of Turkey refreshing. There are no touts, and even in the bazaars, there's no pressure to buy. No one who offers help ever expects a tip. Its bazaar dates to the 16th century. A walk through the little streets wakes up all the senses. Bread baking. Skewers of lamb roasting on outdoor grills. Copper-smiths pounding away in little stalls. Tea vendors scurrying about.

Urfa spice vendor

We become regulars at the shop below that does a “sandwich'' of sheep's milk ricotta and honey in a fresh, sesame seed bun. One way boys try to make money is to walk around the streets carrying scales and offering to weigh people. They don't get many takers among the tourists!

A young simit seller

Simit sellers are everywhere. Simits are rings made of bread dough topped with sesame seeds. Turks like to eat them as a late afternoon or evening snack which makes for a perfect after-school job. This boy was just learning the crucial skill of balancing a tray on his head.

More sweets, of course

Diyarbakir is a 5,000-year old city, 200 miles from the Iraq border and about 100 miles from Syria. Considered the unofficial capital of Kurdistan, it has been the center of conflicts between the Turkish government and militants from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party.  Even in 2011, Turkish people we knew warned us not to go there, but we did, and we were glad did. We looked as "foreign'' as we might in China or India, yet I can't think of a place where we met and taked with so many people in so short of time.

Hassan Pasa Hani 

We spent most of our time in Diyarbakir's old city, a busy area enclosed in three miles of high black walls, built by the Romans, from black volcanic rock called basalt. Cobblestone streets lead to old homes and former inns hidden behind stone walls decorated with white stripes, a trademark architectural characteristic. Above is the Hassan Pasa Hani, built in the 16th century as an inn for traders and their camels, now a spiffed up collection of coffee houses, tea gardens and shops. Diyarbakir was once home to a large Christian population of Armenians and Syrian Orthodox, and the city has several historical churches as well as a collection of 500-year-old mosques. Sadly, the  Turkish government recently seized the historic Armenian Surp Giragos Church, a number of other churches and large swaths of property, saying it wants to restore the area but alarming residents who fear the government is secretly aiming to drive them out.

Yogurt and cheese bazaar
We met this man in the yogurt and cheese bazaar, and enclosed market filled with individual stalls selling various types of white, mostly sheep's cheese, some of it twisted like a braid. He proudly cut us some free samples. Later for dinner, two local women whom we met earlier led us down a little lane to the Cafe Izgara inside what was once a Jewish home. We sat under a ceiling carved with the Star of David, and ate our best meal so far- kababs, tomato salad, bread, tea, Ayran, the frothy yogurt drink; and boiled sweets with honey- all for about $18 for two, tip included. Diyarbakir's speciality is sheep liver kababs. We reluctantly tried a skewer, then went back the next night for more.

Tourism is down all over Turkey, but especially in these areas. To go or not is a personal decision, hopefully one that will get easier as time goes on. Helpful are some thoughts posted here by veteran traveler Tom Brosnahan author of the Turkey Travel Planner.

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