Saturday, May 14, 2011

Remembering Gaziantep: Turkey's Culinary Capital

Starbucks Not

Gaziantep, 40 miles from the Syrian border in Southeastern Turkey has been in the news lately as a staging ground for journalists covering the war, a refugee center, and a gateway city for ISIS recruits on their way to Syria.

"It’s a destination for spies and refugees, insurgent fighters and rebel leaders, foreign-aid workers and covert jihadists—all enmeshed in Syria’s multisided war," is how the New Yorker's Robin Wright described it in 2014. 

Before the war, Gaziantep or "Tep" as the Turkish call it, was a sophisticated and cosmopolitan city, known as the culinary capital of Turkey. Its claim to fame was being home to the world’s finest baklava, the honey-soaked pastry. People from Istanbul came for the weekend, the way we might go to Portland or San Francisco. The old city is filled with beautifully-restored 16th century mosques, inns and 19th century stone mansions. Like many of the cities in this area, Gaziantep was an important trading center with its Middle Eastern neighbors and China. It was a stop on what was known as the second Silk Road that went to China via Iran and Afghanistan.

Some serious money went into restoring the Ottoman-era bazaar quarter filled with spice and nut sellers and craftsmen turning out everything from rolling pins to baklava in the back of little storefront shops. When I visited in 2011, I was thrilled to come upon this coffee seller with his copper urn. Men dress up like this in Istanbul to pose for pictures with tourists, but this guy was the real deal. Notice the string of paper cups around his neck. He opened the lid on the urn to show me hot coals in the bottom keeping the coffee hot. The coffee, called murra, was thick, sweet and scented with spices. I was about to buy a cup, when the coppersmith on the left, bought one for me, the posted for a photo with his cat.

Pistachio sweets for sale

Baklava, Kadayif, and other similar sweets made with pinkish, half-ripe pistachios, are to Gaziantep what coffee is to Seattle. There are more than 150 shops, one or two every block it seems. Imam Cagdas, a big busy shop founded in 1887, ships its baklava worldwide, but we preferred the smaller, one-man shops where you either order a box to go, or eat it there at one of a few tables in the back. Most keep things simple and offer little else besides water or tea.

 Kadayif: Art on a plate

Artisan at work

It's common in bazaars and markets around the world to see craftsmen working in front of shops selling products made in China or mass-produced in factories, but that's not the case in Gaziantep. Everything you see is made in the workshops, from cutting sheets of copper, to pounding, plating and etching the designs. The more intricate the design, the more expensive the piece. We paid about $6 each for two small, hand-pounded copper pans.

Copper bazaar

A few of the old mansions have been turned into boutique hotels. Below is the Asude Konak where my husband and I stayed. It took the owners 10 years to restore the 108-year-old house into a five-room inn on a pedestrian street above the town center. 

Aside Konak B&B

The owner, Jale, below right, loves to cook and guests can arrange to have dinner here. It was Mother's Day, so she invited us and another couple to join in a family kebab party - sort of like a Sunday barbeque. She and her mother, left, made a half-dozen different kinds of kebabs, including our favorite, eggplant and lamb, along with plums and lamb and another with roasted garlic.

Kebab party in the making
They filled the rest of along table on their outdoor patio with plates of fresh greens and mint, yogurt dips, bread and salads. Some drank Raki, a high-powered anise liquor that produces a cloudy drink when mixed with water. Others had Ayran, the refreshing yogurt drink made with water and a dash of salt. Antep is surrounded by fertile farmland and has a climate ideal for growing olives, pomegranates, many types of fruits and vegetables and raising sheep. There's an excellent culinary museum with explanations in English of all the local dishes. We didn't find it until our last day, but if I had it to do over again, I'd go there first-thing, so that I'd know more before setting out for the restaurants and markets.

