On the Recipe Trail in South-Eastern Turkey

By Paula Wolfert
Adapted from an article previously published in Saveur Magazine, May, 1998.

My friend Ayfer's round face is alight with merriment. We have been watching two Turkish cooks prepare a köfte, a food that has assumed cult proportions in Middle Eastern cooking. For this köfte the cooks are using bulgur, which is being kneaded with grated onion, crushed garlic, red and green peppers, cubed tomatoes, red pepper paste, cumin, and other spices. When I ask why they don't soak the bulgur in water the way most Arabs would, Ayfer laughs. "Around here no man would marry a woman who did that!" she chides.
The room erupts in laughter, the köfte-making temporarily abandoned.
I have come to southeastern Turkey and the region around Gaziantep, the gastronomic capital of the country, to learn about Turkish-Armenian cooking, in which bulgur plays a starring role. A cooked wheat byproduct, bulgur is not to be confused with cracked wheat (though it often is), and is ubiquitous in southeastern Turkey, where it originated. It is used in nearly every dish, including soups, pilafs, salads, desserts, even drinks.
Bulgur and the traditions, recipes--- and cultural humor--- that surround it span the generations. They also form a common meeting ground for a people torn asunder, as my friend Ayfer Unsal has discovered. Ayfer may be Turkish, but there could be no better way for me to learn Armenian cooking than through her. For years, Ayfer has been reaching out to Turkish-Armenian women, for their cooking secrets and their friendship.
The Turkish deportation and killings of ethnic Armenians in 1915 are well known--- what isn't publicized are the efforts of a few, like my friend Ayfer, a newspaper columnist and author, who are closing the wounds by seeking to establish meaningful relationships between Armenians and Turks. Her efforts have not always been well-received; once her brother's car was bombed, an apparent message to Ayfer to temper her writing.
For Ayfer, who has written a two-volume work on the cuisine of Gaziantep, her hometown, the dining table has always been central to the dialogue of healing. She is deeply involved with a program that brings the children and grandchildren of exiled Armenians to Turkey, so that they can perhaps find common ground with contemporary Turks while visiting their ancestral land. Often, she entertains the visitors at her home, hoping that if we can cook and eat together, then maybe we can become friends. Having them cook with me helps them feel at home in my house. When we enjoy food together, we can put aside the past. 
My lesson in the preparation of bulgur is taking place in Halfeti (also known in Armenian as Rumkale), a city of low-slung, suntanned buildings that hugs the Euphrates River in southeastern Turkey. The surface of the river seems languid, the water a deep turquoise, but there are, Ayfer tells me, strong currents beneath.
Strong political currents, too. Halfeti was once a seat of power when the Supreme Patriarchs of the Armenian Orthodox Church made the region their base between the 12th and 14th centuries. It is also the site of the great Fortress of Hromkla, where artisan monks toiled to produce brilliant illuminated manuscripts now on display at Los Angeles' renowned Getty Center, and of recently discovered Roman mosaics. But both will be lost when a major dam project is completed in 2001. Ayfer is working feverishly with local activists to have the mosaics excavated before they are lost forever.
We meet the mayor, Mehmet Gokcek, for lunch, prepared by his cooks Gunay Ozal and Erminia Baydilek. Ozal, wearing a black-and-white striped blouse and white kerchief around her graying hair, is working in the onion, garlic, tomatoes, peppers, red pepper paste, and other spices to give the bulgur köfte flavor. (Meat juices are also sometimes used.) To loosen the bulgur, she gradually adds cubed stale bread that has been soaked in ice-cold water, and when it's well-kneaded--- firm, tender, and elastic--- Baydilek scrambles a dozen eggs in olive oil. Ozal carefully folds the eggs into the flavored grain, then adds chopped parsley and mint and shapes the mixture into roughly inch-long cylinders.** It is the molding of a food--- whether it's bulgur or meat---into the distinctive round and oval shapes that makes a food a köfte, and how these shapes are achieved is much of the köfte mystique.
Ozal serves the köfte with sprigs of mint, tender raw grape leaves, and leaves of young romaine in which we wrap the delicious mixture. Ayfer tells me how, in her grandmothers' day, the women would gather at a public mill in the countryside right after the summer wheat harvest to make bulgur. For two days they would boil the hard wheat kernels until they swelled. The kernels would be dried on the flat roofs of the houses, then cracked and sieved to separate them by size (bulgur comes in four sizes: extra coarse, large, medium and fine). "Everyone ate bulgur, morning, noon and night," Ayfer recounts, so many new dishes were invented. 
Ayfer brings me to the home of Zeliha Gungoren in the village of Jibin, across the Euphrates River from Gaziantep. The land here is flat, covered in grape vines and pistachio trees, and the low buildings of the town are of stone, now partly crumbling, with fewer than 200 still inhabited.
Before the deportations of 1915, half the population of the then-bustling village was Armenian. Some families, fearing their daughters would not physically survive the trek to Syria, left them behind with Turkish neighbors. Many assimilated, and Ayfer believes that their children, like Zeliha, have brought an Armenian temperament to the food of the region. Because Turkish and Armenian cooking share so many dishes--- koftes, dolmas, kebabs, pilafs, and yogurt dishes--the differences between the two are subtle and are most often found in the seasoning. Armenian cooks use the gentle herbs such as basil, mint, and tarragon, so the food is earthy and aromatic. Turks are inclined toward the robust and spicy, often adding red pepper to dishes.
