Eating the East: A Culinary tour of South-East Turkey

This post originally appeared on Maptia

One bright spring day in Istanbul I was sitting in the courtyard of the Blue mosque when a local struck up a conversation. After the standard opener of ‘Oh, Australia! Çok uzak! Do you like kangaroos? Are you friends with Harry Kewell?’ common to most conversations here, the topic turned east. Turns out, my young friend was from Van, and he was thrilled when I said I was planning to visit the ‘Güney-Doğu’.

The south-east of the country isn’t on most travellers’ itineraries when they visit Turkey. Physically and culturally, it’s miles away from the hustle of Istanbul and the beachcombers of the Mediterranean, and the fact that most of the region borders Syria and Iraq, the area doesn’t exactly scream ‘tourism’. But one of the main reasons for visiting the south-east is the food. Turkish food is delicious by any measure, but the cuisine in the east is the stuff of legend. Much of the food that has put Turkey on the international gastronomical map originates in the area. As my newfound friend at the blue mosque said, “you will love it, but be careful- you will put on 15kg”. It was a challenge I was willing to accept.

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Our first stop is Hatay, a small slice of land wedged between Syria and the Mediterranean Sea. Hatay has had a colourful history- traditionally multi-ethnic, you’re just as likely to hear Arabic on the streets as you are Turkish. At one point it was even it’s own republic. There’s also a sizeable Christian population, and it’s a refreshing change being woken up by church bells instead of the regular call-to-prayer that serves as my 5am alarm clock in Istanbul. We saunter through the meandering bazaar, our stomachs rumbling at the smells of the spicy mezes and rich, cheesy breads that waft through the alleys. We watch men throwing stringy cheese over giant hot plates, which will later be used for Kunefe, the local desert that Hatay is famous for. And oh, the Kunefe. A cheesy pastry soaked in sweet syrup, it is best served hot with a dollop of ice cream or kaymak (Turkish clotted cream). I went back so regularly the waiter laughed and started calling me Mr. Kewell.

Mention Gaziantep to a Turk and only one word will be on their lips: pistachios. The fertile land surrounding what is considered the gateway to the south-east is perfect for growing the little green nuts, and the locals certainly make the most of it; almost every dish is sprinkled, nay, covered in it. The centre of Gaziantep is a cacophony of sound: vendors on the street bang their bells touting pistachio ice-cream, coppersmiths hammer away busily in their stores, and people so surprised to see tourists they keep wishing us a ‘Happy Turkey’. We make a beeline for Imam Çağdaş, a restaurant recommended to us by almost every person to have ever been to Gaziantep that specialises in the most Turkish of foods: kebabs and baklava. There isn’t much choice on the menu but quality over quantity is the order of the day here. The baklava is nothing but divine- still warm, the layers of crumbly pastry dipped in syrup and rolled in pistachios melt in our mouths…and hearts.

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A recommendation from a friend in Istanbul brings us to the home of Aziz in the centre of Şanlıurfa, more commonly known simply as Urfa. The courtyard of the thousand year old building shelters us from the baking mid-afternoon heat as Aziz and his wife Feride treat us to a concise history of Urfa over çay. Believed to be the birthplace of the prophet Ibrahim, Urfa is one of the holiest cities in Islam. While our dinner is cooking we take a stroll through Baliklıgöl, a lake full of holy fish, created after Abraham battled with Nimrod and turned a giant fire into the lake. Eating the fish apparently causes blindness so we settle for a home cooked patlacanlı kebap (eggplant kebab) from Feride. The next day Aziz takes us to his family farm, and we spend a few hours attempting to pick tomatoes and being scolded by the workers for our lack of farming skills. Despite being in Turkey for almost a year, Urfa is the first time I’ve felt like I’m truly in the Middle East, and it is so exciting.

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We arrive in Mardin just in time for the start of Ramadan (Ramazan in Turkish), the Muslim holy month where everyone fasts from dawn to dusk. The city is perched on the side of a hill looking over the plains of the Fertile Crescent. It’s easy to imagine pilgrims and silk traders traversing the harsh fields, celebrating as Mardin rises up on the horizon, a sandstone jewel in the crown of Mesopotamia. As the sun lowers over the old city bathing everything in a golden light, the streets come alive with people rushing to buy bread and last minute ingredients for the nightly Iftar. The excitement is palpable. The minute the sun sets and the cannon sounds, I swear I can hear the whole city tucking into their meals. Even though we weren’t fasting we treated ourselves to a gigantic Iftar meal, our table literally covered with salads, meats, breads and desserts. We manage to make an impressive dent but the satisfied groans of everyone around us puts our efforts to shame.

