I’m sitting at a small wooden desk shaded by orange trees in the Antakya district of Hatay. It’s a stone courtyard surrounded by stores, but the sounds I hear make me feel as if I’m in the middle of a big kitchen. One cook is mincing meat with a cleaver, one is meticulously and quickly placing minced meat on small trays, one is chopping red peppers, one is putting threads of kadayıf dough on a sheet of metal, and yet another is pouring syrup on fried kunefe in the corner. Others are also kneading dough for pepper paste-covered bread on the counter. A youngish boy is carrying olives, olive oil, and pomegranate syrup in a wheelbarrow. The air is filled with a sharp scent of barbecue smoke. Some are piling logs on both sides of the oven. I am trying to soothe my mind, which feels weary from trying to follow all this hustle and bustle, with süvari, coffee served in slender-waisted tea cups.
An old man passes in front of the giant lead door opening up to the courtyard. I decide to follow the exotic and unknown scent coming off the fuming copper in his hands around the city. To have a reference point, I look at the inscription on the big gate; it says “Kurşunlu (Lead) Inn.” I pass by coppersmiths, basket makers, and spice sellers and find myself on the street. “Now, we will visit the historic Uzun (Long) Market,” says a tour guide hidden in the crowd. After following him briefly, I cut in front of the old man and ask him what he’s carrying. I fail to get an answer because he doesn’t speak Turkish. He takes some grain-like resin nubs out of his pocket and walks away. I ask what they are to the old lady sitting on the floor selling herbs. “Frankincense,” she replies. “He prayed and now burns incense so that it comes true.” I first look at the incense and then the herbs in front of her. She also tells me about them. “It’s za’atar; we collect it on the mountains. We use it in olive oil salads, dry it for winter, and use it in pickles. We always have it on our table. We brew it and drink it like tea when we’re sick.” She takes a handful of za’atar, crushes it between her palms, and gives it to me. With the scent of this sharp thyme, Hatay is engraved in my mind.
Besides its fragrance, this mountain beauty also arouses my curiosity for its flavor. I leave Uzun Market and, across, see Sultan Sofrası, a historic stone mansion whose reputation preceded my visit. It has been serving the delicacies of Hatay for 28 years. Mustafa Tansal welcomes me like a host rather that a manager. In the blink of an eye, I am sitting at a table garnished with all kinds of dishes. Yogurt soup with wheat, oruk, tepsi kebabı, kaytaz pastry, and even aşur... This is just the beginning. The second course begins with olive oil dishes such as hummus, muhammara, baba ghanoush, and, the much-anticipated, za’atar salad. It’s the first thing I ask about.
Born and raised in Hatay, Tansal begins our conversation with a local saying, “My dear za’atar, found on every mountain,” and gives me the recipe for the salad. “Finely chop the za’atar. Rub it with salt and wash it to get rid of the bitter taste. Mix it with pomegranate syrup, parsley, finely chopped green olives, tomatoes, and olive oil. This wonderful delicacy is that simple to make.”
Even this long conversation about za’atar proves that Hatay is a true culinary gem. I’m curious to learn about other things the city has to offer, and I find almost all of them on Kurtuluş Street. Rumor has it that this was the first columned street in the world to be illuminated by torches. I begin with Habib al-Najjār Mosque, regarded as the first mosque in Anatolia. To the southeast of the mosque, I see the mausoleums of John the Apostle and Paul the Apostle. On one hand, there are people walking into the mosque for prayer, and on the other, tourists visiting the Christian prophets’ mausoleums. Some are reciting the al-Fatiha or a prayer in their own language. Demonstrating a tolerance for a diversity of religions in the city, this view makes me fall even more in love with Hatay.
I walk beneath different types of pigeons taking off from the roofs. Pigeons are symbols of both the city and peace. Soon after, I arrive at the Roman Catholic Church and the Antakya Synagogue. These neighboring religious structures serve as a lesson of peace for the Middle East, which in recent years has not managed to enjoy such an existence. I walk on and see a group of young people eating haytalı (a type of milky dessert) at the historic Affan Kahvesi. An old man is sitting on a stool in front of a tailor's shop and sewing patches on a pair of pants. He occasionally sings along with the folk song coming from inside the shop, “I’ve dried roses in a golden bowl.”
I turn towards the back alleys. The two-story stone houses painted a yellowish color still bear the traces of antiquity. The narrow streets are no different from labyrinths with water canals flowing in the center. I peek through the gates at the courtyards surrounded by high walls -this is where the magic happens. People are crushing olives, making pomegranate syrup in cauldrons, boiling pumpkins and walnuts for jams, or distilling sweet bay oil. Not only at the markets but also in houses, feasting is an important part of daily life here.
