Gaziantep: The Little Known Culinary Paradise of Turkey
Armed with three-foot long rolling pins, knives and ladles, the 150-person staff at a Baklava-making factory in southeast Turkey looks purposeful. Their target for the day, a regular Monday morning, is 700 kilograms of Baklava, the country’s national dessert.
A haze of white flour engulfs the elaborate kitchen as a few traditional chefs create paper-thin sheets of phyllo dough with their rolling pins, passing them on to the next batch of chefs, who fill them with chopped pistachios and walnuts. After moulding the rich mixture into various shapes, the pastries are transferred to a room-sized, stone oven. Once golden brown, the dessert is garnished with a special honey and sugar syrup, and more pistachios.
“It’s an arduous process,” says Burhan Cagdas, owner of a 133-year-old Baklava store in the city of Gaziantep, “The dense taste and aroma of pistachios has to remain intact in the final product. The recipe has been in our family for generations, and the chefs have been carefully trained to prepare the pastry. During Ramadan, we sell a ton of Baklava a day. It is also one of the most popular delicacies among tourists.”
The European Commission granted protected status to Gaziantep’s Baklava in 2013, announcing that the famed Middle Eastern dessert belongs to the lesser-known city in southeast Turkey.
Two years later, in 2015, UNESCO included Gaziantep in its list of Creative Cities Network in the field of gastronomy. And today, although largely bereft of overwhelming tourist footfall as in major Turkish cities like Istanbul, Gaziantep quietly stands in a corner of the transcontinental country, protecting its cultural heritage through food.
Considering the significance of meals in relationships as well as intercultural dialogue, the Turks have special preparations for various special occasions like naming a baby, beklik (a meal for a family visiting a bride-to-be), sohorluk (Baklava, cookies and tel halva sent by a groom’s family to the bride’s family during Ramadan), bed forming (when family elders get together to sew a quilt and mattress for a newly-married couple), nevse hamam (visits to the hamam on the 20th and 40th day after the birth of a baby), henna night, welcoming the haji (pilgrim), and many others.
Located on the ancient Silk Road, Gaziantep is one of the oldest cities of the world, and its first settlements date back to 4th Century BC. The city is a crossroad between the eastern Mediterranean region and the western plains of Mesopotamia, making it a dynamic industrial centre, and meeting point of cultures – Gaziantep is the gateway to Iraq, Iran and Syria.
According to the European Commission, which awarded Gaziantep the 2015 European Destinations of Excellence award for ‘Local Tourism and Gastronomy,’ the city has been home to civilisations like the Hittites, Seljukians, Accadians, Byzantines and Ottomans over its 5000-year history, and the “spirit of these characterful cultures are still very much alive in the city today.”
Gaziantep’s gastronomic connections to the Iron Age dominate its contemporary cultural identity, and have recently pushed the city to the forefront of the world food map. The local cuisine, with its fusion of Anatolian, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern tastes, is acknowledged to be the richest in the country. It boasts of 400 dishes, of which, 291 have been officially registered as dishes of cultural heritage.
Sehzat Kaya, a professional tourist guide tells me that Gaziantep’s cuisine owes its popularity to local chefs, who, over centuries, have created Turkish dishes with a twist, using the flavour and aroma of local produce like pistachios. The dry fruit, known as “green gold” of the city, is considered to be the best in the world, and Gaziantep produces thousands of tons of pistachios annually. Other important local ingredients come from the extensive olive groves and vineyards in the city.
“Another reason why Gaziantep has one of the most important cuisines in the world is its spices – saffron, cumin, tarragon, black pepper, and ground pepper,” says Kaya, “And what makes the Baklava here special is the flour made from durum wheat grown in the Harran valley, the early-harvest local pistachios, and the special stone ovens.”
Gaziantep’s local cuisine ranges from kebabs, meatballs, rice meals, olive oil and vegetable dishes to salads, yoghurt-based delicacies and stuffed vegetables. Desserts are an inseparable part of a Gaziantep meal, and the city has as many varieties of desserts as dishes, including rice pudding, semolina helva, sesame seed cakes, pistachio cookies, and flour helva.
Apart from the famed cinnamon tea and coffee made from wild pistachios, the beverage culture encompasses syrups made from sour cherries, oranges, lemons, and mulberries. One of the most preferred drinks is Ayran, a yoghurt-based beverage, equivalent to the Indian chaas.
As an ode to its gastronomic heritage, Gaziantep is also home to a museum dedicated solely to food. The Emine Gogus Cuisine Museum conveys the city’s culinary culture through an introduction to the various facets of the traditional Turkish kitchen. It showcases a world of traditional Turkish kitchens, their spices, cooking tools and techniques, and dioramas depicting camaraderie over food in the old country. The museum, which came into being in 2008, aims to “preserve, maintain, and pass to the future generations, the beauties of our centuries-old culinary culture that tended to be forgotten.”
More than 60% of Gaziantep’s 1.8 million population is employed in the food sector, and about half the enterprises in the city are dedicated to food, including spices, cereals and dried fruits. It has nearly 200 stores, selling Baklava, and hundreds of shops in local bazaars offering home-made knives, copperware, and other cutlery.
In Gaziantep, food also denotes festivity, and the city hosts many festivals to celebrate its culinary traditions, as well as special local ingredients. The Gaziantep Pistachio Culture and Art Festival, for example, is the flagship event of the city, which hosts a wide range of performances combining gastronomy, music, literature and folk art.
Another two-day festival celebrates the local pepper and forty different types of local grapes, which are fundamental ingredients in the city’s gastronomic culture. Other local festivals celebrate the pomegranate sour sauces, and the dishes and salads created with them.
Despite its culinary acclaim, tourists are still a novelty in Gaziantep, but the few are warmly welcomed. A group of live musicians at a restaurant, for example, promptly played Raj Kapoor’s ‘Awara Hoon’ the moment they learnt I’m an Indian. The rendition, of course, was accompanied with a serving of pistachio-covered Baklava!