On the old Silk Road

On the old Silk Road

Greg Malouf, Lucy Malouf
13 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Lisa Cohen and William Meppem

Sedat had arranged for us to meet up with his friend Emine Serin in Kahramanmaras¸, en route to our next destination, the south-eastern city of Gaziantep. Emine was a school teacher at a nearby town and she spoke English. ‘Em’s a free-spirit,’ Sedat had said, when we’d asked if she would be able to take time off school to be our translator and guide for the next five days. ‘She’ll be over the moon to have a break from school and an adventure with you.’

Through a series of text messages we’d arranged to meet her in Yasar Pastanesi, a well-known pastry shop in the city centre. And over a cup of strong black tea and a plate of walnut baklava we began to get to know each other. Within a few minutes of our meeting, I could tell that Greg was smitten! Emine, a tall young woman with a lovely face and a gentle, eager manner, had taken the task of helping us with our food research seriously. She’d organised for us to meet the owner and chef at Mado restaurant, and we soon found ourselves sitting in a packed dining room on the outskirts of the city.

It was pitch-black and windy outside and we were eating, of all things, ice-cream. But this was not just any old ice-cream; it was dondurma, the famous Turkish ‘stretch’ ice-cream. We’d encountered something similar on our visits to Lebanon and Syria and had grown addicted to the smooth elastic texture and subtle flavour. Like its Middle Eastern cousin, dondurma is a pounded ice-cream and that unique stretchiness comes from mastic (plant resin) and sahlep (an extract of orchid root).

Talk to any Turk, and they’ll tell you that Maras is the true home of ice-cream. The goats, sheep and cows that graze in the nearby mountains produce the country’s sweetest milk, and the wild orchids that contain sahlep also grow abundantly in the mountain pastures. In fact, Maras dondurma is more than just stretchy; the ice-cream we were tasting was firm enough to be eaten with a knife and fork and was perhaps better described as hard and chewy.

Chef Osman Demiroz had just treated us to a whistle-stop tour of the gleaming Mado ice-cream factory, located behind the restaurant, which churns out around forty-five tonnes a week for transportation all around the country and even overseas. As well as the traditional mild-flavoured sahlep variety, Mado also makes a wide range of other flavours, including pistachio, almond, sour cherry, mulberry and blackberry, as well as bizarre flavours like pumpkin.

Of course, this ultra-modern factory product, impressive as it was, didn’t have quite the same romance as the handmade stuff. But during the long hot summer months, dondurma really comes into its own: local ice-creameries put on a show with traditionally garbed men wielding long hand-forged metal rods and working the ice-cream in a deep skinny barrel. Massive blocks of it hang out the front of shops, taffy-like from hooks, waiting to be sawn off with a sharp knife.

After we’d finished our ice-cream it was time to move on to our next destination – an hour further south, down near the Syrian border. By the time we reached Gaziantep it was almost midnight but the traffic was still chaotic, especially in the narrow streets near the bazaar, where our hotel was located. It turned out that Anadolu Evleri was just around the corner from one of Gaziantep’s most famous kebab restaurants, which was doing a roaring trade, even at that late hour.

Anadolu Evleri was a delightful boutique hotel, located down a winding alleyway and set behind a high stone wall. Owner Timur Schindel and his wife Dila had bought four old Anatolian houses in 2001 and renovated them to provide thirteen charming rooms – if slightly quirkily appointed. Mine was tucked in under the eaves at the top of the house; it had whitewashed walls, an antique brass bed and wooden beams set into the sloping ceiling.

I slept through the early prayer call the next morning, but was awakened instead by pigeons clucking and cooing outside my windows. We gathered for breakfast in a sunny dining room overlooking the central courtyard, or hayat. In the dappled morning sunshine we could better appreciate the light- and dark-patterned paving stones, the soft honey-coloured stonework and the graceful arched windows of the buildings. Timur explained that these features are typical of old Gaziantep houses, and it fascinated us how similar it was to the architecture we’d seen in Aleppo, over the border in neighbouring Syria.

It has to be said that Gaziantep – or Antep, as it’s generally called – gets pretty short shrift in the guide books. From a tourist perspective it’s not the most obviously appealing city. And yet Gaziantep dates back to Hittite times and it has a Roman citadel to explore. The city is located between Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean, at the intersection point of roads connecting the east to the south, north and west – and it was a key spot on the old Silk Road.

We’d heard that Antep food is a wonderful blend of Arabic, Armenian, Kurdish and Anatolian influences, and we were keen to start exploring the nearby markets. First, though, we had an appointment next door, at Imam Çagdas.

We met with Burhan Çagdas in his large airy restaurant, the fourth-generation owner of the business. It was late morning and the place was already filling up with families, groups of women and young couples. A few seemed to be tucking in to an early lunch, but most were swooning over plates of delectable pastries. It was these pastries we’d come to investigate, because, as well as being renowned for kebabs, Imam Çagdas is famous in Turkey for its exquisite baklava.

