Nestled in the south-Eastern corner of Turkey, Gaziantep is a city barely yet emerging as a holiday destination but one that should certainly be on your radar. Recognised by UNESCO as a centre of gastronomy, we were embarking on a culinary tour of the city, and although the food was a highlight, we discovered there was much more to uncover in this vibrant area.
Competing with the ever popular locations of Istanbul and Bodrum, Gaziantep has its own distinct personality; a captivating fusion of history, culture and exceptional cuisine, along with a people that are ready to welcome visitors with open arms. It’s a wonder that this part of the country remains largely untrodden, although I get a feeling this is all set to change in the not too distant future.
Just a short, hassle-free flight from Istanbul, we glide into Gaziantep on a Turkish Airlines flight, arriving late on a balmy April evening. The days that follow are a voyage of discovery as we eat our way around the city, taking in many of the wonders Gaziantep has to offer. Gastronomy here is a big deal; the people of the area take it very seriously and take great pride in their cuisine. Many of them were kind enough to open their kitchens to us, allowing us to witness their methods and traditions first-hand; a unique look into the hearts and the bellies of the local people. Traditions are passed down generations with many restaurants and establishments run by the same families for decades and even centuries.
There is as much to be said about the history of Gaziantep as there is about the food and it would be a huge injustice to underplay the incredible richness in culture and history that exists there, which can be easily discovered in many of the exceptional museums the city hosts, each offering a window into the city’s past.
If you’ve heard anything about Gaziantep and its cuisine, it’s probably got something to do with pistachios and the world-class baklava they make here, although this is only scratching the surface. The area surrounding the city hosts a huge amount of pistachio trees and the people of Gaziantep know how to use these nuts to create a range of stunning dishes. Baklava is a food of pride and one which the locals have perfected to an art form. This along with the astoundingly delicious Katmer pastry (a flat flaky pastry layered with cream and pistachios), is a regional speciality. We were lucky enough to spend a morning in the kitchen of the Imam Cagdas restaurant, observing the processes and techniques they use for creating some of the best baklava in the city, and arguably, the world. It is a laborious process; with 62 chefs in this restaurant dedicated solely to making baklava, it was a seamless chain of actions. We stepped into a humid room, watching through a wall of white cloud as the chefs vigorously knead and roll the pastry before it’s taken to the next phase of layering with pistachios and it’s eventually cooked in a specialized wood oven, not dissimilar to a pizza oven. Hands work quickly and robotically, but with care. This is a slick operation; on special holidays they can make up to 400 trays of this syrupy sweet pastry. After watching the chefs at work, we sat down to enjoy a slice of this heavenly dessert; layers of crisp, wafer thin pastry soaked in sweet syrup and stuffed with a generous layer of pistachios. The quality and freshness of the ingredients used was key here and this holds true across of all Gaziantep’s cuisine. Process is also crucial; they take no shortcuts if it impinges in the slightest way on the finished result of the dish.
Pistachios are also used as the base of the popular menengiç ‘coffee’, where ground pistachios and milk are combined to form a sweet, nutty hot drink which the locals often favour in place of the traditional thick Turkish coffee. The place to drink this in Gaziantep is Tahmis Kahvesi, the oldest coffee shop in the city. Founded in 1632, the restored building is two-tiered and full of character but also boasts a large garden seated area where city-dwellers can smoke shisha, play backgammon and drink the delicious menengiç coffee late into the evening. The lively and jovial atmosphere convinced us to swap beers at the hotel for coffee and tea at Tahmis, which became our ritual during the stay.
One of the joys of eating in Gaziantep is the long mealtimes with steady streams of food arriving to be enjoyed without inhibition or restraint. Throughout our stay we were served banquets of Turkish dishes, which was never complete without the much loved kebab. The meat was always tender and delicious, served with fluffy flatbreads and a range of other dishes: stuffed sun-dried vegetables, chickpea salads, lentil patties, meat-filled pastries, grilled aubergines and the well-loved Lahmacun – a Turkish pizza made with a flatbread base and topped with finely ground meat, vegetables and parsley. A visit to Musem, the culinary museum and cookery school is a must here; we tried our hand at making local dishes and read about the extensive variety and richness of Gaziantep cuisine.
One of my absolute favourite dishes we were served was Yuvarlama, a yoghurt based soup-like dish, which had a unique flavor, unlike anything I had tasted before. This dish was mainly reserved for special occasions due to the laborious nature of its creation and our guide Selim informed us that if you ask your mother or wife to make this soup too often, she will most certainly get angry. The soup contains tiny meatballs, which involve ground meat and rice, rolled together to form perfectly round balls, smaller than the circumference of a 5 pence piece. It is said in local culture that if a woman is able to roll 40 of these meatballs and hold them in one hand (indicating they are the correct size), then she is ready to become a wife. Such is the importance of cooking, tradition and local cuisine here.
Filling the time in between meals was easy in Gaziantep. History is in abundance here, with the castle standing tall in the city’s center containing the bloody story of the resistance against the French. The standout attraction for me was the Zeugma Mosaic Museum which contains a stunning collection of rescued mosaics deriving from the Roman occupancy here. I was astounded at how well-preserved these beautiful works of art were. Tiny stone pieces were moulded together to form elaborate bodies of art, depicting scenes of ancient Greek Gods and mythological creatures. The star of the show was the ‘Gypsy girl’ mosaic piece which is touted as Turkey’s answer to the Mona Lisa; a young girl with a haunting gaze.
Wandering the city of Gaziantep was an activity itself as the richness of the culture here seeped into our consciousness. We strolled through the old Armenian district, the botanical gardens and the copper bazaars, witnessing everyday life unfold and enjoying the delicious pistachio nuts which were piled into our hands almost everywhere we went.
Handcrafting copper dates back over 500 years and is still today the centre of handiwork here. Wandering through the bazaars you can hear the constant tap tap of the copper-workers moulding this material into beautiful bowls, pots and decorative plates. Sitting in their tiny shop spaces, they work deep in concentration for hours but never without a small glass of Turkish tea by their side.
What I found overwhelming was the generosity of the people here. They extended gifts, their good-wishes and their time to us, as if they had endless amounts and there was never anything expected in exchange for their warmth and generosity. This is not just extended to tourists, demonstrated by how the people of Gaziantep have stepped up in the ongoing Syrian crisis. Over 350,000 Syrians are now situated in the city and rather than treat them with hostility, like many of their European counterparts, they are greeted with compassion and empathy; human qualities which sadly, are often absent during atrocities like this. Rather then just letting them exist in their city, they have striven and achieved to provide a quality of life for Syrians here offering schooling, housing, health services and community activities.
One of the biggest joys of travel for me, is finding these undiscovered gems, just waiting to be trampled on by a steady stream of tourists. If you have a sense of adventure and a passion for food, Gaziantep is the place for you; offering the perfect foodie holiday destination, it’s a treasure just waiting to be unveiled.
For more information on visiting Gaziantep, head to the official Turkey tourism board website: www.gototurkey.co.uk