Through The Kitchen Door Antakya


We decide to discover this city (ancient Antioch), nestled against the majestic peaks of the Amanos Mountains, through its cuisine. The bridge that joins the two banks of the River Asi, which has given life to the city throughout its history, takes us straight to Uzun Çarşı, the Long Market.

Stopping at one of the many shops selling künefe (aka knaffeh, a rich pastry made of shredded filo dough filled with cheese and butter and drenched in sugar syrup) makes a tasty start to an Antakya stroll. The taste of künefe depends on the quality of the ingredients used and, even more, on the skill of the maker. So how are we to judge a good künefe?

The masters, one of Antakya’s most experienced producers of the sweet, have the answer: “Künefe pastry must be paper thin and crisp, and the cheese so fresh it will stretch to the length of a man’s height! Before you taste künefe, which is shipped frozen to customers all over the world, you can also watch it being made. After this pleasant break, our destination is the Mosaic Museum, home to one of the world’s most important collections with up to 300 mosaics produced between the 2nd and 6th centuries.

After leaving the museum, we sample the famous local cuisine at an upscale eatery ensconced in an Antioch house. The cold ‘mezze’ arrive at our table in the form of hummus (a puree of chickpeas and tahina), red pepper paste, toasted bread and ‘muhammara’, a combination of garlic, red pepper and walnuts dressed in sour pomegranate syrup.

‘Oruk’ meanwhile is grenade-shaped Antakya-style stuffed kofta, aka kibbeh. Made with plenty of ground meat and spices, it is neither boiled nor fried but baked in the oven in olive oil. One of our main dishes is ‘aşur’, made by pounding wheat, chickpeas and meat to a paste. ‘Semirsek’ meanwhile is a kind of beurek made of thin baklava-like filo leaves filled with a mixture of pounded meat, onions, parsley and an array of spices.

But this far from exhausts Antakya cuisine, which is served to guests with just pride and features other dishes such as olive salad with the local ‘zahtar’ (fresh thyme leaves), eggplant salad dressed with olive oil, and bread with red peppers in olive oil, to name just a few. The food is truly outstanding, and as we are leaving we give Sunay Akın’s words their due: “The best mezze in the world are to be had in Antakya!”

A stroll through the old quarters on the opposite bank of the Asi is one of the best ways to get a feel for the city. For preserved here in the stone-paved courtyards that join the narrow lanes are the finest examples of the old Antakya houses: Antakya House, the mansions of Fuad Kuseyri and of the Yahyaoğilları, Halepoğulları and other families.

These two- and three-story houses, the oldest of which is 200 years old, were built facing the mountains, while their stone-paved courtyards boast pools and gardens. The call of the müezzin mingles with the peal of church bells as children play marbles in the narrow cobblestone streets. A city frequently mentioned in the Bible, Antakya has a high potential for faith tourism.

And the Church of St. Peter is an important place of pilgrimage for Christians in this city which is home to the first church after the one at Jerusalem. Our extended stroll through these streets steeped in history is enough to whet our appetites.

Our destination this time is Harbiye, 10 kilometers outside the city and a resort area going back to Roman times, where hidden waterfalls rush down into a deep, wooded valley. Offering the full range of Antakya cuisine, the restaurants at Harbiye are true palate pleasers.

And olive oil soap, and the silk scarves and hope chests produced in the neighboring villages are sold in shops on the road to the falls. Refreshing to body and spirit with its pure air and outstanding cuisine, Harbiye is great for a day’s outing, and we are mighty glad we came here.

One thing you will find in abundance in Antakya’s famous Long Market is sour pomegranate syrup, which is used to flavor everything from salads to dolma. Sold in bottles of various sizes, this magical sauce is not made from just any pomegranate.

The viscous liquid obtained from prolonged boiling in giant cauldrons of the tart, dark red pomegranates unique to Antakya can also be diluted with water to taste. Pomegranate syrup, which keeps for five years without spoiling, is also a boon for diabetics.