Two women sit facing each other on a rug as they chat and roll out rounds of bread dough using thin batons of wood. Beside them, another woman stretches a dough circle further as she holds it over a wood-burning, dome-shaped griddle, or saç, turning it around and around until it’s firm, crisp and golden. The result is a stack of paper-thin flatbreads known as yufka.
Down the street, their neighbors mix a fiery chili and cheese paste that will top katikli ekmek. These smaller, thicker circles of dough are baked on their sides in the cylindrical tandir oven, resulting in crunchy, spicy breads that look like mini pizzas. The breads will accompany a lunch eaten under the trees in the Turkish village of Defne, said to be the very place where — in Greek mythology — the maiden Daphne was turned into a laurel tree to escape the affections of Apollo. The village is still famous for its highly scented bay leaves.
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Our meal is arranged in a colorful display of dishes. They include local green olives cracked and drizzled with pomegranate syrup; a memorable aromatic salad of fresh mountain thyme leaves; hummus made from just-ground sesame seeds; stringy cheese to eat with pickled walnuts and candied orange peel; cucumber and tomatoes; and a salty goat’s yogurt that is made just once a year — and keeps for months.
Partaking of this idyllic feast, it’s hard to imagine that just 25 miles away, on the other side of the mountains to the east, the fighting in Syria is continuing. We’re in southeastern Turkey, in the large province of Hatay, whose capital city, Antakya, is on a level with Aleppo. I’ve come to this southern part of Anatolia to attend the Mediterranean Culinary Days, an event organized by the governor of the province, Celalettin Lekesiz, with the Hatay City Innovation Platform.
“We are making a bid for Hatay to be included in UNESCO’s Cities of Gastronomy, and we’re holding this three-day food festival to celebrate it,” the governor explains as he greets us. The event features many aspects of Hatay’s local food culture and also showcases the cuisine of 17 Mediterranean countries through demonstrations and meals prepared by cooks from the participating nations.
Hatay is no stranger to this kind of multiculturalism. The ancient city of Antioch-on-the-Orontes lies beneath modern Antakya and was known for its religious and ethnic tolerance.
“This area was conquered by 12 civilizations, including the Hittites, Greeks, Byzantines and Romans,” Lekesiz notes. “It has long been home to large Jewish and Christian populations, who live peacefully alongside Muslims here. We are proud of that and want to build on this important heritage.” The city has recently restored what is believed to be the very first Christian church: a lofty vaulted space in a natural cave carved out of the mountain above Hatay.
The Mediterranean’s most iconic plants forge another bond between its communities. In the extensive mosaic floors from ancient Rome on display in Antakya’s magnificent Archaelogical Museum, it’s easy to spot the plants we’re familiar with today that define so much of the area’s food culture: grapevines, olive trees and pomegranates.
These and other local edible plants are to be found in abundance in the city’s colorful covered market, or bazaar, situated in the old part of Antakya near the river. Rosy pistachios have just been harvested and are on display with sweet walnuts in heaped baskets. Shiny jujube fruits vie for space with tiny okra, white eggplant and fresh mint.
Spice stalls not to be missed
The spice stalls are irresistible. I filled a suitcase with little bags of freshly ground paprikas in different “strengths”; a piquant chili and tomato paste called domates salçasi that adds exoticism to any dish; fragrant coriander and pearly sesame seeds; dried white mulberries; and the most surprising of all, strings of dried, hollowed-out eggplant shells resembling Hawaiian flower garlands. These last for months and can be soaked in water, stuffed and baked for out-of-season eggplant dishes.
A trip to the bazaar would not be complete without a slice of Hatay’s favorite dessert, künefe. People come from all over Turkey to taste this delicious, unusual tart. The best are cooked over wood embers in wide copper baking rounds at special shops in and around the market. A layer of mild, stretchy cheese is sandwiched between two layers of buttery chopped kadayif, vermicelli-like strands of filo pastry. The kadayif is made in separate stalls near the bakeries, by cooking runny strings of batter on a circular griddle that looks like a DJ’s giant turntable. As the dough firms, it’s scooped off the heat and set aside.
The trick with cooking künefe is to know when the bottom layer of kadayif is golden brown and has fused — like a cross between pommes Anna and shredded wheat — into a crisp, even layer. That’s when the pie is flipped over and cooked to golden on the other side. While still hot, a mild sugar syrup is ladled over the künefe before it’s cut into pieces, sprinkled with chopped pistachios and served. Unlike many desserts of the region, künefe is never overly sweet; it’s a rare and wonderful speciality that deserves to be better known, as does the culinary culture of Hatay.
Main photo: Turkish women in the village of Defne in Hatay province roll out the dough for yufka flatbreads. Credit: Carla Capalbo