ANTAKYA, Turkey - “He is an Arab and the son of an Arab, but he doesn’t speak Arabic,” Sidika Sürer, 86, teases Maksut Askar, her 42-year-old grandson. The latter is the chef and proprietor of Neolokal, an Istanbul restaurant, and he’s considered to be a leading representative of contemporary Turkish cuisine internationally. Smiling apologetically, Askar caresses the hand of his grandmother in the living room of the family’s old house in Iskenderun, in southern Turkey, near the Syrian border. It was in this house, with its modest façade, surrounded by tangerine and lemon trees laden with fruit, that Askar spent his childhood.
“I understand almost everything people say but I have a hard time conducting a conversation in Arabic,” he explains in English to the guests from Israel.
It wasn’t until 1939 that Hatay, the province in which Askar was born, was annexed to Turkey. The issue of whether Hatay belonged to Syria or Turkey was a subject of dispute between the two countries until the turn of the 21st century. The Arab inhabitants of the province prefer to call it Antakya (Antioch), after the name of one of the four ancient capitals of Greater Syria, rather than by the Turkish name of Hatay (which derives from the Hittite Empire, which flourished in the region thousands of years ago). Askar, like many of his generation, speaks Turkish, even though Arabic was his ancestors’ native tongue and many still speak it in his hometown.
Moin Halaby, chef of the Haifa restaurant Rola Levantine Kitchen, who was born in Israel to Druze parents, is speaking in Arabic with Askar’s grandmother. “The Turks are unjustly condescending to us Arabs,” the elderly woman says angrily when he asks her about the relations between the inhabitants of Turkish and Arab origins. But in the same breath she relates that one of her daughters is married to a Christian, and adds that in the ancient province – where adherents of different religions and various ethnic groups have coexisted for millennia – good relations exist between the neighbors. At least until it comes to issues related to cuisine.
“The Turks learned how to make lahma bi-’ajin from us,” she declares, in answer to Halaby’s question about the source of the flat pastry topped with minced meat (lahmacun in Turkish), “but to this day we make it better than they do.”
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Askar and Halaby, who became friends recently when they met at Askar’s restaurant in Istanbul and went on a three-day trip to Antakya in November, share certain biographical elements. Both are of Syrian descent: Askar’s family goes back 18 generations in Antakya, Halaby’s arrived in Palestine in the 16th century from Aleppo, Syria. Both were born into Middle Eastern religious minorities – Askar is an Alawite; Halaby, a Druze – and chose to live outside their communities’ rigid and secretive laws. Both became chefs relatively late, after successful careers in other fields, and both opened their own restaurants, one in Istanbul and the other in Haifa, four years ago.
The personal histories and the ongoing search for identity in the chaotic Middle East – for example, when Halaby, who served in the Israeli career army, says “we,” it’s hard to know whether he’s referring to an Israeli, Druze, Arab or Palestinian identity – are reflected in the menus of each restaurant. Both chefs are relentlessly occupied with investigating the past, but each in his own way. In Neolokal, which is located on the top floor of the SALT art gallery and cafe, and offers a breathtaking view of the Golden Horn, the dishes are traditional but prepared with personal and modern interpretation. By contrast Halaby, whose unpretentious restaurant is in Haifa’s downtown, tries to serve traditional dishes that are as close as possible to the original.
The discussion about food, identity and family continues around the dinner table.
“It’s disgraceful that you only told us yesterday that they are coming,” the grandmother scolds her wayward grandson. “If you’d told us on time, we could have prepared a real meal for the guests.”
The “light” meal that Askar’s grandmother and one of his aunts threw together at short notice includes, among other dishes, watercress salad with pomegranate molasses; homemade salted yogurt; pickled mini eggplants stuffed with walnuts; zucchini stuffed with bulgur; pastries stuffed with wild spinach, and others topped with peppers, dry cheese and wild thyme; kebabs baked in tomato sauce, or fried and sprinkled with hot peppers, served with hot bread straight out of the tabun; fresh and conserved fruit; and a variety of cookies and sweet wafers.
