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That the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers constitutes the Fertile Crescent where humans first put down roots and transitioned from hunter-gatherer societies to agricultural ones is common knowledge.
Less well-known, however, is that the region in southern Turkey that is part of this remarkable area is still significant today as a center of traditional Turkish cuisine.
Every year, batches of bloggers and chefs make pilgrimages to the towns of Sanliurfa and Gaziantep to learn about their refined kebab traditions and taste the “true” Turkish baklava. Both cities have an informal competition running over the title of kebab, and therefore cuisine, capital of southern Turkey and both cities have the long running and diversely influenced culinary traditions to back it up.
Gaziantep, just Antep before being given the prefix meaning victorious for resisting French occupation following WWI, is the clear forerunner. It is known throughout Turkey and beyond for its cuisine and in particular its slender pistachios, which are used in all manner of sweets. Its pistachios are so well-known that in Turkish “antep” is also another name for the nut.
But it is not just desserts that the town is famous for. Influenced by nearby Aleppo as well as the Turks and Kurds native to the region, Gaziantep’s fare is known for its abundance of grilled kebabs and yogurt dishes as well as its spice.
With some 10 mixtures of meat, offal, fat and vegetables or fruit constituting distinctive kebab types served throughout the city, at meal times the town is filled with the smoky smell of sidewalk grills being fired up.
In the morning, it’s ciger (liver) kebab, served with fresh bread still hot from the oven. For lunch and dinner, there’s the classic sis kebab, patlican (eggplant) kebab or Ali Nezak kebab, in which grilled lamb is served over a puree of eggplant, as well various types of kofte (Turkish kebbeh-like meatballs) served in yogurt sauces.
Pul biber (dried red pepper) graces most dishes and has made the cuisine of both Gaziantep and Sanliurfa synonymous with heat, a reputation confirmed by the lahmacun (lahm bi ajeen) of both cities, which packs a punch and is served throughout the day with mashed grilled eggplant to be spread on top.
For dessert, there is of course the ubiquitous baklava, made with pistachios, and little else, stuffed between flaky layers of phyllo dough drizzled with sugar syrup. The Gaziantep take on the regional pastry is so famous that last year it was awarded protected status by the European Union.
A two-hour drive east of Gaziantep, Sanliurfa shares much of the same culinary culture and traditions, and all the many varieties of kebab found there as well. The countryside surrounding the town is home to what is believed to be the world’s oldest spiritual site Gobekli Tepe, settled in 12,000 B.C., and rich farmland irrigated by tributaries of the Euphrates.
The town itself, called Edessa by the Romans, also serves as a pilgrimage site for its legendary Pool of Sacred Fish, where Abraham was said to have been thrown into a fiery forest as a child by the king Nemrut before God turned the fire to water.
Home to the world’s earliest civilizations, Sanliurfa’s cuisine also features fantastic origin tales. Cig kofte (raw meatballs, much like kibbeh nayyeh) according to legend was invented by Abraham himself from what he had available in the cave where he hid from Nemrut. The dish is also said by some to have been created for Hittite royalty.
Sanliurfa is also known throughout Turkey for its spice, and in particular urfa biber or isot pepper, a dried dark red pepper with a smoky, raisin-like taste.
In addition to being used in Sanliurfa’s diverse range of kebabs and lahmacun, the pepper features in sac kavurma, a dish that consists of ground lamb and vegetables fried on a thin iron skillet.
To cap the meal there is silik (slang for prostitute) a dish made from crepe-like pancake filled with ground walnuts, covered in sugar syrup and sliced. It is served with a dark cardamom coffee called mirra that is bitterer than traditional Turkish brews. There is also menengic, a coffee substitute for which the town is famous. The strange green berries from which it is made are mentioned in the Old Testament and have been present — and snacked on — in the region since time immemorial.