Sunday barbeque

After a quick flight to Izmir on the Aegean coast, we spent our last couple of days in the little town of Selcuk. The reason to come is to see the ancient Greek and Roman city of Ephesus, two miles away. Selcuk is a pleasant little low-key tourist town with lots of small hotels and restaurants. The downside is that we were back in Tour Bus Turkey, land of genuine fake watches and the art of the upsell. Most of the hotels offer a "free'' ride to Ephesus which turns out to be provided by the owner of a carpet shop.


As impressive as walking through the ruins was, we couldn't help but contrast the touristy atmosphere here with the the we spent Southeastern Turkey. They seemed more genuine and real, interesting for their history, religious traditions and present-day culture influenced by their proximity to the Middle East. It may be a while before these areas make it onto tourist itineraries again. Terrorism and ISIS threats, the government's war with Kurdish separatists, a refugee crisis and the proximity of the Syrian war have just about killed tourism all over the country.  Cruise ships are rerouting, and hotel bookings have plunged. Hopefully Gazientep won't be a permanent casualty of the conflicts. I hope to return, and when I do, stock up on some of the world's best kebabs and Baklava.  

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Villagers and Nomads

Our hosts, Pero and Halil Salva

A homestay in a rural village wasn't on the itinerary when we started planning our trip to Southeastern Turkey. Then I found Nomad Tours while doing some Web research, and got in touch with the founder, Alison Tanik, a British woman married to a Kurdish man.  She and her husband, Omer, had moved from Istanbul to his home in Yuvacali, a village in rural Turkish Kurdistan, when Alison began looking for a project that might help improve the lives of the 1,000 or so residents. Only 50 percent can read or write. Nearly 80 percent marry first cousins, so there is a high rate of birth defects. No sewage. No garbage collection. No high school. No Internet.

When Intrepid Tours, an Australian tour company, contacted her to ask if she knew about any homestays in the area, she suggested Yuvacali, and Nomad Tours was born. Omer's sister, Pero Salva, above, and her husband, Halil, were the first hosts, and our hosts for an overnight visit.

Virtually everyone marries within the village (There are only three last names), and they too are first cousins. Pero, 45 and Halil,46, have three (healthy) children: Faruk, 18; Fatih, 17; and Aylin, 10. Neither Pero or Halil read or write, but so their children's education is important to them. Virtually all the money they earn from the homestays is going towards that goal. Faruk hopes to enter college next year, and Fatih goes to a high school that's about a three-mile walk from the village.

Their house is two rooms - one used by the family for living, watching TV, eating and sleeping, and the other for homestay guests. There's also a small kitchen. The toilet is an outhouse, and running water comes from a tap connected to tank on the roof filled by a well.

The mud building on the right is used for storage and animals. Around the corner is an open hearth where Pero does all the cooking over an open fire. Like most families, the Salvas farm, mainly cotton, barley, lentils and peppers. Pero also makes and sells cheese. She says she loves doing the homestays because it means she no longer has to pick cotton, and can work indoors.

Yuvacali Village

Halil serving cake and tea

We expected to be alone, but as it turned out, our stay coincided with that of a  Intrepid tour group. It was more fun than it would have been being there by ourselves, and we have Bridget, an enthusiastic Ameican volunteer anthropologist to thank for coming along as a translator. Communication would have been difficult otherwise. Pero and Halil speak Turkish and Kurdish, but only a few words of English. The kids, though, are learning, and the plan is for Fatih to take over soon as the official host.

There were nine of us, so I wondered where we would all sleep, but people here are used to making due in tight quarters.

Living/dining room converts
to bedroom

Nine of us ended up sharing the two rooms, and the family spent the night in an annex off the mud building. We all ate dinner on the floor in the living area, above, which the family then converted into a bedroom by pulling down the stacks of bedding piled in the corner (cotton mattresses stuffed with sheep's wool). We slept slumber-party style, men in one room, women in the other. In the summer, when the temps can reach 100 degrees or higher, everyone sleeps on the roof!