“When I’m in Istanbul I miss this food all the time,” Askar sighs, “and when I get home to my childhood haunts, I miss the feeling of being hungry.”
For his part, Halaby is thrilled by the quality of the ingredients – the marvelous pomegranate molasses, the Saurani olive oil, the salted yogurt, the za’atar (wild hyssop) gathered in the hills behind the house – and by the pungent flavors.
“It’s all so similar to my family’s kitchen and to my childhood, but yet so different,” he says. “Three years ago I went to Istanbul for the first time, and the first restaurant I ate in served Hatay food. Turkish cuisine isn’t monolithic. There’s the cuisine of the Black Sea region; the food that’s close, physically and metaphysically, to the Greek side; the cuisine of royalty that originated in Istanbul – and there’s the cuisine of southern Turkey, which is actually the typical kitchen of the Greater Syria region.
“When I first tasted Hatay food,” he continues, “I felt a tremendous similarity to our flavors and techniques, and since then my interest has focused on this cuisine. It was important for me to come here, to taste the food in its place of origin and creation, and not only to experience it as it’s replicated in the capital city of the former empire.
“Until 1939, the Antakya region was geographically and culturally Syrian, and it’s important in Arab history. Hanna Mina, one of the most important writers in Arab culture, was born in Iskenderun, and the first part of his autobiography is set there. From my point of view, Antakya is the northern end of the Levant and Haifa is at the southern end of that region, whose cuisine I try to represent faithfully in my restaurant.”
Sunday morning in Yagmuir, a restaurant in the village of Döver on the outskirts of Antakya. The lay of the land, and the people it produced, powerfully evoke the Arab villages in northern Galilee. But the route that travelers from Israel are forced to traverse is an allegory of the follies of life in the Middle East: fly north from Tel Aviv 90 minutes, to Istanbul; then back southward, a two-hour flight, to Antakya, on the Turkey-Syria border. The lovely restaurant, a place of pilgrimage for the local inhabitants on the weekly day of rest, lies in the shade of a vast, ancient plane tree, adjacent to the center of the old village, the flour mill and a traditional men’s cafe.
The restaurant’s long tables are crowded with families, children included, and everyone is enjoying the Antakya breakfast: sheep’s milk cheese roasted in pans of local clay; soft-boiled eggs on a salted yogurt base; menemen, the local version of the shakshouka egg-based dish; fresh cheese, and dried and spiced cheese (Surke payniri, the Antakyan equivalent of the Galilee shanklish); eggplant salad with olive oil, pomegranate molasses and mint; a salad of pickled olives and wild herbs; a selection of fruit jams and honey (including unforgettable mulberry molasses); and a variety of tabun and oven-baked pastries and breads.
Silver-plated teapots, containing the strong, dark essence of Ceylon tea diluted with some hot water, grace the tables. “We’re still in the habit of calling it ‘smuggled tea,’” says Suheyl Büdak, who has researched Antakya cuisine and written books on gastronomy. “The reason is that this tea used to be smuggled in from Syria when the border was still closed. After Antakya was annexed to Turkey, the border was sealed and families were torn apart. Relations didn’t thaw until the 1990s. I managed to tour the length and breadth of Syria before the civil war broke out in 2012. Like many others, I traveled to Aleppo every two weeks. During the Ottoman era, Antakya and Gaziantep were subordinate to Aleppo; we are all brothers. We live in Turkey and we are Turkish citizens, but we are not Turks, we are Arabs. We lived in this territory during all the changes of rulers in the modern era – the French, the Syrians and finally the Turks.”
Büdak, who is Askar’s mentor, began to study the history of Antakyan cuisine in 1987. His work methods include researching home-based cooking and a thorough, painstaking survey of written historical materials – not only books dealing directly with food – in order to extract scraps of information relating to the origins and development of local cuisine.
“A friend asked me about where hummus originated, and I replied, completely naturally, ‘In Antakya,’” the elderly scholar relates. “The friend pressed me: ‘But can you prove it?’ Because I am an engineer by profession, and because research is empirical, I promised to give him an answer within a week. However, in the late 1980s there was still no literature dealing with the history of local food, and I failed in my task. A month later, we went to a restaurant and were served kibbe siniya, with ground meat inside – a traditional dish that few are familiar with today – and I realized that the knowledge from our mothers was disappearing.
