Editor’s note: For the first installment of CB Book Club, in which we’ll occasionally feature interviews with authors of cookbooks and other food-related books, we spoke to the author of a landmark work on Gaziantep cooking.
For many (us here at Culinary Backstreets included), the city of Gaziantep is without a doubt the culinary mecca of Turkey. Located not far from Turkey’s southern border, a meeting point between the Arab Middle East and Turkish Anatolia, Gaziantep over the centuries has developed a culinary culture that is deeply rooted in the rhythm of the agricultural lands surrounding it and that is maintained with great pride and honor by the city’s cooks and food makers. Gaziantep is also the source for many of Turkish cuisine’s iconic dishes – the city’s famous baklava is without compare and its kebabs are truly works of art, the standard by which all others are measured.
Visiting Gaziantep is not a problem (CB, in fact, is offering a three-day guided culinary tour there September 14-16), but the challenge has always been how to recreate the city’s sublime food back at home, especially since there are few if any foreign-language cookbooks devoted to Gaziantep cooking. That has now changed with the publication of A Taste of Fire & Sun: Gaziantep Cookery, a comprehensive cookbook edited by Turkish food writer Aylin Öney Tan. Originally a project initiated by the city’s Chamber of Commerce, the book – which has wonderful photos by Tuba Şatana and evocative illustrations by Suzan Aral – was compiled using recipes not from professional chefs but from a group of five Gaziantep home cooks who had earned local renown for their cooking and had actually published Turkish-language cookbooks of their own.
We recently had a chance to speak with Öney Tan about the project and the resulting cookbook; our interview with her is below.
There seems to be general agreement that Gaziantep is the capital of Turkish food — what makes the city such a unique culinary spot?
I think mostly it is the passion of Gaziantep people for their food. Few other cities take so much pride in their food. And of course it is so diverse; many people think it must be mostly about kebabs and baklavas, but there is also home cooking with an amazing range of yogurt dishes, stews with fruits, wonderfully rich pilafs, the versatile use of bulgur and firik, seasonality, the bounty of the surrounding geography, plus the diverse influences of migrating cultures ranging from Uzbeks to Iran and Aleppo. They all add up to a really rich cuisine.
What kind of research did you have to do for this book?
I was initially given a list – a collage of recipes of the five home cooks I was working with. I shuffled the list dramatically, and included many others after talking with these cooks and other locals. I had several meetings with the cooks, sometimes all together, sometimes one by one, and some cooked for me the recipes while I was asking questions and taking notes. I cross-checked each recipe with the recipes already printed in their books; wherever there was a contradiction or a doubt, I asked each of them how they made that dish. Sometimes they would argue endlessly over a pinch of cinnamon. It took ages to agree on something, if they ever agreed. Any knowledge accumulated in those long discussions is mostly reflected in the headnotes in the recipes. I also checked all the previous cookbooks on Antep cuisine and also used Ömer Asım Aksoy’s colossal three-volume Gaziantep dialect and idiom dictionary at all times. It can be said that I read every single line that has been written on Gaziantep cookery.
Based on the time you spent in Gaziantep, did you find that local culinary traditions are being preserved or are they fading away?
Gaziantep people are keen on preserving their culture but they just cannot stop complaining about how things are changing. That is true in a way, and there are two major reasons for change. First, the architecture has changed. People no longer live in traditional stone houses with big courtyards (which allow for open-fire cooking) and with cool storage places in between floors. But even if they cannot make their own winter provisions at home, they still have them made for them in villages. So in a way the food culture is still maintained. The second threat comes from the change in agriculture and climate. It is harder to find Karacadağ rice, a short-grain variety grown near the city of Diyarbakır that is a staple for local dishes, or the fresh green Antep pepper, an essential accompaniment to kebab dishes that is being replaced by hybrid varieties. If precautions are not taken, I think some ingredients might be lost soon; some are already lost, I’m afraid.
During your research, did you stumble upon anything surprising about Antep cuisine?
I was already quite familiar with the cuisine, so there were no big surprises. Yet I still find the use of tarragon quite interesting, a feature not seen in any other city [in Turkey]. It’s used almost always dried. In Gaziantep, it has an almost vanilla-like flavor, very aromatic and fragrant, and it really transforms soups, giving them a particular taste that transforms the flavor. I also like the locals’ subtle mix of spices, or secretly adding some allspice, a few cloves or a hint of cinnamon in black pepper, or how they use the thick, grape-based Gaziantep molasses sparingly but effectively in dishes. By the way, everybody thinks that it is dried red pepper that dominates Gaziantep cuisine, but the true spice of cuisine here is black pepper, but always with other spices mixed in. No one reveals her blend. It depends on the taste of the family, the taste of the cook and the origin of the family. Those with roots in Aleppo, for example, like more spice in their pepper.
Finally, could you point us toward some favorite recipes in your book and tell us a bit about each dish?
Ahhhh, the heavenly sour cherry kebab that Selmin Ocak, one of the home cooks I worked with, cooked for me. I also have weak spot for şiveydiz, a yogurt stew made with copious amounts of spring garlic, or any dish with young spring garlic – in particular, yogurt stews with spring garlic and green almonds. The yogurt stews are sublime, slightly tangy, yet creamy, with the freshness of spring vegetables. I also adore zeytinli börek, a kind of turnover that is filled with cured green olives and sometimes minced meat.
A Taste of Fire & Sun is currently available only in bookstores in Turkey and through its Turkish publisher, but the publisher hopes to make the book available through Amazon soon as well.
(illustrations by Suzan Aral)