The flavors of southeast Turkey

This region is renowned for its cuisine and a visit there comes highly recommended.

May 23, 2013 14:44
Gaziantep food - lahmacun (also known as lahmajun).

Gaziantep food lahmacun 370. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In preparation for my lecture on Turkish food at this month’s Anatolian Cultures and Food Festival in California, Yakir and I have been reflecting on our most delicious memories from our visits to Turkey.  We agreed that the trips we took to southeast Anatolia offered us the most delightful gastronomic adventures.

In Turkey the southeastern region is renowned for its cuisine.  On our first visit to Istanbul, whenever we asked people what Turkish city is best known for its food, the place most often recommended was Gaziantep (also known as Antep).  “You must go there,” they said, “to have the best kebabs and the best baklava.”  And so, on our next trips to Turkey we went to explore the cuisine of that area.  Thanks to the guidance of the project coordinator of the Southeastern Anatolia Guide, food maven Filiz Hosukoglu, we savored a variety of local specialties.  (To read this guide, see first taste of Gaziantep food was homemade lahmacun (also known as lahmajun).  Often described as meat-topped pizza, it’s popular throughout Turkey.  This one had a very thin, tender crust and a fine layer of well-seasoned lamb.  (See recipe below.)

A Gaziantep specialty that was new to us was yuvarlama, a rich soup with chickpeas, tiny chickpea-size meatballs and lamb cubes, garnished with a sprinkling of mint.  We also enjoyed Urfa’s celebrated ground lamb kebabs, and the somewhat spicier ground lamb kebabs of Adana.  In the city of Besni we lunched on Besni tava, a baked casserole of eggplant, semi-hot peppers, whole garlic cloves, tomatoes and diced lamb, served with fresh-baked Turkish flatbread.

There were plenty of delectable sweets too.  Kunefeh (the Turkish word for knafe) is prepared in many areas of Turkey, but Antakya is most famous for it.  There we had a wonderful version of this pastry, made with kadaif (filo “noodles”), filled with cheese, sweetened with syrup and sprinkled with pistachios.

We also liked the halva of Antakya, which is made of semolina and enriched with diced unsalted cheese.  A tasty dessert we sampled in Adiyaman--sillik--was made of thin walnut-filled pancakes that were sliced and sweetened with concentrated local grape juice (pekmez).  Perhaps the most memorable treat was a sweet pastry we had in Gaziantep called katmer, composed of paper-thin pastry filled with kaymak (ultra-rich cream) and pistachios.

In southeast Anatolia the food is spicier than elsewhere in Turkey.  Peppers grow best in that area of the country, and the sweet-spicy pepper flakes of Maras, the hot, dark-red pepper flakes of Urfa, and Antep red pepper paste were our choice souvenirs to take back home.  Cooks use the pepper paste like tomato paste, often combining tomato and pepper pastes in stews and grain dishes.  Pepper paste is also useful in marinades for grilled meat and adds a wonderful flavor to Turkish tabbouleh, known as kisir, which is often flavored with pomegranate paste.

Tahini is used in savory dishes in southeast Anatolia, whereas Turks from other regions told us that they knew tahini only as a component of sweet foods.  Hummus is more popular in this region than in other areas of Turkey.  We also ate another kind of chickpea spread in sandwiches at a simple workmen’s eatery in Gaziantep’s market. The sandwich filling was like hummus without tahini; it was composed of mashed, freshly cooked chickpeas topped with diced red pepper and onion, and was rolled in fresh Turkish flatbread similar to laffa.

This region’s cuisine is closely tied to the products of the land.  In the villages of southeast Turkey people raise sheep, and the lamb there is considered the best in the country.  The excellence of the baklava could be attributed to the area’s superb butter and the delicious pistachios from nearby orchards, as well as the expertise of the area’s pastry chefs.  Our favorite local baklava, shaped like stuffed grape leaves and therefore called dolma, is green because it is so rich in chopped fresh pistachios that they show through the wafer-thin, translucent pastry.

To us what is most appealing about southeast Anatolia is that its character is Middle Eastern in so many ways–its olive trees, its fig trees, its culture and the flavor of its food.

Lahmacun - Southeastern Turkey Flatbread with Spicy Lamb Topping

This recipe is from “Sultan’s Kitchen.”  Author Ozcan Ozan recommends serving it with lemon wedges and parsley sprigs.