The Hatay Archaeology Museum is the best place to trace the city back to antiquity. I spend the rest of my time in the city at the museum which hosts the world’s richest mosaic collection. The highlight of the museum is the statue of Suppiluliuma. This 3,000-year-old giant statue which belonged to the Hittite king was found in Reyhanlı. Standing before a long queue of visitors with his beard and locks of hair, the king holds a spear in one hand and a shaft of wheat in the other, signifying war and productivity respectively.
I visit the district of Defne, the place where most of the mythological artifacts at the museum have been excavated. This is where the story begins, the place where Daphne, who runs from Apollo, is turned into a laurel tree by Mother Earth. The tears Daphne left behind as she ran away have turned into waterfalls of many shapes and sizes. The picnic area named after Harbiye Waterfalls is home to dozens of restaurants and tea gardens. The locals enjoy the breeze on hot summer days while sitting at wooden tables set over small ponds, dipping their feet into the cool waters.
I leave this natural beauty to a wonder of engineering, the Titus Tunnel, built to protect the city from floods in the Roman period. Roman legions and slaves worked for the construction of the tunnel, built by Emperor Titus in AD 81. Entirely carved into a mountain, the tunnel is 1,380 meters long and 7 meters high. Ancient Roman cemeteries can be found near Beşikli Cave. On the way back, I stop by the stalls opened by local women. I see sweet bay oil, bars of olive oil soap, pomegranate syrups, and za’atar -but this time, it’s pickled. I buy a jar and bid farewell to the city.
I come to realize that feasting is Hatay’s secret to living in peace amidst diversity. Feasting unites people and brings peace between them. Tables are enriched with a respect for beliefs and cultural richness, and a chair is pulled up to the table for each newcomer. This is what the past whispers into my ear: as long as there’s feasting, Antakya will prosper.
Hatay cuisine has both challenging dishes and quick meals. Here are a few of them.
Yogurt and Wheat Soup
2 tbsp. salted yogurt / 5 cups water / 35 g rice / 1 tsp. dried mint / 1 tsp. butter
For the meatballs:
125 g bulgur / 125 g lean meat / 1 onion / 2 tsp. tomato paste / 1 tsp. flour / Red pepper flakes / Cumin / Salt
Soak the bulgur. When it softens, add the finely chopped onion and other ingredients. Knead it until it acquires the texture of meatballs and divide it in two. With one half, make balls the size of marbles and press your pinky finger in the center, creating an indentation. Place the filling in the meatballs, cover, and shape them like rugby balls. Bring a pot of water to a boil. Add the rice first and then the salted yogurt. Cook for 10 minutes while stirring. Add the meatballs and boil for another 10 minutes. Melt the butter with dried mint and and pour over the soup before serving. Serve hot.
Kebab in Parchment Paper
150 gr yağlı kıyma / Çeyrek demet maydanoz / 2 diş sarımsak / 1 kırmızıbiber / Tuz / Karabiber / Pul biber
Maydanozları ve kırmızıbiberi ince ince kıyın. Sarımsakları dövün. Tüm malzemeyi bir tepside iyice yoğurun. 25x25 cm ebadında kesilmiş yanmaz kâğıdın üzerine daire şeklinde basın. Bunu bir tepsi içine alarak fırında 200 derecede 40 dakika pişirin.
1 kg pumpkin / 250 g hydrated lime / 1.5 kg granulated sugar / Juice of a half lemon / 4 cups water
Peel, deseed, and slice the pumpkin. Melt the hydrated lime in a bowl of water. Let the pumpkin slices sit in the lime water for a day. Add the sugar into the water and boil while stirring until it becomes thicker. Add the pumpkin slices and cook for an hour. Add the lemon juice and remove from heat after a short while. Let the dessert cool and cut into small pieces. Garnish with tahini and pistachios before serving.
500 g high-fat meat / 500 g wheat / 1 cup chickpeas / 1 onion / 5 g salt / Pepper paste / Butter / Cumin / Walnuts
Boil the meat in a pressure cooker for 30 minutes and the chickpeas for 20 minutes. Add the wheat, boiled chickpeas, and chopped onion to the meat. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon cumin. Add water but try not to cover the mixture. Cook without stirring on low heat for 2.5 hours. Add the pepper paste and salt. Mash with a hand blender until the chickpeas and the meat are homogenized. Add melted butter and sprinkle with crushed walnuts.
250 g pickled green olives / 3 stalks of green onions / ½ bunch of parsley / 2 tbsp. pomegranate syrup / 5 g red pepper flakes / Olive oil / 5 g salt
Pit the olives and mix them with the finely chopped onions. Add the pomegranate syrup, salt, red pepper flakes, and olive oil. Add the minced parsley and mix well before serving.