Ask most any Turkish citizen where to find the country’s most exciting food and the answer will inevitably be ‘Gaziantep’. Since 2015, when UNESCO recognized this south eastern province by listing it as a ‘Creative City’, word about the south eastern province’s rich and varied cuisine has spread beyond Turkey’s borders. Now, even foreign visitors who might once have limited their travels to Istanbul, Selcuk and Kapadokya are venturing to Gaziantep, an ancient crossroads and capital of a province that borders Syria, Sanliurfa and Hatay, to sample its offerings.
Once there, however, visitors’ explorations are all too often limited to the obvious and most easily available of its specialties: kebabs (and wonderful kebabs they are, made with ingredients like loquats, garlic and black desert truffles), lahmacun, baklava and katmer (a luscious kaymak-filled yufka envelope cooked on a griddle). That’s a shame, because Gaziantep’s cuisine encompasses a wealth of dishes, as we learn in Aylin Öney Tan’s cookbook A Taste of Sun and Fire. Thanks to this encyclopedic volume most if not all are now at the fingertips of any adventurous cook willing to make the smallest effort to acquire the ingredients required to prepare them.
At the behest of the municipal government of Gaziantep, which commissioned the book, and working alongside illustrator Suzan Aral and photographer Tuba Şatana, food journalist Tan (a conservation architect by training) spent months on the ground diving into the city’s cuisine. Assisted by five renowned local cooks (duly credited at the back of the book) she researched and selected recipes, conducted interviews and gathered information on the city’s culinary history and culture. The result is a book filled not only with tempting recipes but with thick context as well. Leafing through its pages one feels immersed in both the food, and the food ways, of Gaziantep.
The book’s recipes are divided into chapters according to type of dish: soups; dishes made with yogurt; dishes containing ground meat loose or formed into köfte; meaty dishes incorporating fruit or vegetables; lahmacun and borek; dolma and sarma; pilaf and thick soups; standalone köfte; and sweets. Recipes are straightforward and easy to follow; many are limited to just one page. Şatana’s photographs of dishes give a visual cue while Tan’s head notes provide tantalizing descriptions and or backgrounds of dishes, as well as helpful hints on how to carry them off well.
At the rear of the book are treasures, in the form of short recipes written in narrative: for dishes to serve alongside kebabs, like the parsley-slivered onion-salt-sumac mixture called maydonoz pilavi; for drinks like cinnamon tea; and for foods found ‘in every kitchen’, like pickles. There is an entire page devoted to explications and photographs of various types of helva, and an extensive and very useful glossary of food and kitchen words, many accompanied by illustration.
The book’s text is studded with nuggets of information about Antepian gastronomic culture. We learn of karisik baharat — spice mixes that change according to the household (no cook will reveal his or her own, notes Tan), about the grains and legumes that are central to the diets of Gaziantepli and of specialized tools – like zirh, the long curved knives that köfte and kebab makers use to transform chunks of meat and fat into well-marbled mince, and ‘dolma stones’, handled lids made of fired clay that are used to weight dolma in a pan as they cook. In an essay devoted to tomato paste, we’re reminded that this ingredient so central not only to Gaziantep cuisine but to many other cuisines in Turkey is not just a flavor booster, but a means to preserving the fruits of a bountiful harvest through the winter. And by highlighting the dual role of bread bakeries that also serve as community ovens, Tan gives a glimpse on to Gaziantep neighborhoods bound in a web of home kitchens, covered markets, weekly bazaars, produce shops and butchers.
After reading through A Taste of Sun and Fire I’d compiled a two-page list of must-try recipes including Olive Lahmacun, ‘Arab’ Köfte in Cacik, Borek Filled with Rice, Sour Apple Kebab and Omac, an intriguing ‘salad’ made by moistening dried yufka and massaging it with ingredients like onion, tomatoes, parsley and tomato and red pepper paste (those unable to buy or unwilling to make yufka might substitute thin lavash). Perhaps more tellingly, Tan’s tome left me with a strong itch to revisit, and to dive more deeply into, the cuisine of Gaziantep.
Here’s a 12-minute video view of Gaziantep cuisine featured in ‘A Taste of Sun and Fire.’
-Review by Robyn Eckhardt
Aylin Öney Tan is an architect and restoration expert turned food writer and culinary researcher. She is the leader of Slow Food Ankara. Her column ‘Fork & Cork’ appears, in English, in the Hurriyet Daily News weekly. She can be found on Twitter @aylinoneytan.
Robyn Eckhardt a journalist and the author of the forthcoming cookbook Istanbul and Beyond: Exploring the Diverse Cuisines of Turkey (Rux Martin /Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, October 2017). She writes on food and travel for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Saveur, The Economist and other publications. Follow her on Twitter at @EatingAsia.
‘A Taste of Sun and Fire – Gaziantep Cookery’ edited by Aylin Oney Tan, photography by Tuba Şatana
Publisher: Yapi Kredi Yayinlari
Publication Date: 2015