Baklava Binge in Gaziantep
Would you go to a little town for a weekend just to eat baklava? This weekend, I went to Gaziantep, Turkey’s premier foodie town. The pride of the town is its pistachios and pistachio pastries, with baklava being the most well known. The town’s name used to just be Antep, which combined with the Turkish word for nut, fıstık, is how you say pistachio here: antep fıstığı. The city’s current name means Victorious Antep, since the town nobly resisted French occupiers during the War of Independence following WWI.
They say the pistachio orchards surrounding the town are blessed with special soil and air that makes the nuts and nut products so amazing. The town’s cuisine is renowned across Turkey – at the local culinary museum, they said Gaziantep’s girls are born cooking and never stop. I had doubts about the weather, since the brown air was full of dust carried by winds from Syria the first day I went out. While we were there, the weather changed every hour or so – I think we experienced every season each day.
There are nut shops and pastry cafes everywhere! Outside of the hotel, we were the only westerners wandering around the town. As I was travelling with Dennis, the Istanbul scholar, and his family, we got the usual surprised response when we spoke in Turkish. That also sometimes leads to discounts, and I think we got a good deal when we bought pistachios in bulk – now I have 2 kg to work through! As we were walking, we noticed a group of men passing around a light barrel of red nuts like a hot potato. Everyone on the street stopped to watch. I wasn’t sure if it was a manliness competition or something else, so eventually I crossed the street and asked them what they were doing. The nuts, yer fıstığı, were some kind of red peanuts and pretty tasty too.
Turkish pistachios are smaller and open less than Iranian pistachios, which are the base for what grows in California. They also have a weaker pistachio taste but make up for it with a truly satisfying crunch and saltiness. The pistachios used for baklava are picked earlier in the season than the ones intended for eating; usually in August when they have a lower fat and higher protein content. The baklava and other pastries’ main flavor is the nut. Unlike most baklava I’d had before, the sweetness was so subtle that my teeth didn’t even feel it! Also, Turks use sugar syrup in lieu of honey, which I think may help to lower the sweet sensation. So, imagine a huge pillow of crushed nuts between buttery layers of phyllo dough – how much can you eat? We usually got the mixed plate, which included a square piece, a “carrot” shaped piece, and a crushed pistachio cookie, which was a little too nutty for me. Other diners at these places put down 6-12 pieces at a time! And I thought I could eat.
Besides the desserts, Gaziantep food is delicious. Cooking, along with the focus on fresh ingredients, is the pride of the town. We ate at regular kebab shops for lunch, and then at famous restaurants for dinner. The kebabs were all great – my friend said he had the best liver of his life at one of them. I thought it tasted just like liver, which I’ve never learned to love and therefore shouldn’t comment further.
At Şirvan, a restaurant recommended by an İstanbul foodie, I had Ali Nazik, which is a kofte served about an eggplant/garlic puree and garnished with a lot of yogurt. It’s a really old Ottoman dish and amazing. At İmam Cağdaş (the modern Imam, recommended by everybody, even other restaurants on the street), I asked for the eggplant kebab, but the waiter said it wasn’t the best season, and I took his recommendation for the Onion kebab. Beautifully grilled onions were served with ground beef and lamb kofte (like meatballs). The waiter assembled my first sandwich by taking off the outer layers of the onion, smashing the meatballs, then adding hot pepper and salt before rolling the bread like a burrito. I didn’t realize a kebab could be so amazing!
In between the food and baklava, we managed to see a few tourist sites. I was really excited about the Culinary Museum. It was full of old cooking implements, most of which were too huge to imagine fitting into your kitchen – they were intended for large parties or feeding the army. It was a great exercise for my food vocabulary in Turkish – I didn’t know of half of the herbs or spices that were mentioned in English or Turkish.
We also checked out the War Museum. I think it’s meant for military history lovers, as most rooms are full of descriptive panels without much more to look at than words. Under the museum, however, caves with life-like displays illustrate how the town defended itself against French invaders.