Gaziantep, referred to locally as Antep is a city located in a province of the same name. Approximately 50 kms north of the Syrian border it’s a city off the tourist trail through Turkey. While travel advisories warn against visiting the area due to its proximity to the border, those who dare to venture to this south eastern metropolis will find a delightfully cultural city proud of their regional culinary history and achievements.
The biggest culinary draw? Baklava. Boasting around 200 bakeries that sell the flaky, nutty, sweet dessert and shipping hundreds of pounds of ‘Antep Baklava’ all over Turkey it’s this sweet treat, with a recipe recently granted protected geographical indication status by the European Union for its use of locally grown pistachios, that inspired my visit to this ‘City of Gastronomy.’
Going to Gaziantep
I left Cappadocia behind and headed for Gaziantep with mixed emotions. Anxiety crept in as minutes before boarding my bus I’d met a Kiwi woman who, when I mentioned where I was headed gave me a frown and an ‘ohhh no, I wouldn’t go there. I’m not going east at all. Even the Turkish embassy told me stay out of the East. But, I’m sure you’ll be fine…’
My anxiety peaked when along the way my bus was stopped by military. A group of 8 or so heavily armed officers standing outside a heavy duty army truck waved us over. With a check of our ID’s and a rummage through our bags we were back on the road within 10 minutes. Not before one passenger was taken away for, I can only assume, further questioning.
Knowing I was entering into a sensitive area I went straight from my bus to a taxi to ensure safe passage to a hotel I’d pre-booked. A series of events I very rarely follow while travelling but given my arrival into Gaziantep was after dark, I wasn’t willing to risk getting lost on public transport. Or wondering around aimlessly searching for accommodation.
After check in, I konked out for the night and woke fresh and eager to see what the city had to offer, albeit still with a pinch of nerves as I contemplated whether I was being brave or completely naive visiting this government red zone.
Zaugma Mosaic Museum
With little English from my front desk, and a paper map that was comically enormous in size I was pretty much on my own to figure out my few days in town. With no idea what was on offer but baklava, I headed for the first attraction on my map that caught my attention, the Zeugma Mosaic Museum.
About a thirty minute walk out of town I wondered through neighbourhoods on the outskirts of the city, past a police station where an officer was quick to exit his post and motion me to keep on walking. One hand pointing ahead the other hand securely on his rifle. I continued on, through run-down neighbourhoods with bars on all the windows and locals dressed conservatively in hijab or abaya, suffice to say my presence attracted more than a little curious attention.
Upon arrival at the museum I passed through the security bag check and body scan and wondered into the first exhibit. Immediately I was taken aback by the beauty of this museum. After my walk through this seemingly tired and border line dilapidated city I was suddenly standing in a world class, modern museum. On display here is a collection of Roman frescoes and mosaics excavated and restored by local archaeologists from the ancient city of Zeugma.
Although most pieces date back to the 2nd – 3rd century AD they are in impeccable condition and are exquisitely displayed. I took in each piece noticing the intricate detail and was memorized by the sheer size of the artefacts. Each piece told an intriguing tale of myths and legends and the museum boasted of locating the pieces before of artefact traffickers and treasure hunters with got to them or destroyed them completely.
The Gypsy Girl
The most remarkable mosaic on display goes to The Gypsy Girl. Her name stuck when archaeologists couldn’t identify her but noticed her earrings, head scarf and wild hair giving her a gypsy like appearance. What makes her mosaic so remarkable is the detail given to her eyes. A combination of mosaic and paint in a style similar to that used on the Mona Lisa which perceives The Gypsy Girl as watching you from wherever you stand in the room. Her face, a defining image of Gaziantep is splashed all over the city on banners, brochures and logos.
İmam Çağdaş Restaurant
From here it was off to İmam Çağdaş. A restaurant that my front desk insisted I try out. I wondered back into town towards the restaurant which to my pleasant surprise was in a remarkable part of town. Suddenly the tired and crumbling shops and houses made way for historical sandy coloured stone block buildings and quint paved streets all overlooked by Gaziantep castle. A beautiful ruin perched high on the hill. Suddenly Gaziantep was oozing with character and charm.
Inside the packed restaurant I took my seat captivated by the upscale eatery I’d found myself in. With wood panelled walls, waiters in black tie in a dining room lit up by an elegant chandelier I knew I was eating amongst the who’s who of the city. To the rear an open concept kitchen where diners could see chefs creating their incredible dishes. And at the front a display with 9 varieties of baklava, which flew out the door as diners and passers-by walked away with large pizza box size take away packages full of the sticky sweet dessert.
Served up were traditional regional dishes. Unsure of most of the dishes and with only animated hand gestures as communication with the waiter I beckoned him to bring me anything he recommended. I was treated to a rich and tangy Ali Nazik, a mixture of lamb and aubergine swimming in a tart but creamy yogurt and garlic butter sauce.
For dessert? Two varieties of baklava. Cevizli Baklava, a square cut variety filled with walnuts. The second, Havuç Dilimi a carrot shaped slice filled with Gazientep locally grown pistachios. Tradition in İmam Çağdaş dictates that diners wrap the end of the slice in baking paper and turn it upside down before taking a bite. A fun and quirky element in otherwise seriously high end establishment.
The Culinary Museum
Rolling out of the restaurant I stumbled across the Culinary Museum and it was here that I began to grasp the full gravity of Gazientep cuisine. The museum is a delightful display of what sets their regional dishes apart from the rest of Turkey, from produce to consumption and the equipment used in preparations. At just the tip of the culinary iceberg, the city claims over 40 different kinds of meatballs. It would take a lifetime to try everything on offer in this city. And while it was tempting to accept the challenge my thoughts turned back to baklava.
Bakircilar Çarşısı Market
Departing the museum I wondered through the lively Bakircilar Çarşısı, a bustling marketplace where the song of coppersmiths hammering designs onto their copper plates and bowls filled the air. A colourful array of spices, dried fruits and nuts piled high ignited all my senses as tea sipping merchants offered samples with a smile as I walked by, intrigued by the amount of ingredients I didn’t recognize.
The city’s best baklava: Koçak
With an appetite worked up again I headed towards Koçak. Arguably among locals it’s here that you’ll find the city’s best baklava. Entering the store I wondered over to the display case. I felt as though I was on a stock market trading room floor on Wall Street. With a crowd that did not ease, each person, pointing and yelling out orders at the servers behind the display cases who hurriedly scoop and pack orders into beautiful tissue paper lined boxes. On the wall above, the 14 varieties of baklava on offer with prices lit up in red.
Perhaps seeing my overwhelmed and flustered state, a server handed me a piece of baklava with a smile. He insisted I give it a go, which I graciously accepted, along with my choice of two other varieties.
The following day as I was leaving Gaziantep, I was glad to have braved a visit to the Gastronomy city. I entered full of nerves and left feeling anxious to return. With a box of baklava in my backpack I imagined Gaziantep as the next foodie travellers city of choice. A city where history, culture and food blend together in perfect balance.