To celebrate the weekend’s St Peter’s Day, let’s go to a place that is no place. It is somewhere, and nowhere. Antakya is the Turkish name for Antioch. Antioch is an old city that spreads in the V of a mountain range, astride the thrumming, heaving, rushing Orontes river. This comma-shaped border region in south east Turkey is where Turkey ends and Syria starts, but is neither Turkey, nor Syria but both, and neither.
As capital of the ancient kingdom of Hatay, Antioch has been both power-broker and a pawn between Babylonians and Persians, Greeks and Egyptians, Parthians and Romans, Christians, Crusaders and Ottomans, the French, Turkish and the Syrians. Its extraordinarily long history of conquest and assimilation sometimes makes Antioch feel like the most ancient, most mixed and most human city in the world. Antioch is your everywhere.
All the peoples that have come to Antioch since it was founded 2300 years ago - as captor or slave, visitor or pilgrim - have brought with them their food cultures from the lands beyond the high mountains. So, Antioch cuisine is the jewel of food in the Holy Lands, and beyond delicious. The dish that crowns this wealth of eating is kunefe.
Kunefe is a griddled pancake of shredded wheat stuffed with stretchy cheese, serve hot, drizzled in sugar syrup. With or without a dusting of powdered green pistachio (purist locals go without) kunefe is to Levantine desserts what tiaras are to queens, and Eiffel was, to towers.
To prepare properly to eat kunefe, you need an appetite. You get this by hiking up to St Peter’s Church - a cave high above the city. This is where he dug the cave that was the world’s first church, and Antioch was the first place where Christians were called, er, Christians. St Paul preached and converted here, Anthony and Cleo were married here, and today under a sapphire sky Antioch’s air is misted with the haze from a hundred thousand charcoal grills over which celebratory kebabs will be roasted, and glasses of raki raised, and St Peter, toasted.
Hot and happy, and back in town, you walk down an arrow-straight Roman road, past shops selling candied pumpkin and rolls of clotted buffalo cream, to Uzun Carsi. This maze of covered streets and alleys is the heart of Antioch. You could spend a week there and not see everything. What you will see is kunefe makers making spaghetti strands on spinning heated copper table; tiny shops selling white cheeses that are made in twilight attics above; piles of glossy olives in old water bottles and tins; old-school baggy salvar trousers and rough-made mousetraps; pale, manicured jewellers in three piece woollen suits; strings of hollowed peppers and aubergines for soaking and stuffing; boys on bikes and girls in Lindsey Lohan sandals; laurel soapmakers, crosslegged tinbeaters and pomegranate molasses boilers; mosques with alleys below their wooden minarets, churches with orange trees in their courtyards and synagogues sheltering under boughs of juicy grapes. Uzun Carsi is its own world, and is from another planet. You love it.
Two food stops before kunefe, to sharpen the anticipation. First, concrete. Humus is not a Turkish dish at all, but Humus Bakla is Antioch on a plate. Soaked dried broad beans are cooked in old terracotta amphorae in the sawdust ashes of the fire that heats a 13th century hammam in which a sufi saint is interred. At the Cayirci Bakla Humus Salonu (next to a stall selling Lyndsey sandals and donkey saddles), they make you a individual portion of humus by pounding the cooked beans with tahini, garlic, hot isot pepper, olive oil and lemon juice, using a wooden pestle in a pink plastic mortar. Your humus is served with pickles and pillows of bread. Antiochians call it beton - humus - for this is working food, that fills you up inside. Served almost warm, Cayirci’s humus tastes deep, comforting, biblical.
A stroll away, next to a stall selling dodgy perfumes and yellow prayer beads, a butcher with droopy moustaches minces the lamb cuts you’ve bought from him with a great big sabre-shaped knife called a zihr (for the sound it makes when he’s chopping at speed). He seasons the mince, adds chopped peppers and tomatoes and presses it into a shallow round tin. This you take to the baker across the alley, who pops it in his 400 year old wood oven.
From him you buy chewy, wheaty / creamy pide bread, and a twist of za’atar to dip it in. You take your bread, and juicy, crusty-top cooked meat to a tiny table, and eat like this is your first, and last meal.
Ahmediye mosque is one of the prettiest in Uzun Carsi. It is shaded by majestic old plane trees, and the sounds here are of the clack of backgammon counters, the tink of cheap teaspoons in glass teacups and the uhhhh smile/sighs of people eating kunefe.
Yusuf Usta (an Usta is a master craftsman - the sense in Turkish is as in a Jedi knight) has devoted his adult life to making kunefe here at Cinaralti; his son now works here like his father and grandfather did before him. On a trivet over a fire of glowing charcoal sits a shallow, hand-beaten, simply decorated tin. Village sheep’s butter coats it thinly. A layer of shredded wheat. A fine layer of desalted white cheese. Another layer of wheat. The kunefe cooks slowly, until the wheat is tanned, golden and just-crunchy. As if he was tossing a big old pancake, Yusuf Usta flips the kunefe in the air, and cooks the other side.
You get your wedge of kunefe hot and generously drizzled with Yusuf Usta’s sugar syrup, which has a hint of lemon flavour in there, somewhere. You ask for it without pistachio because in this city of incomers you want to feel like a local. Tea from the cay house next door is hot and good and copper coloured. Eating your kunefe takes no time at all; for you time stands still. In this city of religious harmony, on the feast day of St Peter, you now understand that crunchy, sweet, stretchy kunefe is devotion made food.
Cayirci Bakla Humus Salonu
Meydan Civari, Haci Molla Ishani No6.
Open 8-5, closed Sundays. Tel 214 25 65
Cinaralti Kunefeci Yusuf Usta
Ayakkabicilar Carsisi, pazar Sokak, Ahmediye Cami Ici No 2.
Open 10 - 7 every day. Tel 212 68 88
by Kevin Gould