Traditional Cuisine and Social Gastronomy
Hatay hosted 13 of the 23 civilizations; a city where Arabians, Turkmen, Circassians, Christians, The Jewish, Armenians, Nosairians and Sunni people lived together for hundreds of years, and civilizations and cultures were united. Due to the richness of all these ethnic origins and religions, the cuisine culture is also well-developed. Located on the Spice and Silk Roads, being a door to Mesopotamia and the Middle East, Hatay is a quite rich city in terms of its cuisine culture, the kitchen utensils that have been used for hundreds of years, and preservation of the local recipes and passing them from generation to generation.
The answer to the question “Live to eat or eat to live?” in Hatay is “Live to eat”. Hatay community consists of people that live thinking what to eat the next day, that are fond of having pleasure, and each and every of them are gourmets due to their fertile soil, climate, abundance and cheapness of fruits and vegetables, and high welfare and living conditions.
The “Be cheerful, live your life” mosaic, descending to 3rd century B.C. also supports this thesis. In Hatay cuisine, fresh vegetable, olive oil, legumes and grains are used, in short, it involves all the ingredients that are used in a typical Mediterranean cuisine. Grains, legumes, vegetables, fruits, indigenous herbs and spices growing in Hatay resulted in Hatay cuisine having more than 650 its own dishes. There is a large variety of cooking techniques of the vegetables, grains, and legumes in Hatay, such as boiling and frying. And they are stored through sun-drying and conserving. These agricultural ingredients are cooked through marinating, boiling, sautéing, frying or grilling along with meat, chicken, and fish.
Fruits are consumed fresh, and used for making juices, fruit stew, jam, vine and raki, as well as being sun-dried and used in desserts and pastries. Meat is also consumed with pastries a lot in Hatay.
While Christians and Nosairians prefer to eat meat without tomato paste and with little spice, Sunnis prefer it with lots of tomato paste and spice. Thus, there is an increase in variety and richness of the dishes in line with the tastes of different cultures. Hatay is a Mediterranean climate city, and is cover with the Mediterranean vegetation. There are 251 endemic vegetables growing on Amanos Mountains in Hatay. “Kömeç” a cure-all dish made of mixed herbs that are picked up from the mountains especially during springs, is an example of the such vegetables. Another example is of such endemic vegetables is thyme, wild herb growing on the mountains. In can be used in salads or tea brewing when fresh, and as a spice when dried. It is brined in olive oil, and preserved to be consumed during winter.
Since Hatay is located on the “Spice Road”, variety and use of spice, which differs Hatay cuisine from other cuisines, has emerged. Some examples of the spices are; thyme, fennel, sesame, nutmeg, basil, and cilantro. It is a city that produces its own olive and olive oil, and even has enough capacity, production and employment to sell them all over Turkey. Due to the convenience in climate, water, agricultural land, and stock breeding, it produces the basic ingredients of the dishes itself, and this results in natural, organic and low-budget tastes, in short, ingredients such as meat, vegetables, spices, tomato paste, and olive oil are produced in Hatay.
“Stone oven” and “tandoori” tradition still continues, each neighborhood is certain to have both. Paper kebab, tray kebab, stuffed meatballs, buns wit sesame, melt-away cookies, sweet and crispy buns, gata, small ground meat pizzas, cookies with farina, pita bread, and pita are made in stone ovens. And in tandooris, tandoori bread, and breads with peppers, seasonings, and spinach are baked. In Hatay, fruits are consumed fresh as well as storing them for summers or winters through traditional methods. When summer arrives, winter preparations begin. Fresh grape leaves are brined and potted. Within the period between 15th of August and September, which is called the Pepper-Hot Days (the drought whether that is very hot during days and very chilly during nights), peppers are threaded and sun-dried to be used in stuffed vegetables, as a whole in dishes, and side meal in meatballs.
They are also used in paste making, and pulverized for using as a spice. Mints are sun-dried, and pulverized to be used as a spice as well. In Augusts, ripe tomatoes are used in making tomato paste in cauldrons, and then sun-dried. Cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, garlics, swedes, and purple carrots are pickled. “Salty yogurt” is made through cooking the yogurt, made of indigenous milk, in cauldrons to be used in soups and meals with yogurt in winters. Pomegranates are picked up, and its syrup cooked in cauldrons to be used in salads, an appetizers and meals. Moreover, figs, walnuts, loquats, orange blossoms, carrots, petitgrains, bergamots, eggplants, citrons, zucchinis, mulberry and apricot jams, local molasses (made of local grapes), carob molasses are boiled in summer as winter preparations.
