Shell out for Turk­ish de­lights

The much-cov­eted pis­ta­chio takes cen­tre stage in Gaziantep’s cui­sine

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - The Food Issue - JEREMY SEAL

IT’S har­vest time and the bas­kets and boxes lin­ing Gaziantep’s old- town lanes and ar­ti­san al­leys sag be­neath the weight of fistik — or pis­ta­chios — the sig­na­ture nut of this boom­ing city in south­east Turkey.

Lo­cals will tell you it’s the best of its kind in the world and while ri­val grow­ers from Cal­i­for­nia to Iran may de­mur, what is be­yond dis­pute is that an­cient Antep (for­get the ‘‘Gazi’’; it’s an add-on rarely heard be­yond of­fi­cial cir­cles) takes par­tic­u­lar pride in its pis­ta­chios.

Not many places have quite so many culi­nary vari­a­tions on the nut, which features in ev­ery­thing from ke­babs and smooth­ies to the ubiq­ui­tous baklava-style pas­tries that are on dis­play in hun­dreds of pud­ding shops through­out the city.

At the high-vaulted Al­maci Pazari pro­duce and spices bazaar, the piles of pink­ish-pur­ple nuts bear no re­sem­blance to the pro­cessed pis­ta­chios I’m used to. Freshly har­vested, they are still in their vel­vet-toned husks and ven­dor Mehmet Ak­sar urges me to try one, in­sist­ing there is noth­ing like a fresh pis­ta­chio. He’s right; the raw nut I ex­tract from its husk and shell is oily, soft and sub­tly flavoured, its taste and tex­ture far more com­plex and al­lur­ing than its salted coun­ter­part.

A steady stream of early cus­tomers ar­rives at Ak­sar’s stall to get their fill of fresh pis­ta­chios be­fore the brief win­dow of avail­abil­ity — Septem­ber to Oc­to­ber — closes. Ak­sar sup­plies me with a glass of tea and a stool, from which I watch po­ten­tial buy­ers quiz him on his stock.

In the seek­ing and giv­ing of qual­ity as­sur­ances, per­cent­ages are bat­ted back and forth. I learn that at least 75 per cent of nuts in a good batch should have split shells, to in­di­cate ripeness while also en­sur­ing ease of ac­cess to the ker­nel.

It’s also im­por­tant that a good pro­por­tion of any batch has been col­lected from be­neath the tree, rather than picked from the branches.

‘‘I wouldn’t go be­low 40 per cent in this re­gard,’’ one afi­cionado tells me, though I guess th­ese things are taken on trust. Ripeness is all, though the para­dox is that the best baklavacis (baklava mak­ers) favour nuts picked ear­lier, usu­ally in Au­gust, be­cause of the nat­u­ral oils they con­tain. At the equiv­a­lent of about $3 a kilo, even tak­ing into ac­count the husks, the nuts are sur­pris­ingly cheap.

‘‘It’s been a bumper har­vest,’’ Ak­sar ex­plains. ‘‘Though prices should dou­ble as avail­abil­ity tails off. Some of the trees pro­duced 100kg of nuts this year. But th­ese things tend to be cycli­cal, so the like­li­hood is that the crop will be much smaller and the prices higher next year.’’

I’ve barely left Ak­sar’s stall and moved be­yond Antep’s bazaar area, with its famed con­cen­tra­tion of cop­per work­ers, be­fore the ex­tent of this city’s sweet tooth be­comes ap­par­ent. The streets are lined with baklava out­lets, rang­ing from huge chains such as Celebiogullari to tiny counter delis in­clud­ing Hay­daroglu, their win­dow dis­plays fea­tur­ing enor­mous tin trays of pis­ta­chio del­i­ca­cies: filo and honey baklava in bite- sized squares or in cake-shaped pieces known as havuc dil­imi (car­rot slices); a shred­ded-wheat vari­ant called ka­dayif; and a deep­green, leaf-wrapped hit of ground pis­ta­chio called fistik sarma.

I’m on the look­out, how­ever, for a par­tic­u­lar pud­ding break­fast in which Antep spe­cialises: kat­mer. I find it at Zek­eriya Usta. In this no-frills back- street out­let — dough-rolling work sur­face, wood oven, aged till and pro­pri­etor — pas­try cooks turn out hot filo pil­lows of cream, crushed pis­ta­chios and sugar to or­der. My gen­er­ous serve of kat­mer is de­li­cious, if a lit­tle hard on the ar­ter­ies. I’m not alone in car­ry­ing off a good chunk in a dog­gie bag.

With the rem­nants of my kat­mer and a liq­uidised lunch — pis­ta­chio yet again, this time in a high- en­ergy smoothie called The Atom, which also con­tains or­anges, bananas, figs, mul­ber­ries and honey — I am sus­tained through the day.

Come evening, though, and I’m ready for Antep’s culi­nary crown­ing glory. Imam Cag­das ke­bab restau­rant and pud­ding shop is a cav­ernous, twofloor diner, with a faux-sweep stair­case and squadrons of old-school wait­ers.

My starter is hot lah­ma­cun, the lo­cal mince-topped flat­bread, which I fol­low with a salad with chopped wal­nuts and pome­gran­ate juice. And then there is ayran, the sour yo­ghurt drink la­dled from a bowl. From the range of ke­babs — in­clud­ing aubergine and spicy minced adana — I choose one that’s flavoured with gar­lic. And pis­ta­chios. I’m done by the time the waiter comes to clear my plate. ‘‘Baklava?’’ he asks. celebiogullari.com.tr kat­mer­cizek­eriya.com imam­cagdas.com

JEREMY SEAL

Mehmet Ak­sar tends his pis­ta­chio stall

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