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Nestled in among the cliffs of the mighty Tigris river is Hasankeyf, a small town of just 3000 people.This is one of the oldest settlements in the region, dating back to 3000BC. The effects of Ramazan are much more noticeable here; there isn’t a single cafe or restaurant open. We meet some locals, and they take us on a hike in the blistering sun up to the ancient caves in the cliffs surrounding the town. We arrive at a secret oasis with a small waterfall trickling down the cliff-face, and are presented with a feast of locally-grown watermelon, tomatoes and cucumbers, deliciously cool after sitting in the spring nearby. We spend the next two days exploring the wonders of this ancient town, which tragically will be flooded by a new dam downstream in just a couple of years. As we climb the castle to watch the sunrise on our final day, overlooking a landscape that will soon be underwater, I am so angry that I can’t even bring myself to make dam puns.

Diyarbakir’s ancient and imposing city walls betray a proud city, rough around the edges but full of charm. This has long been the centre of the Kurdish resistance movement, and the city has seen more than it’s fair share of skirmishes over the years. The Kurds – Turkey’s most significant minority almost entirely situated in the country’s south-east – have long fought more more rights and fairer treatment from the government, and although the struggle still continues today the city is slowly opening itself up to tourism. After escaping the heat in the city’s grand mosque, we head to one of the city’s numerous Lahmacun restaurants. A type of Turkish-style pizza with a thin crust, Lahmacun is topped with mince meat and spices and garnished with parsley and lemon juice. Later on we drink meningiç in an old caravanserai, a local coffee blend made from the terebinth tree. Most other countries use terebinth for making turpentine, but I’m glad the industrious Kurds found another use for it.

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I arrive in Van in the Far East of the country with one thing on my mind: breakfast. The city is famous for it’s decadent morning meal that consists of more spreads and cheeses than thought humanly possible, accompanied by delicious çörek bread. Being the middle of Ramadan none of the city’s numerous Kahvaltı salons are open regular hours, so we do as locals do and indulge in a 2am feast sitting in the crowded streets for ‘Sarhur’, the last meal before dawn. After a lazy morning digesting our breakfast we head to the nearby island of Akdamar, which hosts a 1000-year old Armenian church blessed with incredible vistas over the lake and the old Armenian highlands. Van was struck by a devastating earthquake in 2012, and the effects are still showing. But the city is rebuilding, and it’s youthful, cosmopolitan atmosphere is in stark contrast to the conservatism of the cities further south. As we silently tuck into another gigantic kahvaltı, I have nothing but hope for this city.

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Eastern hospitality continues to prove fruitful, with a day of hitchhiking to Kars involving europop-loving soldiers, free roadside lunches and a man who wanted to trade my phone for three plums. I’d first heard about Kars reading Orhan Pamuk’s brilliant novel Snow, a biting commentary of Turkey’s struggles between east and west set in Kars amidst a devastating winter blizzard. In reality the town is much brighter; a history of Russian occupation gives it a distinct European feel despite its eastern location. The town is famous for its strong cheese and sweet honey; almost every second shop sells giant wheels of the stuff. But our main reason for coming to Kars is actually for the ancient Armenian town called Ani. We spend hours exploring what’s left of the city under the ever-watchful eye of the border guards, marvelling at how such a grand city can be reduced to little more than some crumbling stones.

South-East Turkey may not have the greatest reputation for tourism, but my friend at the blue mosque was spot on: never have I experienced such friendly people, incredible landscapes and a varied (if only slightly troubled) history. Each town in the South-East feels completely different from the one preceding it, and at times we could have been in Lebanon, Syria, Armenia or even Russia. And then of course there’s the food; if it wasn’t for the amount of walking we did, my friend would also have been right about the 15kg. With towns like Hasankeyf under threat, there’s never been more reasons to visit. After a year of living in Turkey, it has completely reignited my love for this incredible country.

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