It is impossible to sleep late in Gaziantep, despite the tranquility of the historic quarter, the calming, hunker-in-and-go-back-to-sleep effect of the hotel room’s thick stone walls and the comforting, dusty smell of antique furniture. Even the promise of a nice breakfast spread served between 7:30 and 10 a.m. could not keep us from hitting this ancient southeastern Turkish city’s streets.
At 6 a.m., we were rambling through Gaziantep’s coppersmiths’ bazaar. As we walked by, the metal shutters of spice shops were thrown open in a clattering roar, whooshing an aromatic cloud into our path. Street sweepers worked their beat with twiggy, homemade-looking brooms as groups of shopkeepers lingered over the first of many more teas and smokes at the corner çayhane. Exiting another artery of covered bazaars, we stepped out into bright morning light, which shot through the brooms of street sweepers at rest, creating crazy mangrove-like shadows on the sidewalk. We were close now, so close we could smell it.
The early-morning beyran çorbası ritual of Gaziantep is something we’ve always enjoyed when visiting the city, because consuming this breakfast soup scratches a deep itch that few other morning meals have ever touched. The spicing is more intense than that of almost any Turkish food, the broth vaguely reminds us of gumbo and the meat (lamb, of course) of finely shredded barbecue. This soup is unique for Turkish cuisine in general and certainly a most unusual way to start the day.
Walking into Metanet Lokantası, the city’s foremost beyran institution, when it is thrumming between 6 and 8 a.m. feels like a college bar at happy hour. Friends and colleagues gather around long tables, loners straggle in wearing sweatpants and flip-flops for a quick one, and the waiters, slammed, race against the clock that everyone in the place is watching. The open kitchen is a hive of activity: jet-like blasts of blue fire under a bowl held by pliers, a near-instant frothy boil and belches of steam, a trained hand flicks a liberal spoonful of bright red pepper flakes into the bowl, an usta steadily sifts handfuls of poached lamb from a huge loose pile in front of him. Soon, everyone in here will be clocking in someplace, and these ustas will have their pants rolled up to their knees, hosing the place down, but for this brief time at Metanet, something sacred is taking place. Though luxurious kebab houses are the toast of today’s Antep society, beyran reveals something primordial. This soup is in the city’s DNA.
The owner of Metanet, Hacı Mustafa, was apprentice to İmam Çağdaş (of local kebab fame), back when beyran was still one of Çağdaş’s main interests. Ökkeş Bey, a waiter here since 1987, compared the soup’s effect to doping or magically boosting the body’s immune system. Since he entered the beyran business at the age of eight, he’s been eating it daily and attributes his good health to this ritual. “It’s like an antibiotic – I’ve never been to the doctor for a shot. And I’m full until evening,” he said.
We cannot deny the transformative effects of a bowl of beyran. It’s a mind-altering assault on the senses. Breathing in a head of strong garlic and red-pepper-laced lamb stock is the first stage of this eye-opener. Churning with our spoon revealed a stratum of rice under shreds of lamb. If you get scalded on the first spoonful, as we did, not to worry – this soup is engineered to arouse even the sleepiest, most callused taste buds. The effect of it is instantaneous: sweat dripped into our eyes, our fingers got burned from the hot metal bowl and our tongue scorched from the broth. We huffed against the spicy heat, waving a hand in the air, begging for seconds. We might have looked like tourists in the most dire of circumstances, but damn it, we felt Antepli.
Back in Istanbul, we get our beyran fix at a kebab house with an usta from Antep right there making the soup. It tastes excellent, by the way, but it is generally ordered along with a full meal of kebab and salad and maybe some künefe or something afterward. The place doesn’t even open before lunchtime.
Taking part in the beyran ritual in situ gave meaning to an old saying often repeated to us by Musa Dağdeviren, founder of Çiya, when talking about regional cuisines that pop up in Istanbul: “Taş yerinde ağırdır.” The stone is heavy in its place.