                                        Pero baking bread

Men and women divide chores along traditional lines, and then some. Men never do dishes, for instance, nor milk sheep or cows or bake bread. They tend to chores that involve leaving the village, such as shopping, and tasks such as shearing sheep, holding down the sheep while they are being milked, and killing animals. Halil raises bees and the family makes its own honey.

Pero works incredibly hard. Everything we ate- from the fresh yogurt and cheese to the roasted eggplant and soup made of lentils and spices - was produced on the farm and prepared by her.

Before most people are awake, Pero has already baked a day's worth of bread from scratch over the fire, milked the cows and swept the front yard with a broom made of twigs. A few of the women in the group tried our hand at making bread, but we were no match for Pero's speed. As you can see from the picture, she had three steps going at once. The finished bread is at left. Center, she kneads the dough into the size of a large pizza. Right, she watches as the bread bakes in the open oven.

We also tried our hands at milking sheep. Not good! The milk barely trickled out. Notice the skirt. All women wear long skirts, and we were instructed beforehand to bring one - no exceptions. Pero favors a lavender headscarf, the current fashion with women in this area of Southeastern Turkey.


Neighbor stitches bedding by hand

                                              Pero making cheese

Nomad Tours' Yuvacali project is small. So far, there are just two host families, but it's had many good side effects in terms of bringing a bit of the outside world to the villagers. With funds from donations, Nomad has raised money to buy supplies for the school. The government provides a teacher, but little else. It also asks guests to bring toothbrushes or tootpaste to donate for a dental hygiene project. When Alison and Omer moved to the village, they found that hardly anyone brushed their teeth.

The school

Family portrait

The Kurdish started out in Turkey as mountain Nomads, and many families still live this way, traveling with their sheep most of the year to different locations as the weather changes, and grazing improves in the lower elevations. The morning we left the village, we went by car with Bridget and Omer's brother, Mehmet, to find and talk with some nomads.

This woman greeted us near the tents where her family had set up camp. Typically the same families return to the same areas year after year, and either lease land, or if it belongs to a village rather than an individual, ask the neighbors' permission to use it.

This family travels about nine months a year, spending just two-three months in the village where they have a real home. Above is Ali, 50, the father of 10 children, all of whom he and his wife bring with them when they're on the road. With 200 sheep and three tents set up - one for sleeping, one for cheese-making and the carpeted one above for eating or entertaining guests, the family is considered well-off by nomad standards.

Baby chicks darted in and out of the tent as Ali offered us glass after glass of tea, then glass after glass of Ayran, the yogurt drink made with water and salt. The family packs everything up and moves every two or three months. To get here from their home village, they  walked for four days,  traveling in a caravan of sorts, with the younger children likely riding on a tractor.

A nomad's wealth is measured by the number of sheep he owns. Ali's flock of about 200 takes his wife and one of his daughters two hours to milk twice each day. From now on I'll think twice before I complain about having to much too do around the house!

Next: Gaziantep: Southeast Turkey's culinary capital

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Sanliurfa: Land of Prophets and Kings

It's been a while since we've had Internet access, so there's a lot to catch up on. Sanliurfa (Urfa) is a lovely town of about 400,000 near the Euphrates river.The outskirts are settled by Kurdish, but it's mostly Turkmen and Arab Turks in the city center, and there's a distinct Arabic feel, with many men wearing flowing red and white checked turbans, and women (and some men) in traditional violet or purple head scarves  decorated with delicate white flowers.

Fish Lake

The town is a major center of religion and an important pilgrimage site for Muslims, and even some Christians. Legend has it that Abraham, the prophet, was born in a cave here. According to the story, the king ordered him burned to death for refusing to worship pagan gods. But God turned the fire into water and the burning coals into fish. Abraham was hurled from a hill, but landed safely in a bed of roses. The whole scene is recreated in a peaceful, park-like area on the edge of town. The lake above is filled with well-fed carp. It's considered good luck to feed the fish, but try and catch a fish, and you'll risk going blind, or so the legend goes. 