Antep baklava is made almost exclusively from pistachios, yet another thing the city is famous for, and it even lends its name to the nut – Antep fistıgı. Burhan brought over a small wooden bucket of pistachios for us to inspect. They were a vivid emerald green and much larger than any we’d seen before. ‘These pistachios are of exceptional quality,’ said Burhan, doling out handfuls of the nuts for us to taste. ‘With ordinary pistachios, you get maybe 500–600 to a kilogram. The pistachios from Antep, there can be 130–200 to a kilogram.’

We nibbled at the pistachios delicately, aware that in Australia they are almost as costly as the emeralds they resembled. ‘Eat, my friends, eat!’ urged Burhan, trickling more nuts into our hands and chuckling at our expressions. Suddenly he leapt to his feet. ‘Come!’ he instructed, marching across the cool marble floor of the restaurant to a lift tucked away next to the busy kitchen.

Up on the third floor, above the restaurant’s dining rooms, we walked into an extraordinary scene. Half the vast space was enclosed behind glass, where, in a cloud of fine white dust, a team of young men worked around a massive, long table. Using long wooden rolling pins called oklava, they rolled out stacked sheets of yufka pastry into ever-thinner layers. As graceful as ballet dancers, the yufka rollers rose onto their toes, then, arms fully extended, sank down onto the pastry, pushing and stretching it out in front of them. The effect was delicate, rhythmic and mesmerising – a sequence of rolling and lifting – the pastry itself, billowing in the air, as light as gossamer.

Burhan smiled and continued, proudly, ‘This work is very skilled. The boys, they start here as young as seven or eight years old to learn how to become a yufka chef. It takes many years, but if they make it, it is a job that earns them respect … and they will have it for life.’

In the room next door, more men were busy assembling the large trays of pastries for baking. Some were draping the tins with layers of translucent pastry; others were scattering great handfuls of ground pistachios before gently settling on the top layers. Little boys, whose job it was to carry the trays of prepared baklava to the massive wood-fired oven, scuttled around the perimeter of the room.

We moved over to watch two men supervise the baking process. They were also specialists, knowing exactly where in the oven to place the trays and for how long, pushing them around on the end of long paddles and then whisking them out at just the precise moment.

Next, the trays of baked baklava were moved along a mini assembly line of gas rings. Each tray was spun around on the flame to maintain the temperature, before being flung onto the workbench where an elderly man ladled boiling sugar syrup onto the still-hot pans. We could see the top layers of golden pastry ‘dancing’, as the syrup bubbled up from the sides of the tin.

Burhan introduced us to the syrup-ladler – his father. Although well in his sixties, Talat Çagdas came into the workshop every day, as he’d done all his life. Burhan told us that his father no longer works as a yufka chef, but oversees the final part of the process. As we watched Talat Çagdas lift the ladles of boiling syrup we could see that the knuckles on his hands were swollen, his fingers gnarled and distorted by the relentless, repetitive work. As is so often the case, beauty is achieved only at a cost. In the same way that ballet dancers’ feet are destroyed by their art, it seemed that the dance of the yufka rollers exacted its own terrible price.

Pudding shops

The milk pudding is a much-loved category of dessert in Turkey. There is an entire profession of muhallebici – specialist milk-pudding makers – and pudding shops, devoted entirely to these dairy delights, are found in just about every Turkish town.

To those of us who grew up with a horror of insipid milky blancmanges and lumpy rice puddings, this passion might seem a bit bizarre. But milk puddings have been popular in the Middle East for centuries – they are one of the simplest desserts to prepare at home, and nearly every housewife will know how to knock up a muhallebi (the classic milk pudding) or sütlaç (rice pudding).

Turkish milk puddings come in myriad flavours and textures and in the windows and chill cabinets of even the most humble pudding shop you’ll find row upon row of tiny bowls to tempt you. This is also where you’ll find the thick rolled logs of Turkish clotted cream known as kaymak. Kaymak is thick enough to be cut with a knife and is used as a filling for all kinds of sweet syrupy pastries, poached apricots, or even spread onto bread with honey or jam, for a calorific breakfast treat.

When it comes to puddings, the simplest muhallebi is nothing more complicated than full-cream milk thickened with cornflour, ground rice or rice flour. Professional pudding makers use sübye, a milky pulp made from soaked, puréed rice, which helps to set puddings with a silky-smooth texture. Some muhallebi are flavoured with flower waters, orange zest, vanilla or mastic, others are thickened with ground nuts instead of rice.

Sütlaç, on the other hand, is closer to what we know as rice pudding. Some versions are enriched with eggs and baked in the oven, developing a distinctive burnt surface, a little like a crème brûlée. Zerde, a saffron-tinted rice pudding with currants and nuts, is traditionally served at weddings and circumcision feasts. Kesme bulamacı is a pudding from the south-east of Anatolia, made using bulgur wheat instead of rice. One particularly esoteric pudding, tavuk gögsü, is made from finely shredded chicken breast. It comes as no surprise to learn that this particularly crazy-sounding dessert was the creation of the Ottoman palace kitchens.

One thing that all Turkish milk puddings share is a creamy lightness of texture and a subtlety of flavour that is particularly welcome during the long hot summer months. Once you’ve tasted them, it’s hard to get the memory out your mind.

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