Shell out for Turkish delights
The much-coveted pistachio takes centre stage in Gaziantep’s cuisine
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
Mehmet Aksar tends his pistachio stall