I was struck by this scene outside the mosque that leads up to the cave. The women in black are likely part of a tour group from Syria or Iran. The women of Urfa dress more colorfully, usually in robes that sparkle with sequins.

Women enter the cave on one side, men on the other. These women were praying, and a few were very emotional. Tom said nothing like this was going on on the men's side.

By now you can tell this is not the Turkey you will read about in Travel & Leisure, and that's a good thing for us, but I expect it will change as more people look for new parts of the world to explore. For now, at least, American travelers are rare. We've met none so far, although we have met several Australians and Europeans.

                                   Dinner below Urfa's castle 
Just as it was in Diyarbakir, everyone is friendly and wants to talk. People make eye contact, say hello, ask us where we are from, and in 99.9 percent of all the cases, want nothing more than to practice their English, or just find out how we like their city. Anyone who's been to Morocco or Egypt, or even the touristy parts of Istanbul will find being in this part of Turkey refreshing. There are no touts, and even in the bazaars, there's no pressure to buy. No one who offers help ever expects a tip. There's been very little talk about Bin Laden. It wasn't as big a story here as it apparently was in the U.S., and as you can tell, we feel welcome and safe.

Like many of the cities in this area, Urfa was once an important trading center with Iran and Syria and a junction on the Silk Road. Its bazaar dates to the 16th century. A walk through the little streets wakes up all the senses. Bread baking. Skewers of lamb roasting on outdoor grills. Copper-smiths pounding away in little stalls. Tea vendors scurrying about. 

Especially proud are the vendors with closet-sized storefronts devoted to making baklava, or our favorite, peynirli kadayif, a delicate pastry made with shredded wheat and cheese, butter, honey and pistachios. We were invited into a shop one night to see how it's made. Actually, the waiter was trying to flirt with a German woman we were with. When she wouldn't give him her Facebook info, he tried to lure her in with a cooking lesson.

We've become regulars at the shop below that does a “sandwich'' of sheep's milk ricotta and honey in a fresh, sesame seed bun. Good thing we've been walking 6-8 miles per day, according to Tom's pedometer. One way little boys try to make money is to walk around the streets carrying scales and offering to weigh people. They don't get many takers among the tourists!

Simit sellers are everywhere. Simits are rings made of bread dough topped with sesame seeds. Turks like to eat them as a late afternoon or evening snack which makes for a perfect after-school job. This boy was just learning the crucial skill of balancing a tray on his head.

Bread is serious business. The bakeries open early, with bakers working in teams to mix the dough, and shove it into wood-fired ovens while a clerk stands at an open window waiting on customers. We spotted this bakery on a side-trip we took to the town of Mardin. A truck had just dumped off a load of firewood for the oven. This is a busy road, full of cars and trucks, and the wood was taking up valuable parking space.

With the exception of a few plane rides, we've been getting around mainly by bus. Several companies compete on the same routes, setting a high bar for service, so this is nothing like riding Greyhound. Seats have individual TV screens and head phones. Attendants in bow ties bring around squirts of cologne and mints, followed by coffee,  tea and soft drinks.

On trips of three hours or more, there's usually a rest stop.Everyone gets off the bus to get a snack or use the restroom so workers can wash the bus. We must look like space aliens because people are constantly looking out for us. Tea seems to appear out of nowhere while we're waiting for the bus to come. Never have we been asked to pay. On one bus, I sat next to a man who overheard me speaking English. He immediately called his son on his cell phone. The son spoke English, and the man thought I might like to talk to him. I had no idea what to say, but we chatted about where I had been,how I liked Turkey and how he liked the U.S.

Another bus adventure ended in us meeting this silversmith in Mardin.

Copper, silver and metalwork have a long history in this area, and this man is one of the city's top jewelers, specializing in filigree. We visited his workshop after he stopped us on the street to ask if we needed help.We did. We had taken the bus there from Urfa for the day, expecting to buy a return ticket once we got there. But as sometimes happens, the bus dropped us off at a street corner instead of a station, so we had no idea what to do. The man didn't speak enough English to be off much help, but he led us to his son who did. The son took us to the bus agency office to buy a ticket. Later when we stopped by his shop to say thanks, he invited us in for a chat and sample of his homemade Syrian wine. While Southeastern Turkey is mainly Sunni Muslim, there is a small population of Syrian Orthodox Christians many of whom live in Mardin.


