The Food Capital of the Middle East that You Probably Haven’t Heard Of Before

Chances are that you have never heard of Gaziantep, let alone heard that it is probably home to what is, in the humble opinion of this self-proclaimed foodie, the best food in the Middle East. So what and where is Gaziantep?

Gaziantep is a Turkish city, located in the far south of the country near the border with Syria where the war led to a massive influx of refugees, many of whom were welcomed in Gaziantep. Over the past few years, Gaziantep gained some notoriety due to its geographic location, which I always thought was unsubstantiated and my recent trip confirmed this even further.

The city was chosen by the UNESCO as a creative city of gastronomy among just a handful of cities around the world, which is how my curiosity about it started. Here is what the UNESCO had to say about Gaziantep:

Located southeast of the Anatolia Region in Turkey, Gaziantep is well-known for its long gastronomic history which has been at the core of its cultural identity since the Iron Age. Nowadays, gastronomy remains the main driving force of the local economy. In a city of 1,890,000 inhabitants, 60% of the active population is employed by the sector, and a significant 49% of the enterprises are mainly dedicated to food, including spices, cereals and dried fruits. In Gaziantep, gastronomy is also synonymous with festivity, intercultural dialogue and social cohesion.

With such high expectations, I began my research on the city which was no easy feat due to the lack of English-language information about it so I had to rely heavily on Instagram and YouTube. Luckily, there are many foodies from the city on Instagram and their accounts were a huge help in putting together a decent food-based itinerary.

Also unbeknownst to me, the city is also home to the world’s largest mosaic museum with pieces from throughout its history as one of the key cities of Mesopotamia. Speaking of which, Gaziantep is one of the world’s oldest cities and is believed to have been first settled in 3560 BC.

Some might argue, but Gaziantep is the birthplace of baklava, a Middle Eastern sweet that is tough to describe how good it is but is basically very thin layers of dough on top of each other and separated by pistachio and cream. Baklava in Gaziantep is more than that. It is a tradition, an honor, and a source of pride in the city. The shops that sell it — at least the good ones — are family-owned and have inherited their shops and recipes over generations.

My plan was to stay in Gaziantep for 4 days so I had to choose wisely where am I going to have baklava in what seemed like hundreds of highly-recommended baklava shops. But first, I needed some actual food in my system. My first food stop took me to İmam Çağdaş (Imam Cagdas), a place that doubles as a baklava and kebab shop, but I was here to try a local specialty called Ali Nazik, a kebab that is grilled then slow cooked on a bed of yoghurt and aubergine. My first reaction was that I have been living in a house of lies all my life and that this was in fact the first time I had kebab in my life! I also had the lahmachun — spiced minced meat on an oven baked dough with a slight variation as they added molasses and walnuts to it.

Before dessert, and because they are close to each other, I made a quick stop at Tahmis Kahvesi to try their pistachio coffee. Why pistachio? In addition to baklava, Gaziantep is one of the major growers of pistachio in the world to the extent that pistachio in Turkey is known as Antep Fistikli, in reference to Gaziantep. Pistachios are omnipresent in the city and restaurants use them freely and liberally like we use salt and pepper. Back to the pistachio coffee, it was very delicious and I ended up buying four jars of pistachio coffee to take home with me.

After checking out my Google Maps, it seemed reasonable that my first dessert stop in the city would be Katmerci Zekeriya Usta to try their legendary katmer, dough filled with thick cream and pistachio and then baked in the oven. Service was particularly friendly here and the katmer was certainly the best I have ever had.

My second day started with a stroll in the city’s beautiful coppersmiths’ bazar and even more beautiful spice bazar which are located right next to each other and even overlap in some sections. I bought some pistachios to snack on as I walk around. My first food stop for the day was to have the city’s infamous Beyran çorbası, a soup that is consumed for breakfast although it is heavy enough to be had for lunch (pictured on the left below). Made with a hot spicy base with slow cooked meat and rice, it was delicious and filling and perfect for a crisp cold morning. I had it at Kadir Usta Lahmacun ve Kebap Salonu.

