Last March Dave left me in Istanbul and took off for Gaziantep, in Turkey's southeast, to work alongside writer Ansel Mullins (of Istanbul Eats and Culinary Backstreets) on a story about the city's kebab culture.(That story appeared in the June 2013 issue of Saveur, which was devoted to grilling around the world). Look -- I know that there are worse places to be left than Istanbul. But the food photos that Dave emailed to me while he was away left me feeling quite sorry for myself. Even worse were the stories he brought back, of a parade of fire-kissed kebabs and squares of the ultimate baklava crowned with sheep's milk kaymak (think clotted cream ten times better).
Well it's a year later and here we are in Gaziantep (Antep, as the city is known to Turks), a brief stop before we embark on three weeks of book research. And how glad I am for last year's abandonment. Because thanks to that assignment, Dave knows just where we should take our first bite of Turkey's southeast.
Şirvan Baklava has been around for 20 years or more, and despite its moniker the place is known as much -- if not more -- for its kebabs as it is for baklava. It's a place that Dave has mentioned often over the last 12 months.
This being spring, Şirvan is featuring seasonal keme mantari (desert "truffles", big knobby fungi that grow beneath the ground) on its kebap menu, making the most of the fungi by mincing them together with lamb and lamb fat (the basis of any good kebab is plenty of fat minced into the meat) and then skewering logs of the mince between chunks of truffle. Few Antep kebapci serve keme, and Şirvan's go fast. We score the last two skewers of the day, and feel lucky. The keme are deeply earthy but not overpowering, and the chewiness of the whole specimens is a fine complement to the tender, melting meat-and-mushroom mince.
Dave insists we also order skewers of simit kebab. In this instance the word simit refers not to the sesame seed-coated 'Turkish bagel' that's sold all over Istanbul (and across the country) but to fine bulgur, which cooks all over Turkey often incorporate into kebabs and kofte.
Mince together green pistachios, as Şirvan does, with fine bulgur, lamb and plenty of lamb tail fat and you've got a kebab that scales textural heights. Though combined to comprise a thoroughly kebab-ish whole, the ingredients in Şirvan's simit kebab somehow maintain their integrity: with each bite one's tongue detects grains of bulgur and nubs of pistachio and incredibly, the grain's wheatiness and the oily freshness of the nut come through despite the richness of meat and fat.
Kebabs are not fast food. Meat must be minced with plenty of fat, and then with other ingredients, by hand. Always by hand. Then the kebab must be assembled with a touch both firm -- molding the meat to the metal with enough force so that it sticks -- and light, so that the bits of meat don't become one heavy mass. Once the skewers are on the fire a truly skilled kebapci takes time to slowly, slowly, carefully, carefully coax the meat to just barely done, moist and tender inside yet lightly crusty outside.
So we wait, our appetites teased by salads dressed with tart pomegranate molasses, tiny lahmacun with thin, nicely blistered crusts and borek, rustic soft-wrappered hand pies filled with mild crumbly Antep cheese and minced parlsey and green onion. Afterwards, there is baklava (unfortunately for me, sans sheep's milk kaymak).
Everything's delicious. But not a single dish steals the limelight from the main attraction.
We're finalists (again! we've yet to win) in the annual Saveur magazine Food Blog Awards. If you're so inclined, you can vote for us -- in the Culinary Travel Blog category -- here. You'll have to register to vote, a minor pain. Thanks for your support!