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Turkey’s charming southern city of Antakya lies equidistant to the Mediterranean coast and the Syrian border, in the province of Hatay. The area is famed for its unique, spice-laden cuisine, though it is perhaps overshadowed by that of its neighbors to the east and west: Adana and Gaziantep, respectively. The former is practically synonymous with kebab while the latter is famous for, well, everything, and is often touted as Turkey’s undisputed food capital.

But a recent two-day trip to Antakya made it imminently clear that its cuisine deserves just as much praise as Adana’s glorious grilled skewers and Gaziantep’s divine baklava. The integrity and autonomy of its rich cuisine comes as no surprise to anyone acquainted with this special city.

Antakya is known affectionately to locals as the “City of Civilizations” due to the continued presence of adherents of each major Abrahamic religion as well as a large population of Arab Alevis. The city’s residents insist that there is a legacy of tolerance in Antakya that remains to this day. We certainly felt it when exploring the city, which is reasonably laid-back yet harbors a current-like energy. Antakya is not the kind of place that high schoolers abandon as soon as they graduate; it is a city of deep connections where young people have fostered a vibrant cultural life.

The intricate maze that is Antakya’s old city has seen better days, but a section of it has been smartly restored – investment poured into the city after a number of NGOs and their employees set up shop to help with the tens of thousands of Syrians that fled civil war and sought refuge in Hatay. Though Gaziantep is about five times as big (and feels much bigger than even that), Antakya outnumbers it in terms of drinking establishments and places to see live music.

The reason we came, though, was for the food. As soon we dropped off our bags, we ventured across a bridge under which runs the Orontes River and quickly snagged a table at Çayırcı Bakla Humus Salonu. This hole-in-the-wall establishment has two items on the nonexistent menu, bakla (a mashed fava bean spread) and hummus. The former is made fresh to order by hand with mortar and pestle. But we wanted an order of hummus, for which Antakya is famous. Did you think that hummus was a mere side dish or appetizer, to be poked with pita chips and then ignored when the main course arrives? Well think again, because Çayırcı serves up an elegant spread that includes plates of fresh mint, peppers, and pickles alongside fresh flatbread known as tırnaklı ekmek. The hummus itself is lovingly topped with a variety of ingredients, including pickled peppers and cabbage, parsley, red pepper flakes, olive oil and lemon, but its own supremely smooth texture shines through it all. This wonderful lunch set us back a measly 6 TL (just under $2). (Warning: The green peppers served next to the plate of mint are volcanically hot.)

For dinner, we had a köfte dürümü Antakya style at Antakya Köfte, one of many kiosks clustered together just a stone’s throw from our heavenly hummus lunch spot. Rather than serving meatballs or links, this spot slices up its product thinly, ensconcing it in lavaş flatbread that has been kissed by the grill and manages to be chewy and crunchy at the same time. It is then doused in a blissful mixture of spicy tomato sauce and mayonnaise and served with spicy pickled peppers.

Afterwards, we ventured back over the bridge into the old city and popped into Bade Şarap Evi, a recently opened wine house in a restored building. On the menu are several varieties of red wine brought from Vakıflı Köyü, the only remaining Armenian village in Turkey, located 30 km outside of the city. We enjoyed our glass, which was in between dry and sweet, and served with a complimentary cheese plate.

For lunch the following day, we ambled through Uzun Çarşı, the city’s main bazaar, to get our hands on tepsi kebabı, one of Antakya’s two kebab specialties. These are the only items on the menu at Vitamin Kasabı, a butcher shop that chops up their cuts to order. Our tepsi kebabı was a masterful mix of ground beef and mutton spread in a thin metal pan topped with sliced tomatoes and peppers and tossed in the oven. We couldn’t believe how serenely sweet the tomatoes were, or how the meat itself boasted a perfect texture, succulent and moist with a touch of oven char.

Butchers are of special significance in Antakya, according to Sedat Eraslan. The former tour guide proudly took us around his city and paved the way for several of our culinary discoveries. “In Antakya, people don’t just go to the butcher and ask for a kilo of ground beef, they always ask for a very specific cut of the animal,” explained Eraslan. Given the prestige that butchers command in the city, it makes perfect sense that the same guy cutting the meat should be one cooking it. Our tepsi kebabı, served with a frisbee-shaped disc of tırnaklı ekmek and a glass of açık ayran, was only 16 TL (just under $5).

The haytalı’s hue can only be described as Pepto Bismol pink.

It may be anathema to pay little attention to künefe, thin strands of syrup-soaked pastry baked around a core of mozzarella-like cheese, an Antakya specialty that ranks high in the Turkish dessert canon. Eraslan insists that the künefe in Istanbul pales in comparison, and we recommend not leaving the city without a taste. But we were more intrigued by haytalı, an odd treat that has not managed to make its way out of Hatay. We stepped into Affan Kahvesi, a beautiful café that opened in 1911 and has been run by four generations of the Sahilli family. The main area is spacious and oozes historic charm (the tiles are all original), while the back room is framed by lush layers of grapevines.

We were a bit intimidated by our haytalı’s hue, which can only be described as Pepto Bismol pink. Two scoops of house-made vanilla ice cream swim in a pool of rosewater atop a bed of cornstarch pudding cubes. The first bite is intensely sweet, and Eraslan urged us to dig deep and make sure we get an ample amount of pudding on our spoon. “This helps cut the sweetness,” he said. It did just that, and we enjoyed the complex flavors of the rosewater colliding with the pudding cubes and sugary ice cream. On the wall, a sign explicitly indicates that haytalı is definitely NOT bicibici, a cold dessert from Adana with which it is often confused.

Frankly, two days isn’t enough to explore the deep culinary traditions in Antakya. Eraslan insisted that many of the city’s specialties are served primarily at home, and we regretted not getting our hands on some homemade oruk, the local configuration of içli köfte, or Syrian kibbeh. All the more reason to plan another trip. Our stomachs might be relieved to have a respite from the fiery Samandağ peppers, but our fire-inclined palates are already eager for more.

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