I’ve always enjoyed a quick fix of Turkish kebap – preferably a tender shish singed to perfection over open coals in clouds of pungent smoke. They do it pretty well round the corner from me in north London, but even better in Anatolia itself (that name is so much more exotic than Turkey, or Turkiye, which somehow gobbles). Anyway, what I was unaware of until last week was the vast range of kebabs at their source. Nor did I realise that history in south-east Anatolia floats around between 9000 BC (we actually saw a cult centre from this time) and the Ottomans – racing through Hittites, neo-Hittites, Assyrians, Romans and many others. As mind-boggling as the food, but far more conjectural.
At one point, I found myself in Adana, devouring the local speciality – Adana kebab, minced lamb squished into rounds then grilled. Lined up on the table was the usual generous chorus-line of ultra-fresh vegetable starters, and baskets of sculptural flatbreads were whisked away for renewal the moment they cooled slightly. All divine stuff, and even better washed down with ayran, a frothy liquid yoghurt made from sheep’s milk, preferably drunk from a little ladle. Here’s a frothing jug of it below – that was whenever we couldn’t get our hands on the earthy Antakya red wine, Villa Doluca.
I wish I’d noted down all those epicurean wonders, as in six different towns across several hundred kilometres we indulged in umpteen local variations on salads, tabbouleh, pide (ultra-thin pizzas) which become lahmacun when covered in finely ground meat, neat and juicy little rolls of dolma, kofte (meatballs in crunchy shells)… even a kind of soupy salad over-killed with vinegar. That was my one no-no – too heavy a hand of local balsamic.
In Sanli Urfa (alleged to be the original, Biblical Ur and Abraham’s birthplace) we ate the local speciality, a kind of steak tartare a la turque (but then where did the Tartars come from?), meaning raw meat, twice ground and kneaded with fine bulgur wheat and spices for hours. Finally it appears in bitesize pieces heaped with coriander. It was so utterly refined I had no idea the meat was raw. Then they have the word tandur – ring a bell? It’s the same as the tandoor we know from Indian restaurants, meaning cooked in a clay oven. Proof if it’s needed that this vast country is bang in the centre of a vast gastronomic web stretching from India to Algeria. And of course there’ll always be pistachios…grown beside the Euphrates. That’s when it’s not walnuts.
The pic below shows a delectable starter, zahter, named after an aromatic herb which is combined with chopped olives, tomatoes, thyme and olive-oil. Quite stunning. We devoured it with gusto at Karaagac, a local restaurant with a distinctive 1950s style at Iskenderun, south of Adana and north of the very ancient Antioch.
And below, here’s a plate of alinazik from Gaziantep (a town with a fantastic collection of 2nd – 3rd c Roman mosaics at its museum, as well as a spectacular castle that bridges Roman and Byzantine days), basically minced lamb in sausage shapes swimming in yoghurt with aubergine. This was one of the hot dishes at Gaziantep’s top restaurant, Imam Cagdas, where lahmacun, bread and baklawa were all made on the spot.
Real Turkish baklawa are NOT those sickly-sweet imitations we often have in Western Europe, but are moderately dosed and subtle, pistachio-filled shredded wheat. Huge platters of the variants sit in shop windows or are whipped up before your eyes. At Antakya, I watched the market-men actually shred the dough into long filaments – while neighbouring bakers used long paddles to shove their dough into wood-burning ovens. All wonderfully archaic, and wonderfully delicious.
At my last stop, the Kurdish city of Diyarbakir (encircled by the world’s longest city walls, several kilometres of grim basalt stone) I marvelled at the cheese and yoghurt market where sheep and cow’s milk took on endlessly intricate forms. Mozarella eat your heart out, buffaloes or not.
Street-vendors sold weird and wonderful things, from muddy-looking vegetables (which my Kurdish friends told me you either love or hate) to a juiced root, said to have health-giving powers, poured into tin-cups by a dapper-looking man. Then I came across a cheerful husband-and-wife team in a backroom of a backstreet churning out the Kurdish equivalent of Spanish churros – they wouldn’t let me go without trying one, a fritter dripping heavenly wild honey. Some ended up in my stomach, some on my bag, some on my shirt – dangerous sticky stuff.
Finally, at day’s end I came across a sweet-looking street-vendor I’d spotted early in the morning, pushing his cart through the backstreets, laden with trays of fresh eggs. There he was again, his day now over, oblivious to everyone and tucking into …. not a kebab but a baguette sandwich!! How could he?