Before catching our bus back to Urfa, we had an early dinner at a wonderful restaurant opened a few years ago by a local woman. She wanted to showcase the local specialties made by Mardin women, but it was difficult convincing their husbands that they should be allowed to work outside the home. She managed, however, and today the restaurant is thriving. We shared a mezes (appetizer) plate, above, with 10 different spreads and dips. I think it might have been the first beer we had in this area. Turkey is a secular country, but it's also Muslim, so to discourage drinking without outright making it illegal, the government taxes it heavily. Most restaurants in the Southeast aren't licensed, so serve only tea, soft drinks and ayran, the yogurt drink. 

Urfa has more than 200 historic stone houses and mansions, most tucked away on narrow backstreets not wide enough for cars. The houses are huge- too big for families and too expensive for anyone to maintain, so a few have been turned into museums, restaurants and hotels, either with private or government restoration funds. We've been staying at the Aslan Guesthouse below.

The house was the owner's grandfather's home. We had one of the best rooms, with bedroom, private bath and a large Turkish-style sitting room "furnished'' with a carpet and cushions piled along four walls. I felt sorry for the backpackers using the Aslan's "dorm room'' an upstairs room lined with 20 or so sleeping cushions. The room was comfortable enough, but there was only one shower to share.

Staying in these old places sounds romantic, but there are definitely downsides. One evening (without warning) all of us staying in the guesthouse came home to find a huge party going on. The owners were hosting "Traditional Night'' for a tour group from Istanbul. The entertainment was blaring Kurdish music that went on until 11 p.m.

Euphrates River

A highlight of our time in Urfa was a day trip into the mountainous countryside to Mount Nemrut National Park to see these 2,000-year-old stone statues perched on the summit at about 8,000 feet.

The heads are about six feet tall, and were discovered by a German engineer in the late 1800s. A pre-Roman local king with a short-lived empire built the statues to himself and the gods. Visitors willing to make a 20-minute climb to the top can see the heads, toppled down by earthquakes and set up again on the hill, along with the bodies sitting above them.

Half the fun of getting here was going with Yusuf, 63, our guide and driver. The trip is impossible by public transport, and long and expensive by car, so we found two women in our hotel willing to share the cost. Yusuf makes the trip from Urfa (a four-hour drive each way) almost everyday, so to keep things interesting, he entertains his customers, and I suspect, himself, by singing Kurdish folk songs in the car, and coming up with nicknames for everyone so he can keep who's who straight.

Yusfuf and his "uncle'' and "sister''

Tom became his "uncle,'' as in "Uncle, do you see any traffic coming this way?'' I was his "sister.'' The other two women, in their 20s, were his "nieces.'' He was a great tour guide. He took us to his "nephew's'' place for a lunch of Turkish pizza, olives, tomatoes, cucumbers and cheese, and did a good job of explaining how pistachio trees cross-pollinate, stopping the car to show us the difference between "man'' trees and "woman'' trees. There was lots to see along the way. Behind us in this picture is a Roman bridge built in the 2nd century AD. 

Next: A Village Homestay

Monday, May 2, 2011

Making new friends in Diyarbakir

Hello from Diyarbakir, a 5,000-year old city in Southeastern Turkey. We're 200 miles from the Iraq border and about 100 miles from Syria, in upper Mesopotamia. Diyarbakir is considered the unofficial capital of Kurdistan. Most of the people here are ethnic Kurds and Sunni Muslim. They speak Kurdish, and many keep to their own style of traditional dress. We look as "foreign'' as we might in China or India, yet I can't think of a place where we've met and taked with so many people in so short of time. 

