The southern city of Adana is synonymous with kebab, and for good reason. Not only is the spicy grilled skewer of meat named after and originating from the city perhaps the most iconic and beloved style of kebab in the country, Adana also boasts the highest number of excellent kebab joints per capita anywhere, according to our unofficial but heartily conducted research.
Therefore, we would be utterly remiss to neglect to mention our favorite kebab joints in the city: Ciğerci Mahmut, İştah, Kaburgacı Yaşar, Yeşil Kapı and Ciğerci Memet. But Adana’s deep and rich food culture goes beyond the kebab, and during our numerous visits to this energetic, dynamic and truly excellent city, we’ve delighted in discovering its other specialties.
A most fitting place to start would be with şalgam, a fermented, dark purple drink made from turnips and black carrots that packs a salty, occasionally spicy punch. It is a common accompaniment to rakı and kebab in Adana, and the pairing has spread to meyhanes throughout the country. In Adana şalgam flows like water, and is sold on tap from street stands that seem to be on nearly every corner.
When we stepped into the hole in the wall Ali Göde, which has been producing the beverage since 1930, we quickly realized that the mass-produced stuff we were drinking alongside our rakı in Istanbul was an outright lie. Served in a glass with an entire pickled black carrot, in what resembled an Anatolian virgin Bloody Mary, sipping this stuff was practically a religious experience, and we could feel a pickled, mineral-rich paradise surging through our veins after we left the small shop and proceeded to wander the city.
Nearby in the heart of Adana’s old downtown area is Toros Paça, a 24-hour joint that serves soup and a number of other dishes suited toward soaking up liquor, thereby providing an essential service to a city that is inclined to imbibe. It’s not on the menu, but we were tipped off to order çürük çorbası, a regional variation of kelle paça made with shreds of gamy lamb cheek simmering in a red, peppery broth that is cut perfectly with a squeeze of lemon.
We had heard great things about Adana-style börek, and Börekçı Rıza in particular, an institution open since 1934 in a rather ramshackle neighborhood with windy, narrow streets in the southern tip of Adana’s old city. There were many failed attempts at trying this famous savory pastry before we ultimately learned of their bizarre hours: They are closed on Saturdays, and open between 6 p.m. and the wee hours of the morning every other day. We finally managed to roll in on a Sunday evening after 10 p.m., and the place was packed to the gills.
We ordered a half-portion of the Adana-style börek with kaşar cheese, heavenly lumps of which intermingled with a perfectly charred, flaky pastry crust, served alongside the fiery pickled peppers that are found on practically every table in Adana. Another great option for börek with more standard business hours is Sular Börekçisi, which is located near the city’s central train station. Their expertly handmade börek is also served with a heaping plate of green, yellow and red spicy pickled peppers, a combination one is unlikely to encounter in Istanbul.
The half-portion was to save room for şırdan, one Adana’s most iconic dishes and not for the faint of heart, owing to its pungent aroma and rather unfortunate shriveled, phallic appearance. It consists of a section of lamb stomach that is stuffed with rice, topped with an ample dusting of cumin and served alongside pickled carrots and peppers. We headed to Şırdancı Bedo, a 10-minute walk toward the center of the old city from Börekçi Rıza; it was also at near full capacity late on Sunday. The dish is an acquired taste to say the least, but highly recommended for those not opposed to offal.
Adana boasts a colorful nightlife that is spread across the sprawling city, with many of the popular bars and clubs in the newer, somewhat affluent suburbs built in the north, while others are concentrated on and nearby one particular street in the posh Gazipasa quarter, a more central area that is located directly between the old city and the train station. But one bar that struck our fancy was a small, charmingly decorated drinking hole that we discovered below Ariplex, an old-school independent cinema that we spent several days at earlier this year while attending Adana’s Golden Boll Film Festival. Cafe Elma (Apple Cafe) has just a handful of tables, a cozy vibe, good music on the stereo, apple-shaped post-it notes pasted to the windows, and cold draft beer.
A group of locals called us over to their table. As we sat chatting, one married couple in their 30s told us that they had been coming to the bar since they were in high school (another reflection of the lax manner in which Adana operates), and that the reason for their loyalty is Orhan bey, the affable barman who has run the place for years. We didn’t order and he didn’t ask, but Orhan bey happened to magically know exactly what we wanted (a pint of draft beer) and placed it on our table alongside a bowl of peanuts as if he had read our mind, or maybe just sized us up and made an educated guess based on years of experience serving drinks. Now is perhaps the best time to go, as Orhan bey is slated to retire soon and is selling the bar.
Just a few minutes north is the famous Kazım Büfe, one of the most well-known establishments in the city, renowned for its muzlu süt, a delicious milkshake configuration of bananas, milk, ice and sugar all blended up and served in generously large glasses. Expect to struggle finding a table, particularly in the evening hours, and be prepared to stand. For those who want a bite to eat to accompany their milkshake, Kazım Büfe also prepares an excellent karışık tost, a pressed sandwich where buttered circular bread surrounds kaşar cheese and sucuk (garlicky beef sausage).
For an adventure that ends in culinary rewards, we would recommend taking a bus from the city center to the Toros neighborhood (a half-hour trip in light traffic), where the Kadınlar Pazarı (Women’s Market) is set up in an open-air space every Wednesday and Sunday. All the products are made and sold by women. Hand-knitted clothing and other elegant bricabrac are available, but we came to eat. Not only do numerous vendors serve tasty Adana specialties, there are also other dishes and goods from neighboring provinces.
We sampled some delicious handmade içli köfte (kibbeh) and a lovely homemade fellah köftesi, a vegetarian dish of bulgur wheat buttons doused in a garlicky tomato paste and topped with chopped parsley. The trip to this northern part of the city is also worthwhile because it gives a glimpse into how neighborhoods change so quickly and showcases the diversity of the city’s architecture and population (at least in terms of economic class).
After each of our half dozen trips to Adana, we’ve left hungry for more. We have no doubt that there is much left to discover and eagerly await our next visit. Make sure to save plenty of room for kebab on your first trip, but don’t forget that Adana is so much more than its signature meat dish: a truly cosmopolitan city with genuinely friendly and fun-loving people, perpetually bountiful citrus trees and blooming flowers, a quixotic energy, and a deep, fascinating food culture.