Thursday, May 31, 2012

the best twelve lira spent

One of the wonderful things we discovered in Antakya is that you can pick out some fresh fish from the fishmonger, then walk next door to a guy with a little hole-in-the-wall who will cook it up for you— for a mere three lira. This delightfully affordable and tasty meal would consist of a meaty, grilled sea bass (sadly, the levrek is not pictured), some grilled barbun (the lovely yellow-striped fish below), roka salad with pomegranate molasses, and grilled peppers.

The levrek was out of this world, with meat like a steak— but the barbun stole the show with its delicacy. Mint leaves a plenty, a never-ending supply of lavash smeared in spices... Who knew that heaven only cost about twelve lira?

the origin of a word

There is a cave in a hill in Antakya. In fact, there are many caves in hills in Antakya, but what makes this cave unique, is that it houses one of the oldest churches in the world. The Church of St. Peter is the very first place in history where Christians were called Christians— which is incredible, when you think about it. I never actually thought about the origins of the term 'Christian.' To actually stand in a physical place where a word was born, where a belief was solidified by a name, felt humbling. Big things generally do start off small.

The facade of the church was built by Crusaders around 1100 CE, but it is long believed that St. Peter the apostle himself,  dug the church out of the rock. There are scars of frescoes— nothing discernible, and puzzle pieces of mosaic designs, faded and crumbled. The entire church is only 13 metres deep by 9.5 metres wide— with a central altar placed there in 1932.

Turkey really is just built upon layers and layers of history.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

making room for dessert

After that incredible lunch, dinner felt like sheer gluttony. We decided to dine sparingly on three meze plates of hummus, ezme, and a dip of aubergine and yogurt, in order to leave room in our bellies for a much-anticipated dessert. Soft bread and mint leaves were plentiful, but the hummus, one of the dishes for which Antakya is famed, left me disappointed. I've been spoiled, you see. With a Lebanese father, I have Lebanese aunties, and those of you who have Lebanese aunties know that in their kitchens, you grow up to be a snob about certain dishes. I am ever so picky about my tabbouli, kibbeh, and hummus.  

Hummus, which has become wildly popular across the globe, is a delicious chickpea puree which comes from Lebanon. Yes, I said it. Lebanon. I know there are people who would disagree with me on the origins of this fantastic dip— and these disagreements can get strangely political— but I'm saying it's Lebanese. Never have I had a more delicious hummus than in Lebanon. Antakya's version seems to be made with a chickpea flour instead of real chickpeas, which makes the consistency a bit too runny for my taste. I found it rather bland, with far too much tahini. Hummus is simple: chickpeas, tahini (a sesame paste commonly used in the Middle East), lemon, garlic, and olive oil. Blend it all together, et voilà! Heaven. I like mine heavy on the chickpeas and lemon, with that punch of garlic— the key really, is in the proportions.

The dessert we had been waiting to try all day was none other than the syrupy, cheesy künefe, rumoured to be excellent in Antakya. I've mentioned the wonders of künefe before, both in Istanbul and Beirut— I am a huge fan of the sticky, gooey sweetness.

So what is künefe? Simply put, a baked dessert of mild, elastic cheese sandwiched between threads of kadayıf (a shredded dough), bathed in butter and syrup. The entire Hatay region is known in Turkey for this delicacy, but Antakya is considered to be the capital of künefe— and for good reason. What I found even more interesting than the dessert itself, was the way in which the kadayıf is made. A large, oiled copper disk is spun while a special bucket with evenly spaced holes pours the dough onto its surface. Large threads are formed, then scraped off:

Once you've filled your belly with butter, cheese, syrup and dough, there's only one thing left to do. Sit back and sip on a hot glass of çay, while discussing the day's discoveries.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


I was wandering around the bazaar, weaving in between crowds of pushy women and busy vendors, when suddenly, I felt that all-too familiar ache in my belly. Shops with heaps of spices and pomegranate molasses were lined up on my left, cheese and olive stalls on my right— but not a café in sight. There was however, a baker with some tantalising rounds of flat bread, smothered in a mix of chili and herbs.

Ne kadar? I asked the moustachioed baker, whose flour-dusted hands incessantly kneaded  the mountain of dough before him. He glanced up at me long enough for a warm smile, and a declarative:

Bir lira.

I fished around in my bag for that one lira coin I remembered seeing earlier at the soap stand, located it with my finger tips and held it up. A nod was issued from the baker to the knowing older gentleman standing beside me, whom I never realised was part of the operation. With a smile spreading under another fine moustache, he rolled up the bread in newsprint with great ceremony, and presented it to me with pride.

Teşekkürler! I thanked him, and placed the shiny coin in his leathery palm.

Oh my... The bread was soft and warm, and fragrant with olive oil. The baker, his assistant and the gentleman paused as I took my first bite, staring hopefully at my face, waiting for the verdict. The chili delightfully burned my tongue, and there was cumin and thyme...

I rolled my eyes back, and let out a very indelicate MMMMMM, which caused much joy. There was something of my childhood in that bread— something of Sunday mornings, of my father, my Tante Leyla. I can't quite describe it, but at that moment, I felt close to them.

The bread was divine, but I was still hungry— as were my travelling companions. As we walked past a butcher shop, a man in a white jacket, presumably a butcher, ushered us inside. Seeing the hanging carcasses in the window, we were doubtful, but apparently the key to a delicious lunch in Antakya can actually be found at the butcher shop. You order the meat at the front, the butchers grind it, then mix it up with some spices and walk it over to a guy who cooks it for you. This novel idea had us intrigued, so we found ourselves at a table in a garden at the back of the shop, ordering the specialty: tepsi kebap, a kebab cooked in a metal tray.

There are no words... truly. Any attempt to describe the kebab would seriously diminish the experience of that wonderful, wonderful meal. Just look at it. What a thing of beauty! I had to post two photos, that's how much I loved it.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Saturday, May 19, 2012

little pieces of stone

I did little reading about Antakya before I hopped on the plane, but the one thing I did discover during a lazy internet search, is that the city has a to-die-for collection of mosaics from the region. The Hatay Archaeological Museum is home to some of the most stunning mosaics I have ever seen, which date back to somewhere between the second and fifth centuries CE. What was once walked upon, is now displayed on clean, white walls for us to behold as the great works of art that they are. Between the groups of awestruck, murmuring tourists, hangs a great sense of calm— the quiet, light-filled rooms leave you space to meditate on the faces of gods, nymphs, and people long passed.

Such expression, captured in little pieces of stone.

a little colour and curve

Doors and windows have always caught my eye— there seems to be this universal need to turn these functional architectural elements into things of beauty. I've seen it nearly everywhere I've travelled to, and generally on older buildings. It makes me sad that most newer buildings have fallen to plain rectangles and shades of beige or something equally boring. A little colour and curve can do so much.

Barbara, this is for you!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

faces of the market

Pensive brows and distant eyes
among hand-carved spoons, hammered metal
mounds of fiery red pepper, purple sumac, rose petals
the fragrance of laurel soap, piled high
in pyramids of green and earth.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

in pencil and ink

I'm soon heading off to a part of the country I've never been to— but before I do, I thought I'd share some of the sketches from my recent adventure in Northeastern Turkey.
Stay tuned—there's still more to come!