Ankara is the political capital of Turkey and Istanbul is Turkey’s cultural capital. If you ask most Turkish people what the culinary capital of Turkey is, then there is a high chance they will tell you it is Gaziantep, referred to simply as Antep by locals. Antep is the city’s old name – the “Gazi”, which means war veteran was added following the city’s heroic defence in World War I.
Located down in the South East, Gaziantep has been home to many different civilizations. As a result it is bursting with a rich mix of cuisines – the food here has Turkish, Arabic, Assyrian and Kurdish influences, and is quickly gaining a reputation as a food lover’s paradise. It first gained fame for its baklava which is second to none. However these days it offers the food lover so much more. Its kebabs are the yardstick against which all other kebabs are measured against and it has a number of other specialty dishes that are a huge draw card for visitors all over Turkey who travel here for a weekend of feasting. Gaziantep is surrounded by rich agricultural land, and the area is one of Turkey’s top producers of lamb and pistachios which is probably why the kebabs and baklava are so darn good here. Turkey’s 6th most populous city, Gaziantep has a population of around 1.7 million people.
Gaziantep has a number of signature dishes:
Kebabs – almost everywhere you go in Gaziantep you can find amazing kebabs, but perhaps the most famous place to eat them is at Imam Cagdas restaurant, run by the fourth generation of the family that started it. Whatever the secret used by local chefs, these kebabs are delicious – so tender they melt in your mouth.
Baklava – this dessert is considered the best in Turkey, and there are over 180 pastry shops in the city producing the sweet, sticky delight that is baklava. Head to the Gaziantep airport on a Sunday night and you’ll see countless weekend visitors heading home, carrying a box of this sweet treat.
Yuvalama – this is tiny meatballs made with lamb mince and ground rice added to a yoghurt soup with a mint sauce, resulting in an incredible combination of tastes and textures.
Beyran – a cross between stew and soup, made from lamb slow-cooked on the bone for around 12 hours, rice, garlic, spices, pepper and broth. It’s actually eaten as a breakfast dish in Gaziantep, and if you want to try it, make sure you go out to eat early. The breakfast rush for this dish starts at 5am, and it is so popular that it can quickly clear from local cafes and restaurants, sometimes as early as 8am.
Lahmacun – while you can eat this all over Turkey, Gaziantep lahmacun is prepared with garlic, and is light as can be, making it a taste sensation.
Gaziantep is undergoing some serious rejuvenation. In the last 10 years, the city has lovingly restored more than 1500 buildings – old caravanserais and fortresses are being restored, and abandoned buildings in its Armenian quarter are having life breathed back into them, being renovated as hotels and cafes. There’s a citadel in the middle of the city, and just walking through the town is like being in a large open air museum. Gaziantep receives few international visitors and in spite of a few language issues you’ll be sure to receive a warm welcome wherever you go.
When you are not busy sampling the city’s tasty treasures, make sure you don’t miss out on a visit to the Zeugma Mosaic Museum which has a collection of beautiful mosaics excavated from the Roman site of Belkıs-Zeugma before it was flooded by the Birecik Dam. Also worth a visit is the Culinary Museum, a former home, now dedicated to sharing Gaziantep’s culinary traditions with visitors.
Also be sure to take a stroll through the Coppersmith Bazaar (Bakircilar Çarsisi) which is guaranteed to charm you with its cobblestone streets. Here you will see coppersmiths at work and a huge range of copper products, many of them featuring intricate engraving work. This art has a strong tradition in Gaziantep, and dates back around 500 years, although it is in danger of dying out as local youth pursue other options, abandoning the trade of their forefathers. The bazaar and its craftsmen are the subject of a project by the local municipality aimed at keeping this tradition alive.
When you’re ready to leave, some bars of the city’s famous green olive-oil based soap, famous all over Turkey, and exported to other countries makes the perfect gift. And and of course, don’t forget to get a bag of Gaziantep’s famous pistachios to nibble on as you travel.
If you are interested in visiting Gaziantep, Fez’s Eastern Turkey Tour includes a visit to this wonderful city.