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Text: MELİH USLU Photos: BARIŞ HASAN BEDİR
Ramazan fest in Gaziantep
During Ramazan, in Antep, the array is even richer with its famous kebabs, baklavas and long-simmered stews.
In Turkey's southeastern city of Gaziantep, Ramazan commences with the stringing of lights between the minarets. Its legendary feasts are open to rich and poor alike, both to strangers and to gatherings of close friends. A crossroads of cultures for four millennia, Gaziantep's unique flavors are a blend of Anatolian, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines. Be the guests rich or poor, the flavors of the Ramazan feast are something else entirely. What's more, if you experience Ramazan in Gaziantep, gastronomy capital of Anatolia, you'll want to come back for more.
IT'S TIME TO EAT!
With a past going back eight thousand years, Gaziantep has played host to some of the oldest civilizations in human history. Scenting out the natural flavors of its extraordinary blend of Anatolian, Mediterranean and Arab cuisines is therefore a unique experience. Kebab immediately springs to mind at the mention of Antep today. But when you come to this city, whose culinary tradition makes it the capital of the East, you'll soon see that its food, treated as a branch of the fine arts, does not consist merely of kebab. Prepared with an artist's care, meals are transformed into virtual feasts, and the quality of the food in Antep cuisine is measured by the amount of work that goes into it.
As you stroll around the city, it won't take you long to realize that the people here are fond of food. All year round the savory aroma of kebab rises from restaurants at first light, as if in anticipation of the Ramazan breakfast hour. And it is not unusual for kebab restaurants to do a good business from iftar in the evening right up to sahur in the morning. Cağırtlak kebab, a 'national' breakfast of the local people and made of organ meats such as liver, heart and kidney, is a popular sahur dish as well. If you go by what the local kebab chefs say, there are more than eighty varieties of kebab in Gaziantep. Besides interesting ones such as vegetable kebab, potato kebab, garlic kebab, okra kebab, onion kebab and even 'simit' kebab, kebabs made with fruit are another area favorite. Kebabs featuring apples, pears, sour cherries, peaches and loquats reflect a harmony of flavors unique to the local cuisine. Besides kebabs, Antep-style rice pilaffs number among the indispensable dishes of the Ramazan dinner table. The most favored among these pilaffs, in which the rice is first sauteed in olive oil and which are enriched Antep-style with onion, tomato paste, peppers, fruit and a host of spices, are pilaff with meat, 'firik' pilaff made with boiled, pounded unripe wheat, stuffing pilaff made with pine nuts and currants, lentil pilaff, and bulgur pilaff with vegetables.
A RICH CUISINE
Ramazan in Gaziantep resembles a giant dinner table set in the Southeast of the country, and there is no doubt that it exercises a pervasive influence over everyday life and eating habits. As Ramazan approaches houses buzz pleasantly with a flurry of activity. The best eggplants, red peppers, berries, plums and apricots are selected and dried, waiting to be used in stuffed vegetable 'dolma', Noah's pudding or simply as stewed fruit. Tomatoes are turned into sauce and cabbages into pickles, and vine leaves are preserved in brine. Spices, which give food its flavor, are chosen with care and purchased from the historic shops in the Elmacı Pazarı. The finest olive oil, the freshest butter, the tastiest bulghur are stored. The pale flicker of sahur lights seeping from houses before the crack of dawn heralds the start of Ramazan. Likewise the long lines that form in front of bakeries at dusk. Bakeries that produce not only the sesame or egg 'pide' flat breads special to Ramazan but which, upon request, will also cook whole trays of food for big families. Like the piping hot, fresh-from-the-oven pide's of Ramazan, 'çiğköfte', a Turkish steak tartare made with highly spiced, raw minced lamb, is another sine qua non of the month of fasting. The brightly lit shop windows where it is being kneaded fresh are your first clue that iftar is only minutes away. Green-hued beams emanating from the minaret lamps are another indication that Ramazan has come. It is customary for Antep people to step outside at dawn to eat 'katmer' or cağırtlak kebab washed down with 'beyran'. Normally made in restaurants and not at home, beyran is available only at breakfast. Made with neck and shin meat left on the bone, garlic, black pepper, rice and salt, beyran is served in a deep bowl with pounded fresh garlic and hot red pepper. Another traditional dish special to Ramazan in Antep is 'yuvarlama', the preparation of which takes days and requires a minimum of three or four people to knead the tiny balls of raw meat with chopped onion, black pepper and rice. Cooked over medium heat with stewed lamb meat on top, this dish is served with thick strained yoghurt.
DOZENS OF LOCAL SOUPS...
A sudden bombardment with food could be a shock to the empty stomach after a day of fasting. To prevent this, iftar starts with light snacks. Popular starters are dates or olives. Piping hot pide or lavash, a paper thin flat bread, is served with butter, country cheese, hot red pepper paste, honey and tea, and the main dish is saved for after the evening prayers. Following a short break, the soup is the first dish to arrive on the table. You will encounter in Antep more soups than you've ever seen in your life, many of which are unique to the region. Once the appetite has been whetted with one of these soups, almost all of which are highly spiced, the piece de résistance arrives on the table, which is already laden with dolma's, meatballs, salads and pickles and pastes. Local etiquette therefore demands that one take only a small taste of everything offered up to that point so as to leave plenty of room for the main course, which is usually made with meat and oil. The various kebabs make an ideal choice as well. The regional cuisine also offers many alternatives for the younger generation, who find the traditional stews oily and calorific: tomato soup, 'kabaklama' made with courgettes, and chickpeas, grilled eggplant, kamış yahnisi, and acur muntaniyesi made with yoghurt are just a few Antep-style vegetable dishes that are extremely light and healthful. Green almond stew is one of Antep cuisine's must-taste specialties. Here's how to make it: Soak some chickpeas overnight and add with salt to chunks of boiling stew meat. Then add the pitted and parboiled green almonds. On the side mix one egg and a little olive oil with three cups of strained yoghurt and cook. When the yoghurt begins to boil up, pour over the stew in the other pot and cook for a few more minutes. Finally, drizzle with sizzling oil flavored with saffron and black pepper and your green almond stew is ready to be served!
ENDLESS VARIETIES OF BAKLAVA
Classic Antep dishes like beyran, erik tavası, a stew made with greengage plums, lamb, pearl onions and whole cloves of garlic, and şiveydiz, a stew of lamb, leeks, garlic and chickpeas, contain such indispensable local ingredients as bulghur, yoghurt, tomato paste, onion, pistachios, chickpeas, saffron, thyme, mint, cumin, fennel, sumac, sour pomegranate syrup and unripe grapes. Once you've tasted them, it's time to eat and talk sweets, for Antep is as famous for its baklava as it is for its kebabs. The secret of Antep baklava, which is not only tasty but which stays fresh for a long time, is the mixture of milk and semolina spread between the thin layers of dough, as well of course as its being made with pistachios and pure butter. But baklava is not the only sweet in Antep cuisine. Besides güllaç, a pudding rich in pomegranates and made only in Ramazan, there are şöbiyet (baklava with clotted cream), rice pudding, wire kadayif or shredded pastry baked in syrup, zerde (saffron-flavored rice pudding), flour helva with cheese, and semolina helva with pistachios, all of which add prestige to the Ramazan spread. But the most fitting end to a long and pleasant Ramazan dinner is foamy 'menengiç' coffee. Traditionally drunk after dinner and dessert, menengiç coffee is prepared by boiling ground roasted pistachio nuts in the manner of Turkish coffee. In Ramazan, it's hard to imagine a richer variety of food to appeal to both
the eye and the stomach anywhere outside of Antep. Try it. You'll see!