Makes 8 servings

225 grams (1/2 pound) medium-lean lamb
1 small onion, finely diced (1/2 cup)
3 plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded and finely diced (1 cup)
1/2 bunch finely chopped parsley
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon Turkish red pepper (semi-hot) or other semi-hot Middle Eastern ground red pepper
2 teaspoons paprika
1/2 cup cold water
Pita bread dough (see recipe below)
Cornmeal, for dusting

To prepare the topping, combine the lamb, onion, tomatoes, parsley, garlic, red pepper, paprika and cold water in a bowl and mix well.  Season with salt.

Preheat oven to 220C (450F).  Place a pizza stone or quarry tile on middle rack of oven.

Dust your fingers with flour.  On a cool, lightly floured work surface (preferably marble), turn out the pita dough once it has risen to double its size.  Gently punch out the air and roll out the dough into a cylinder.  Cut it into 8 equal pieces with a sharp knife.  Shape each piece into a ball, then press each ball with the heel of your palm to flatten it.  Loosely cover the dough with plastic wrap or a damp cloth and let it rest in a warm place for about 20 minutes.

To assemble, flatten each piece of dough with the heel of your palm once again.  Using a rolling pin, roll out each piece of dough into a 25-cm (10-inch) circle.  Divide the lamb mixture among the rounds of dough, spreading it thinly and leaving a 1.25-cm (1/2-inch) border around the edges.

Sprinkle cornmeal over the pizza stone or on your baker’s peel.  Bake the lahmacuns in batches for about 7 minutes each batch, until the meat is browned.  Serve warm or at room temperature. 

Pita Bread Dough

Use this dough, from “Sultan’s Kitchen,” for baking pita or for making lahmacun.

Makes enough for 8 lahmacun

1 tablespoon active dry yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
1 3/4 cups warm water (43C or 110F)
4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons salt

In a small bowl, mix together the yeast, sugar and 1/2 cup of the warm water. Stir and dissolve the yeast well.  Let the mixture stand in a warm place for about 10 minutes, until it is frothy.

Sift 1 cup of flour into a large bowl.  Add yeast mixture and stir well.  Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let it rest in a warm place for 30 minutes, until the mixture has a spongy texture.  Sift remaining flour onto this mixture.  Add the salt and remaining 1 1/4 cups warm water, and stir well.

Turn out the dough onto a cool, lightly floured work surface (preferably marble), and sprinkle it with flour.  Dust your fingers with flour so they won’t stick to the dough, and knead the dough for 10 minutes until it’s firm and not sticky.  Place dough in a lightly oiled bowl and cover loosely with plastic wrap or a damp cloth.  Let it rest for 1 hour, or until dough doubles in size.

Turkish Tomato and Onion Dip

There are many ways to make this bright red, spicy salad-dip from eastern Turkey, which is also popular in Israel as “Salat Turki” or Turkish salad.  In Turkey it might be seasoned with red pepper paste or with semi-hot red pepper, as well as pomegranate paste.  Some make it entirely from raw vegetables, while others saute the onions.  It might be a simple mixture of tomato paste, onions and spice or a more elaborate blend that includes fresh tomatoes, green peppers, cucumber, garlic and herbs.  Favorite flavorings are coriander, cumin, parsley, dill and mint.

This salad is good served alongside eggplant or hummus, or as an accompaniment for meat.

Makes 4 to 6 servings

1 medium onion, preferably mild, chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1/4 cup small flat-leaf parsley sprigs
2 large ripe tomatoes, peeled and cut in chunks (see note below)
1/2 cup tomato paste
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon Middle Eastern red pepper or 1/4 teaspoon cayenne, or more to taste
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon vinegar (optional)

If the onion is very pungent, put it in a colander, sprinkle it with salt and let stand for 10 minutes; rinse and drain. Combine onion, parsley and tomatoes in a food processor and chop until fine but not pureed.  Transfer to a bowl and stir in tomato paste, coriander, paprika, red pepper and oil. Add vinegar if you like, and salt and pepper to taste.  Mixture should be a thick dip but if it’s too thick, stir in 2 tablespoons water. Refrigerate 1 hour so flavors blend.  You can keep it for 1 day but if you keep it longer than that, the onion flavor may get too strong.

Note: You can omit the step of peeling the tomatoes if the skins don’t bother you; or you can grate the tomatoes on a coarse grater and most of the skins will stay behind.

* Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.

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