Dark-haired, blue-eyed Zeliha is, Ayfer assures me, a dynamite cook. She has agreed to teach me recipes, but first, hearing I'm interested in edible wild herbs and other plants, she takes us out to a meadow. She knows the names of all the wild flora and how they can be used in cooking. Soon my notebook is filled with pressed specimens---corn poppies, wild mustard, nettles, mallow, and more. I ask how she learned so much. "When I was a child," she tells me, "I took care of our family's sheep. The other shepherds taught me."
Soon, joined by numerous female relatives, neighbors and children, we are cooking up a storm: sarma, rolled grape leaves stuffed with bulgur, meat, and spices;* dolmas,* vegetables such as peppers, eggplant, and tomatoes, filled with the same stuffing;* bugulama, leafy greens steamed with bulgur and seasoned with red pepper, onion, and garlic;** and salads, including one of tender raw grape leaves and grated hardcooked eggs embellished with a tart red sumac berry dressing.
Zeliha's specialty is her tarhana** ---a preserve of yogurt and cracked hulled wheat, dried in little lumps in the sun, then rehydrated as needed, such as for her lentil soup.** Zeliha's tarhana is especially flavorful because of the extra time she allows it to dry. As she starts to mix the cooked lentils and tarhana with a wooden masher for her soup, Ayfer interrupts. "Why don't you try the machine Paula brought you?" she suggests."I'll show you how it works." 
Ayfer plugs in the hand-held electric blender and plunges it into the lentils. In seconds the lentils and tarhana are churned to a beige-yellow cream. Zeliha, gazing at this miraculous transformation, beams with pleasure. "This is great!" she says. "So fast!" Still grinning, Zeliha prepares a mint and pepper oil, then stirs it into the soup, creating lovely Jackson Pollock-like swirls. Patting the blender, she turns to me: "I can think of dozens of ways of using this. I'll use it every day . . . and think of you!"
The city of Gaziantep, formerly known as Aintab, isn't particularly beautiful. With so many new buildings--- it has grown markedly since I first visited five years ago and now has a million people---it doesn't have the aesthetic charm of other Turkish cities. But I love its covered market below the citadel, with gypsies selling purslane and grape leaves from baby carriages and farmers selling pistachios and green almonds from wagons. Most of all I love it for its human qualities, the warmth and kindness of its people. And I love its cooking. Because of its location on the ancient Silk Route, the food here has become a blend of the best of Armenian, Arabic, Greek, Jewish, Kurdish and Anatolian cooking.
Gaziantep is known for its kebabs, and two of my favorites are kusbasi kebabs, made with lamb loin strips spiced with pungent savory, cinnamon, dried mint, cumin, and black pepper;* and yeni dunya kebabi, made with ground lamb köfte spiced in the same manner as the loin strips, and loquats*.The complex spicing, the intensity of the heat and the speed while cooking make these dishes among the best of their type. A delicious onion-parsley salad, called piyaz salata,* is often served as an accompaniment to the kusbasi kebabs.
Ayfer takes me to the apartment of Canan Direkci, a handsome 50- year-old regarded as one of the most talented home cooks in the city. As we're led into her stylish living room, I note numerous plaques attesting to her gastronomic prowess.
Canan serves us a superb meal consisting of, among other dishes, a soup that combines skinned wheat berries with dark lentils and tarragon leaves, a fascinating striped cucumber called acur that is stuffed with green wheat, bulgur, and meat; and siveydiz, a thick stew of lamb, yogurt, and green garlic shoots.** The shoots, which are unformed cloves, give the stew a subtle garlic flavor. For dessert we have a superb sut muhallaba, a voluptuous milk pudding subtly scented with rose-flower water and garnished with pistachio slivers.** What is fascinating about the foods we are eating is how seamlessly Armenian influences--- the subtle tarragon flavoring in the soup, for instance--- have been integrated into Canan's Turkish cooking, to a degree I don't think she is even aware of. 
After the meal, it's time to read coffee grounds. Drained cups are turned upside down on their saucers. Ayfer and Ulker take turns reading the patterns in the grounds. Everyone listens gravely. I note the sparkle in the eyes of various guests as they respond to readings that hint at closely held secrets. A reader will never tell a guest something bad, Ayfer tells me, but there's always the possibility. 
Ayfer and I go to the highlands, to a village called Vakif in the foothills of the Musa Dagh (Moses' Mountain area), a gorgeous region of thriving citrus orchards just a few miles from the Mediterranean.
Vakif is one of the few remaining Armenian Christian villages in Turkey, its residents descendants of survivors of the tragic events of 1915 who escaped by hiding in the mountains. Our hostess is Surpuhi Karfun, a slim, shy young woman in her early thirties, wife of the village leader. There is no telephone or running water, but everything in her comfortable stucco house is immaculate.
The kitchen is incredibly simple a two-burner stove, a few aluminum pans and copper pots lined with tin. But such food! It is different than anything we've eaten in Jibin or Gaziantep. We consume a dish of meat and bulgur (like the traditional Middle Eastern dish kibbeh) poached in a delicious stock enriched with iepus mazeon, cooked preserved yogurt; baby eggplant stuffed with bulgur and lamb and flavored with mint and pomegranate molasses;* a stew of lamb, chickpeas, and taro root; a green bean pilaf topped with fried onions; and tea served with a twirl of preserved bitter orange peel called turunc. 
After lunch we take a walk to the center of town, a square with benches sheltered by poplar trees. Here Ayfer sits with the men talking politics, while Surpuhi joins the women's sewing circle. 
"Back there I felt like I was in another world," Ayfer says. "It was as if we entered a time capsule, as if the bad events between Turks and Armenians never took place." She sighs. 
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