After the hearty soup, it was time for some culture so I headed to the city’s Zeugma Mosaic Museum, the largest of its kind in the world with some jaw-dropping pieces. Lucky for me, the museum is within walking distance to one of the city’s legendary kebab shops — Kebapçı Halil Usta, which simply put was another life changing experience.

After having one of the best kebabs I have ever had in my life, it was finally time for me to try what I came to Gaziantep for — the baklava. All my research before arriving as well as all the locals I asked led me to one place — Koçak Baklava (Kocak Baklava).

As I mentioned above, baklava is more than just a dessert in Gaziantep. It is part of the culture, history, and tradition of this city, kind of like pizza to the Italians except that since the city is much less tainted with mass tourism than Italy, it managed to preserve that tradition well enough.

I entered Koçak Baklava and looked around at the many trays of baklava they had and chose two kinds, quickly snapped some pictures and took my first bite which suffice to say was also my last bite since that first piece of baklava simply melted in my mouth. We are not talking about cheese melting, we are talking about every particle of that baklava quickly disintegrating and becoming one with my mouth despite the layers of dough and what seemed like a ton of pistachio in every piece. My two other baklava experiences in Gaziantep were just as good and they were at Ayintap Baklava and Baklava Çelebioğulları. The latter has a shop attached to it that sells all things pistachio and spices so I made sure to grab some before I left.

Another notable dessert experience is the kunefe, which we were accustomed to eating in the Levant in its cheese or clotted cream version. However, in Gaziantep, they naturally had to create a pistachio version of it and I still remember smiling from ear to ear as I was eating because it was just so good. I had it at Erçelebi Kömürde Kadayıf and I can safely say I will never look at kunefe the same way again!

Onto my last day in Gaziantep, there was a breakfast place that I was determined to try despite being a bit outside the city center, but the videos I saw of this place on Instagram made me keen to visit. The place — Kahvaltım Şarküteri — serves the traditional Turkish breakfast spread which I noticed is uncommon in Gaziantep as most people seem to prefer the soup I mentioned above. I ordered a couple of plates, including the legendary (yes I am using this word a lot but for good reason!) Antep cheese, which is served in lukewarm water and tastes a lot like halloumi, the kaymak, some veggies, and olives. Let me start with the kaymak — a clotted cream cheese that is usually eaten with honey: I have kaymak every week in Istanbul and there is nothing that I ever had in Istanbul that tastes nearly as good as the one I had at Kahvaltım Şarküteri. However, the real showstopper was the olives which were ridiculously good that I scraped the last bit of the plate and ordered another one. The place opens early and seemed very popular among locals even on a weekday so I would recommend getting there at 8-9 am.

One last pro tip — if you want to try some of the strongest coffee you’ll have in your life, make sure to check out Devebatmaz Turk Kahvesi — guaranteed to keep your engines running throughout the day.

Language: I do not speak Turkish and almost no one I met in the city spoke English, however, Google Translate, hand gestures, and the fact that a lot of people spoke Arabic made my life much easier.

Where to stay: I stayed at the Hampton by Hilton, which seemed a natural choice after I pinpointed all the restaurants and dessert shops I wanted to try and this hotel seemed to be in the center of them all. The rooms are just a bit tired but the staff are nice and the beds are comfortable and that is all I needed for that trip.

Safety: In a few words, do not believe what the media tells you. The locals are very friendly and you would literally have to fight to pay for a cup of tea because everyone will insist on inviting you for one! There is also police presence in all main streets. I am sure there are some unsafe neighborhoods at night but if you stick to the usual safety precautions you take in any other city, you will be fine.

Cost: Almost everything costs half or a quarter of what it costs in Istanbul, and that includes the food, souvenirs, and clothes so it is actually quite the bargain to be there right now.

Accessibility: There are almost a dozen flights from Istanbul to Gaziantep everyday taking on average around 1.25 hours. Some flights leave very early in the day so if you are willing to binge eat, you could probably fit most of the places I mentioned above in one day and make it back to Istanbul at night.

Still unconvinced? Check out my Instagram highlights reel from Gaziantep, which is guaranteed to have you booking a flight ASAP!