Hatay province (its capital city is Antakya -- ancient Antioch) was the last stop on our southeastern Turkey road trip this last April. We weren't strangers to Hatay, having journeyed there last autumn to see pomegranate molasses being made (and to eat some terrific wood oven-fired kebabs), but this was our first trip specifically for our book.
Find Hatay [hah-TIE] on a map and you'll see that it lies in Turkey's southeast, a region we'd been eating in for three weeks. Yet when I began eating and cooking in Hatay in April I realized that the province's foods are not wholly of the region. Hatay has a cuisine has all its own, one that's probably closer to that of its southern neighbor Syria than to that of the more well-known (and visited) Turkish province of Gaziantep, to its northeast.
Hatay has a long Mediterranean coastline. It's lush, not desert-like. Olive oil, pomegranate molasses, incredibly fragrant dried mint, fennel, zahter (a variety of thyme that looks and smells a bit like rosemary, in season in the spring) -- these ingredients say "Hatay". Fiery red peppers (fresh and dried) are a pantry staple; it's the only place in Turkey where I have eaten dishes that, to me, really and truly merit the descriptive "spicy" (granted, having honed my oral heat receptors in Sichuan and lived in Thailand I am an extreme Chili Head). Meals are served with plates of undressed greens (mint, parlsey, rocket, whatever's in the market) to be taken as bursts of freshness between bites of cooked dishes.
We arrived in Hatay planning on three nights and ended up staying six. We left with a fierce desire to stay another week and plans to return ASAP. I left knowing that I have to rework the structure of our book to give this province's fabulous food the space it deserves. But that's what on-the-ground research is about: discovery.
A few highlights from our time there:
a serendipitous find when were exploring the countryside (add this to the reasons we always self-drive in Turkey) -- a one-woman show of a shop selling homemade everything, each ingredient sourced from the farm on which the shop sits. Whey cheese, whey cheese with fresh zatar, every type of pickle you could imagine, bulgur, wheat berries, tomato sauce, tomato paste, red pepper paste, drained yogurt balls with thyme and chili, salted goat cheese, olives, pekmez made from several fruits and from carob, pickled zahter, two types of olives, preserved grape leaves ..... and that's just on the shelves shown.
We arrived in time for a late breakfast of three types of olives, three cheeses, fresh mint and parsley plucked from a garden behind the shop, lavash. And then we lingered for hours, long enough to watch her boil milk over a wood fire to make salted yogurt as thick as putty (divine) and assemble, proof and roll out the dough for katikli ekmek, a cheese and spice-topped pide that is Hatay's answer to lahmacun.
Antakya boasts a great covered market, where I pestered spice shop owners, butchers and kebab makers and bakers with questions, and where we drank glass after glass of refreshing, reviving salgam (pickled turnip -- black carrot, really -- juice).
We cottoned on to one firin (bakery) in particular,
where the owners took us upstairs to the proofing room to show me how to make a delicious savory coiled pastry and biberli ekmek ("chili bread" -- pide smeared with an addictive, and pleasingly fiery, blend of dried red chilies, thyme and other spices).
There we also watched the assembly of perhaps the world's largest hamburger -- actually a kagit kebabi ("paper kebab") slid onto a large pide, which was then folded in half to make a portable, very meaty meal.
But Antakya is about more than meat. In fact it's probably one of Turkey's more vegetarian-friendly cities thanks to a plethora of shops selling meze and nothing but meze -- a dozen or more varieties of snacky spreads, dips, salads etc to eat in or take out. Here, ezme (again, fabulously fiery), hummus heavy on the tahini and thick yogurt with chopped herbs, drizzled with fruity Hatay olive oil.
And then there was surk, Hatay's iconic cheese. "But it's not cheese!" I was scolded on more than one occasion, when I described it as such. Surk is whey cheese (which I suppose is technically really not "cheese" because it is made by boiling the whey left from making cheese) mixed with a heap of spices and dried in the sun. It can be "young" (ie not aged), or "old" and wonderfully complex-funky, as in this specimen that a housewife pulled from her refrigerator, part of her own homemade surk stock. (I coveted the knife.)
Hatay, we love you -- and we shall return.
For edible highlights from Part I of our southeastern Turkey road trip go here. We hope these posts inspire you to consider road tripping in Turkey! See our tips on how to self-drive and survive in what we think is one of the most road-trippable countries on earth, here.