Syrups are consumed a lot due to the hot climate in summers. Orange, lemon and black mulberry syrups are made in summer. And they are preserved to be consumed in winter. Licorice is juice made of licorice roots, and consumed throughout the summer. Eggplants, peppers, zucchinis, and okras are threaded and sun-dried to be used in dishes during winter. Fresh broad beans are sun-dried and prepared for winter, both to be consumed as a paste in breakfasts and used in dishes (bulgur pilaf). Many vegetables are conserved in order to prepare for the winter and practice kitchen economy. These can be exemplified as beans, okras, green peas, tomatoes, and black eyed peas. “Firik” (pounded wheat), which is used in dishes prepared obtained from burnt wheats in farms (such as bulgur pilaf), and in stuffed vegetables, is also prepared in summers.
And when it is winter, olive preparations begin. There are two types of preserving methods. One is through flavoring the olives with the right amount of salt, and the other one is flavoring through changing its water with caustic water. Olive types are local halhalı olives, attün olives, saurani olives, cracked green olives and caustic green olives. Between 15th of April and May, dehydrated fresh cheese; dried thyme, and black cumin are potted into a large earthenware jug along with cottage cheese, and are buried to be dug out in January. Cheese and cottage cheese can be consumed separately. Cottage cheese (local blue cheese); can be consumed fresh in salads when the milk is curdled, and can be consumed after flavored with thyme and other spices and moulded.
There are also many types of cheese in Hatay, such as the local blue cheese, pressed cheese, cheese with gum mastic, twisted cheese, kake cheese, carra cheese, squeezed cheese, cut cheese, and string cheese. However, the most important one is the kunafah cheese, which is also indigenous. It is used both in kunafah made of shredded dough, and in halva making due to its rope and consistency. When we look at the history of the city, we see that it hosted many civilizations.
And of course, we cannot see such exact civilizations today, nor can we say that their marks are completely gone. Following the tracks left by a tradition is like being a detective within the archives of the history. Revealing the cultural histories of food is like revealing the cultural histories of the civilization. The famous traveler and explorer Evliya Çelebi visited Hatay when he was going to Damascus in 1648. He stated that the bazaar consisted of three hundred shops during that time.
He provides information on agricultural products, stating that white large wheats, local bread, and fruits of Hatay such as lemon, petitgrains and cane are very well-known. It is possible to come across with lots of information on copper utensil in legal records also in Ottoman era. It is known in Hatay that stuffed sheep intestines comes from Roman cuisine, and that chard with seasoned yogurt comes from Ottoman cuisine. Revealing the origins of a certain dish may be important, but what is more important is to state that Hatay cuisine is integrated with the Middle East cuisine, and that Hatay shares many common traditions with Anatolia. In this city, eating has a deep place in every aspect of life. There is no fun without food, no guests are hosted, and no weddings are held without food.
Traditional dishes must be presented one by one, and kunafah must be shared. When the dinner table is being prepared, you may get confused about which one of the appetizers, soups, meatballs, vegetable dishes, meat dishes, salads, and desserts to eat. Especially the seasonal greens placed on the center of the table is like an unspoken rule, and it never gets too old. There are all kinds of things in Hatay cuisine; taste, visual quality, sharing, tradition, and modernity.
Richness of Hatay cuisine is due to the convenience of the environment it is located in above all others. Being located on a convenient place for growing all kinds of foot products in terms of climate, water, agricultural fields, and stock breeding. As the main ingredient of the dishes, which are a component of the kitchen, are provided with low cost again with the city’s own production. Both convenient production and affordable costs result in shaping a substantial cuisine culture.
Thus, Hatay cuisine is indeed one of the richest cuisines of Anatolia with its meat dishes, stuffed vegetables, vegetable dishes, jams, pickles, pilafs, food, appetizers and salads, dishes made of herbs picked up naturally, pastries, dairy products, and dried food. Calling it the richest one as it is today may not be a wrong statement. In Hatay, where people eat three main meals a days, being in the breakfast, lunch, and dinner, tables almost always include rich menus. One of the most important distinctive characteristic of Hatay dishes are spices. Spices are used in almost all dishes, and even in breakfast products, both as a flavorer, and as a plating element.
