January 19, 2011
Every region of Turkey has its signature dishes, and one of Antakya’s tastiest is künefe, a pudding of a kind of vermicelli with soft cheese sandwiched in the middle. The whole thing is griddled to a crispy golden colour and doused in sugar syrup. It is, quite simply, delicious.
If you want good künefe in Antakya, the only place to go is Yusuf Usta’s shop Çinar Alti, nestled in a small square off the old city’s bazaar area. By the time I visited him last week, I’d already had the chance to try künefe in two or three other places, so was feeling fairly confident in my abilities to judge a good one.
But before I could taste Yusuf Usta’s künefe, I was treated to a demonstration of exactly how it’s made. First, flour and butter is rubbed together until tiny lengths of dough are formed. This takes quite some time, so Yusuf Usta sensibly leaves this arduous task to his assistant.
The spaghetti-like dough is packed loosely into the base of a large copper tray, which is then covered with a soft, somewhat tasteless cheese, crumbled evenly to cover the bottom layer of dough.
Another layer of dough covers the cheese, and the whole shebang is placed over a very hot charcoal fire. It takes about ten minutes for the künefe to become golden brown and the cheese to start to meld into the mixture.
When the first side of the künefe is ready, Yusuf Usta shows his true skill and tosses the large dish to cook the other side.
Another ten minutes to crisp up the other side, and the künefe is ready to eat. By this point, my mouth was seriously watering, and I couldn’t wait to try the tasty-looking concoction that had formed in front of me.
The finishing touch is a couple of spoonfuls of sugar syrup that simmers away in a large pot. I bit into the crispy künefe and as the hot, soft cheese and syrupy sweetness hit home, I can honestly say I was in heaven. Yes, it was true – Yusuf Usta is the king of künefe.
(Çinar Alti is at Ahmediye Cami Içi No:2, Antakya, Turkey. Tel +90 326 212 6888)
January 15, 2011
I’m spending a few days in the south-eastern Turkish city of Antakya, very close to the border with Syria. I’ve come here because I’ve heard it’s very different from the rest of Turkey, not least because it was once part of Syria (from 1918 to 1938) when that country was under French rule.
For me, the clearest way to witness the cultural history of this fascinating place is in its food. So I was very excited to visit the city’s main food market today. Although many of the fruit and vegetables were similar to those I find in the markets in Istanbul, the thing that really sets it apart was the people selling the stuff.
The immediate difference, in my eyes, was that there were many many more women behind the stalls. I don’t know why, but you just don’t see women doing that kind of work at the Istanbul markets.
Anyway, I just wanted to show you some of the hard-working, well-worn faces I came across today. They all clearly lead very tough lives, and work very hard. But they were all so kind to me, and insisted I took a sample of whatever they were selling.
This couple (above) were selling the typical Antakyan salty yoghurt, the consistency of which was more like cream cheese, but much fresher and lighter in flavour. Delicious, of course. They also had the driest, wrinkliest black olives I’ve ever eaten – but surprisingly sweet.
As is often the case at this market in Antakya, people come and sell even very small amounts of produce from their smallholdings. This woman (above) came armed with a couple of pumpkins, some homemade cheese and a 2-litre bottle of fresh milk.
The herbs this woman was selling (above) were unlike anything I’ve ever seen. To be honest, at first glance they looked like the sort of thing you end up with after giving your garden a good prune. But absolutely everything in this mishmash was edible – and fantastically flavoursome. But don’t ask me what any of it was – I haven’t got the faintest idea!
This, believe it or not, is a radish (above). They don’t half like their radishes in Turkey. And when they are as sweet and peppery as this one, I can understand why.
My very first meal in Antakya included a black carrot stuffed with minced lamb, rice and spices. Several meals later, I still think that was one of the best dishes I’ve eaten here. I got very excited when I saw this pile of black carrots at the market (above), but sensibly came to the decision that I was not going to be able to stuff a couple of kilos of them in my suitcase to take home.
It seems to be the case in Turkey that the surrounding streets are completely taken over with people selling produce on market day. I like to think this woman has a veritable garden of paradise behind this house, which she heaves onto the street each Saturday. I doubt that’s even where she lives, but it’s a nice thought.