“I wrote an article in a local paper about different types of kibbe, and the responses were amazing,” he continues. “People started to call to offer me traditional culinary information and to treat me like an authority on the Antakyan kitchen. So I thought of compiling a book of traditional recipes from Antakya. The work on the book, which contains 300 recipes, took an entire decade. And by the way, it took me 20 years to find the answer to the question about the origins of hummus. Hummus already appears in a 13th-century Egyptian cookbook, but the recipe includes a mash of chickpeas, without tahini but with dried herbs and mint. They used to add sesame to the hummus, and gradually the sesame oil became tahini. In the 17th century you can find hummus recipes across the Ottoman Empire.”
Hummus, one of the most explosive materials in the Middle East, will continue to be a bone of contention among the small self-styled delegation that has come to investigate the Antakyan kitchen. Emotional, Tower of Babel-like disputes are conducted in Turkish, Arabic, Hebrew and English, and each side cites historical and etymological arguments.
“Something went wrong along the route between Haifa and Damascus and Antakya,” Halaby says gloomily, while visiting a few small hummus places in the heart of Antakya that serve thin hummus with tahini, laid out on a small dish and embellished with slices of pickles and tomatoes. (“Embellishment of the dish is a product of a magnificent tradition in the Abbasid dynasty,” says Büdak, singing the praises of the local hummus.)
One of the most popular dishes at these local places is hummus served with a soft omelet that’s been fried in butter, and topped with sumac and parsley. (In Israel we’ve become accustomed to think that the addition of a hardboiled egg to hummus had its genesis somewhere in the encounter between Jews and Arabs, but it’s possible that it originates in a saliently local, Middle Eastern tradition.) This kind of hummus, which Askar remembers vividly from his childhood, was the inspiration for the hummus served in Neolokal – one of the dishes most closely identified with the Istanbul restaurant. The hummus puree – including tahini, lemon, olive oil and cumin – is cooked in the traditional fashion but evokes the mountainous realms of the chef’s childhood landscapes: The dish is garnished with colorful seasonings that symbolize Antakya’s location on the ancient spice routes between the Far East and Mesopotamia and the Near East. The pheasant egg served with it, which the diners are requested to mix with the hummus, is the modern equivalent of the omelet served on the hummus in Antakya’s restaurants.
Bakeries in the city embody the way local traditions of the Greater Syria region have been preserved – as a result of circumstances of fate and geopolitical processes – in the modern world. “An old folk proverb says that the baker is never hungry,” Büdak says, “and in the old world everyone wanted to marry the miller’s daughter.”
The skilled team at Yilmaz Kardesler Firini, one of the local bakeries, never pauses from its monotonous work next to the immense wood-burning oven. The bakery’s daily output includes flat breads, bagels and kulcha, a bread-like yeast pastry featuring a base of olive oil dough, seasoned with anise seeds (there’s nothing better to nibble on while drinking raki). Above all, as in old days, such baked items and wood-burning ovens are offered in the service of the community.
A messenger boy on a bicycle departs every few minutes to bring bowls of puree intended as spreads to be roasted on top of the dough: mixtures of peppers and ground meat; peppers and onions; or peppers, tomatoes and dried cheese. The bakers prepare the pastries, which neighborhood residents season according to their tastes.
Antakya and Iskenderun, the two largest cities in the region, have both preserved their village ambiance. Local folk continue to tend their fruit trees and pick wild herbs in the nearby hills. In the alleys of the lovely markets, jibni, the traditional cheese, produced by small domestic dairies, is on sale. (This variety of cheese, intended for kanafeh, has gained fame throughout Turkey, but its expiry date is typically three days after its manufacture.) The ancient markets here are also studded with makers of kadayif, the shredded dough used to make kanafeh, whereas in most places in the world it’s now industrially produced. Similarly, the small workshops that manufacture sweets, jams and molasses based on fruit, vegetables and nuts are also preserving regional traditions that have become almost extinct in the Land of Israel – once an integral part of Greater Syria.