Cumin, black pepper, mint, sumac, flaked pepper, cinnamon, clove, and black cumin as well as many other spices which have specific local names, such as fennel, cilantro, thyme, and basil. Long Bazaar, located in central Antakya, provide us with may clues about the Hatay cuisine. Tomato paste, spice, various cheeses, meat, pastry, kunafah, olives, dried vegetables and thyme sellers are all together lined up one after another. In Long Bazaar, where traditional food is sold, there are also shops in which traditional kitchen utensils are sold. Thyme is used in a completely different way in Hatay compared to other regions of Anatolia.
Food obtained from thyme, picked up from mountains during spring, set the best example of the relationship between Hatay cuisine and natural herbs. Thyme has recently been grown in house gardens due to the increased demand. Thyme that is just picked up and sold fresh is used in salads. If out of season, it is stored by brining in olive oil, or sun-dried. Dried thyme is used in cottage cheese, and in dishes. Another distinctive characteristic of this cuisine is the intense use of olive oil. Another irreplaceable flavorer of Hatay cuisine dishes with both meat and olive oil is pomegranate syrup. Apart from pomegranate syrup and olive oil, a very important vegetable is red pepper, which has local names for both fresh and the dried versions.
While especially the hot red pepper is consumed along with many dishes when fresh, dried pepper is also consumed widely. It is a distinctive characteristic of this cuisine along with the spices. Traditional vegetable dishes are also important elements of the cuisine. Many meat dishes are cooked at homes. However, making some of the traditional meat dishes take place within a relation between the meat, the butcher, and the bakery.
For example, tray kebab is not made at homes, but rather ordered to the butcher of the neighborhood according to the number of people. There is absolutely a bakery next to, or really close to the butcher. Filling ingredients, used in traditional food apart from tray kebab such as paper kebab, bread with peppers and seasonings, stuffed meatballs, buns with sesame, sweet and crispy buns, and pastry with spinach, are prepared at homes, sent to the bakery, baked and brought back to home. Another irreplaceable dishes of Hatay cuisine is doner kebab. Especially chicken doner kebab is served a lot differently.
Meat doner is also wrapped into a bread with special sauce, just like chicken doner. There are many doner shops that sell chicken and meat doner. It is often ordered from home, and is highly consumed. Apart from butchers and bakeries, important traditional products such as shredded dough for kunafah, kunafah cheese, fried kadaif, and cookie with farina, which are not commonly made at homes, are sold in shops making these food in the Long Bazaar.
With the foamy product made of gypsophila roots, and home-made cookie with farina, pastries are also a distinctive characteristic of Hatay cuisine. The primary pastry, which is important in terms of traditional culture due to its varieties and intense consumption, is bread. Tandoori is irreplaceable in Hatay cuisine.
Tandoori bread is also baked in ovens as well as tandooris. Made both with and without dandruff, tandoori bread can be kept for a long time without becoming stale. Tandoori bread, which can be kept in freezers for a long time without becoming stale, thaws in the room temperature without any need of heat after taken out of the freezer, and becomes very soft. Apart from tandoori bread, pita bread, pita, doner and kebab breads are also very important. Besides pastries, while some dairy products share a common tradition with Anatolia, some differ completely.
Some dairy products such as string cheese, braided cheese, local blue cheese, round cheese, carra cheese, cottage cheese, blue cottage cheese and salty yogurt are characteristic diary products of Hatay cuisine with their different aromas and production techniques.
Made by flavoring the fresh cottage cheese with 40 different spices, sun-drying and then preserving, blue cottage cheese has a strong taste and odor. It is consumed with lots of olive oil due to having lost of spices and a strong odor. Obtained from both goat’s and cow’s milk, salty yogurt is an absolute must of this cuisine. It has a really wide range of uses within the traditional dishes. For example, yogurt soup with meatballs and grains cannot be made without salty yogurt.
In addition to dairy products, desserts and jams are essential traditional food of the Hatay cuisine. Importance of kunafah in the cuisine culture amongst desserts cannot be underestimated. In Hatay, many traditions are hand in hand in the process involving the production and consumption of the kunafah food. It is possible to understand the importance of kunafah in Hatay when considering the frequency of kunafah shops in every neighborhood.
Apart from cooked kunafah shops, there are also shops of kunafah ingredients for those who want to make it at their homes. In these shops, shredded dough, cheese and butter, which are the ingredients of kunafah, are sold all together. Besides kunafah, pumpkin with syrup and walnuts made in lime putty is also extremely delicious. Pumpkin dessert, hard outside and soft inside, is traditionally presented with tahini and crushed walnuts after being sliced into squares.
In Hatay, jams made of eggplants, petitgrains and walnuts are offered to guests both as a jam and as a dessert. Although these fall into the category of jams, the way it is consumed is more of a dessert.