The Kurds in Diyarbakir are among the friendliest anywhere, and despite the language barrier (I know only how to say "Thank you'' in Kurdish), we've somehow been able to communicate. 

The men in the above photo welcomed us into their courtyard for tea. They gather here most afternoons to sing traditional Kurdish songs, but one member of their group had died the day before, so they weren't singing on the day we visited. They invited us to sit down and chat anyway. One said he knew how to say only "yes'' and "no'' in English. So I asked him if I could take their picture...yes or no? "Yes!'' he said, and we all had a good laugh. "Obama'' is another word everyone knows. Mention of his name always gets a thumbs up.

Hassan Pasa Hani

We're spending most of our time in Diyarbakir's old city, a busy area enclosed in three miles of high black walls, built by the Romans, from black volcanic rock called basalt. Cobblestone streets lead to old homes and former inns hidden behind stone walls decorated with white stripes, a trademark architectural characteristic. 

Above is the Hassan Pasa Hani, built in the 16th century as an inn for traders and their camels, now a spiffed up collection of coffee houses, tea gardens and shops. Diyarbakir was once home to a large Christian population of Armenians and Syrian Orthodox, and the city has several historical churches as well as a collection of 500-year-old mosques. We rang the doorbell to the Syrian church, and the priest answered and showed us around. 

There are only 30 members left in this congregation, so the church is locked most of the time. It dates to the 1st century, and has been beautifully restored. Members still chant and do readings in Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

The mosque below was built in 1572. Anyone can go  in, but removing shoes and putting on a scarf (for women) is mandatory, so I carry one with me in my shoulder bag.

Looking around in the Hassan Pasa, watching all the families and young couples, shopping and relaxing over tea, it would be easy to get the wrong impression that Diyarbakir is upscale. Far from it. Most of it has a run-down feel, and given cultural differences, it might mistakenly be perceived as dangerous.The city absorbed large numbers of poor villagers in the 1980s and '90s who fled fighting between Kurdish militants and Turkish security forces. Unemployment is high, but apart from a few packs of very annoying 8-10-year-old boys shouting "money, money'' at us, we've encountered nothing but curious and friendly locals. They're used to Turkish and European tour groups coming through in summer, but I get the impression that they see few independent travelers, and few  Americans.

We met this family in the yogurt and cheese bazaar, and enclosed market filled with individual stalls selling various types of white, mostly sheep's cheese, some of it twisted like a braid. The young girl on the left spoke a little English. She translated as I talked with her mother, father, grandmother, and the cheesemaker below who proudly cut us some free samples.

More new friends

These two women, a denist on the left, and a law professor on the right, stopped to talk to us, and ended up showing us around town for about two hours. When I asked them for a restaurant recommendaton, they led us down a little lane to the Cafe Izgara inside what was once a Jewish home. Tom and I went back later that night. We sat under a ceiling carved with the Star of David, and ate our best meal so far- kababs, tomato salad, bread, tea, a frothy yogurt drink called ayran and boiled sweets with honey- all for about $18 for two, tip included. Diyarbakir's speciality is sheep liver kababs. We reluctantly tried a skewer, then went back the next night for more.

This region of Turkey is famous for sweets made with honey, nuts and milk. All along the main street in the old city are little shops making and selling baklava, kadayif and halva. This is the brother of the owner of the Cafe Izgara.

Diyarbakir's other speciality is watermelon. Thes are not local because its out of season. Local melons are much bigger, the result of planting on the fertile banks of the Tigris river using a method of filling huge holes with sheep and goat droppings for size, and pigeon manure for flavor. 

Many older men wear baggy, Arab-style pants, tight in the legs and loose in the hips and crotch. Most younger men wear jeans and t-shirts. Younger women wear fashionable head scarfs and long coats or tunics over jeans. Many don't cover at all. Western women and other foreigners are free to wear whatever they want. Tom's wide-brimmed hat attracts attention. A few have asked if he's from Texas.

Next stop: Sanliurfa: Birthplace of the prophet Abraham