“He knows the gourds better than he knows his son and his family,” Büdak says with a smile about Bessam Bayasli, to whom the whole of Antakya flocks to buy the sugared pumpkin candies he produces.
“I once studied architecture in Damascus, but that’s a story that belongs to a different life,” says the sad-eyed Bayasli, who devotes his day to cutting gourds, soaking them in lime and cooking them. The result is a confection that tastes like paradise; it has a hard outer covering and a sweet liquid inside. In Israel and in the territory of the Palestinian Authority, members of older generations continue to make similar sweets, but we’ve never tasted any that even come close to those made by the small-time artisans of Antakya.
In the workshop of Berk and Buket Tatlicilik, a family home that morphed into a lovely little factory, traditional methods are used to preserve pumpkin, walnuts, mini-eggplants (“Only end-of-season unripe eggplants without seeds are used”), figs, strawberries, and bitter and bergamot oranges. The two regular employees at the workshop for jams and conserves – apart from the members of the Antakya family that opened the place 20 years ago, and are the fourth generation of local manufacturers of kanafeh and baklawa – are refugees from Aleppo who arrived here at the start of the civil war in Syria. (Almost a million Syrian refugees remain in Hatay Province, where it’s relatively easy for them to integrate and speak the local language.)
“The food is nice,” they reply politely when Halaby asks them to compare local food with that of their childhood home, “but bad compared to the magnificent Aleppo kitchen.”
There are those here who continue to think wistfully and longingly of Aleppo, the big city of the ancient province – whether their ancestors left 500 years ago and were forced to leave very recently and have witnessed its destruction.
Tuesday morning at the Antakya Kahvalti restaurant in the old city of Antakya. The narrow alleys, paved with stones and mule-passage friendly, lead to a lovely inner courtyard shaded by loquat and citrus tree. This was the birthplace of Metin Tansal, one of the city’s best-known restaurateurs and proprietor of the popularly priced Sultan Sofrasi restaurant. In his childhood home, which became a restaurant specializing in breakfast, waiters dressed in frock coats serve the best-known, traditional morning repast in Antakya. Why Israel has developed a name for itself because of its breakfast is beyond us. This even more abundant and varied Antakya meal – with its egg dishes, cheeses, pastries and salads – is enhanced by eggs served with wild pistachio buds; slices of dried cheese (shanklish) fried in butter and evoking the taste of sujuk sausage; olives cured from rare species that have been revived in this Turkish-Syrian region; and peels of conserved bitter oranges stuffed with walnuts and kaymak (rich cream made from buffalo milk).
“The Antakya kitchen lives the past but exists in the present,” Büdak observes. “Thirteen of the 15 known civilizations of the ancient world lived in Antakya and left their imprint on the local kitchen.”
He is echoed by journalist and food researcher Aylin Öney Tan. “Antakya gained fame thanks to its famous mosaic works,” she notes, adding, “For me, Antakya cuisine is a mosaic of flavors that reflect different cultures that lived in the region across history. Three cities in this area – Aleppo, Gaziantep and Antakya – are counted among the most important culinary centers of the Middle East, and the three constitute a gastronomic league in their own right.”
Ever the incorrigible optimist, Büdak wonders innocently why Antakya can’t be a cultural center that forges a connection between Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and the other countries the Middle East. “The language of cuisine is international,” he says. “Why shouldn’t it become the language of peace?”
The guests from Israel shrink uncomfortably and continue to check the frequent news reports from home, where Israelis and Palestinians are continuing to hammer one another lethally in the Gaza Strip.
In 2015, UNESCO, the United Nations scientific and educational agency, declared the nearby city of Gaziantep a gastronomic World Heritage Site. Two years later, Antakya joined that prestigious list, also because of its gastronomic heritage. But the beautiful city is finding it difficult to translate the international recognition into a major culinary attraction. Since 2012, when the civil war in Syria broke out, Antakya – which has been called “the Tuscany of the Middle East” – has been almost empty of tourists.