Agenda Culture Cusine From Turkey

The Pearl of Spice Route: The Grand Bazaars of Gaziantep'
Written by Deniz RENKVEREN

Being on the Silk Road and the Spice Route, Gaziantep has a very colorful culinary culture that is appreciated by the whole world, with its history going back to 6.000-12000 years ago. After the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Turkey announced 2020 as the year of gastronomy, the interest into Gaziantep cuisine increased substantially. To be able to learn more about Gaziantep cuisine, experiencing the smell of the spices in the grand bazaar of Gaziantep is a must.

The spice culture that has a very important role in Gaziantep cuisine carries the smell of the past into today in the grand bazaars of the city. After Ottoman Sultan Yavuz Sultan Selim annexed Antep (Ayıntap then) after the Victory of Mercidabık, the city leaped forward in trade, handicrafts and production between 1516-1596. Evliya Çelebi who visited the city twice in 1641 and 1671 wrote about Gaziantep in his famous book Seyahâtname that there had been 22 neighborhoods, 8.000 houses, about 100 mosques, a madrasah, a caravanserai, a hammam and a grand bazaar in the city.  Evliya Çelebi introduced it as, “This is the city ‘Şehr-i Ayıntab-ı Cihan’ with its large city, eye-catching large structures, many sought-after items, many hamlets, abundance and efficiency, endless food and springs, and rivers.”

Almacı Bazaar, located right across the Kürkçü Han and Bakırcılar Bazaar, which consists of wooden shops on the stone paved roads, and the spice shops around it appeal to all five senses. Colors, scents, textures, sounds and tastes attract you in harmony. The colorful dried eggplant and chili peppers hanging from the roofs of the shops attract you with their colors and the sounds they make. The curative herbs, spices, nuts, churchkhela and fruit leather (pestil) create a fascinating awareness with their fragrance and taste.

Gaziantep’s grand bazaars are one of the few golden trays in the world that offer the blessings of Spice Route and Silk Road together to humanity. The artisan culture, with roots going back to the tradition of Ahilik (fraternity) system in the grand bazaars in Gaziantep, allow customers to shop in the bazaar in a very generous culture. The shopkeepers also describe how the spices are used in Gaziantep cuisine. This is a place where you can learn about herbs, which are a very important part of traditional medicine, and learn how to use these herbs for your health. You can find special pepper and tomato paste, clarified butter, olive oil, bulgur and other cereal varieties, churchkhela, grape juice and pistachio amulets, local fruit leathers and spice varieties in Almacı Bazaar. Ali Kemal Ataseven, the owner of second generation of Saçı Beyaz Gıda, one of the oldest shops of the bazaar in operation for three generations, says the following about the importance of clarified butter and olive oil in meals: “Without them, you find the taste of the food incomplete. Everybody from Gaziantep who eats a spoon of pilav can guess whether it is made with olive oil or clarified butter.”

Almacı Bazaar, which is said to have a history of 250 years, has a fascinating story. Previously, Gaziantep’s apples were sold in Almacı Bazaar. Bringing apples when paying a visit to a friend’s or relative’s house was an important custom because of the food shortage during the war period. Ali Kemal Ataseven explains the increasing importance of the Almacı Bazaar during Gaziantep’s war period as follows: “A single apple, for example, was very precious. At that time, they split the large cans in half and put the apple in it, covering this half can with a glass pane. An apple was given to a family whose son joined the army to perform his military service, with the prayer of ‘May you come together with your son again.’ But the householder that received the apple as a gift did not eat that apple. It was stored in that house too. Let’s say, one of his friend bought a house. If he would go to a friend’s house to congratulate, he would bring the same apple to his friend. But his friend stored the apple too. Finally the apple was generally taken to a sick person as a cure for his illness. The apple could be brought to a woman who newly gave birth. In other words, the apple was circulated between many houses and eaten in the house where it was about to begin to rot. As the country started to develop and the city grew after the end of the War of Independence, bazaars started to sell local products such as pomegranate syrup, peppermint, dried vegetables, clarified butter and tomato and pepper pastes.” 

Grand bazaars are more bountiful than shopping centers

With the modern world, the culture of shopping has completely changed. The warm relationship based on friendship and trust between artisans and customers was replaced by a kind of compulsory communication between the cashier and customers, in which people often forget to say hello or goodbye. In grand bazaar culture in Turkey, personal relations during shopping still exist. During shopping, an artisan shares a lot of information about his products like the storage conditions or the correct usage methods with the customers while weighing a spice or making his customers taste the product they want to buy. In other words, shopping in the grand bazaars occurs in a very warm environment of trust. Therefore, the grand bazaars not only enrich Gaziantep’s culinary culture, but also make the social texture much healthier.

Almacı Bazaar and nearby shops help Gaziantep cuisine get more well-known not only in Turkey but in the world as well.  Tourists coming to see Gaziantep visit the Almacı Bazaar and other grand bazaars or shops selling local products in the city to cook the Gaziantep tastes they like back in their cities and countries. Ali Kemal Ataseven’s son, Selçuk Ataseven, who took over the management of the shop from his father, talks about the contribution of the covered bazaars to Gaziantep cuisine:

“While our visitors to Gaziantep enjoy their visit, they wonder how these dishes are made and which ingredients are used in them. We help those who want to learn about and buy spices used in Gaziantep cuisine. Gaziantep has one of the few cuisines with a wide variety of dishes in the world. We investigate which spices are used and how they are used and share our knowledge with our customers.”

Mehmet Ataseven states that Gaziantep pepper is very special because it is ground in stone with olive oil. “Ready-made peppers are ground in machines with cottonseed oil. Our local peppers are ground with stone using olive oil. You will get the real taste and real bitterness of pepper. What I mean is not something too hot. Contrary, you can enjoy both the taste and bitterness which will not irritate you or burn your stomach.”

Correct scale, quality, smiling face and artisan solidarity

It is possible to see the traces of the tradition of Ahilik in the grand bazaar culture that goes back to time of the Anatolian Seljuk Sultanate. The teachings of the Ahilik organization, which enabled tradesmen, artisans and producers to be trained during the Seljuk and Ottoman periods and to practice Islamic moral values ​​while practicing their professions, are still present in the grand bazaars of Gaziantep. Ali Akif Ataseven also emphasizes that although this culture is not so common among new generation, they struggle to preserve it and that the three advices given by his father have their root in this tradition: “My father’s first advice to me was: ‘Your scales must be correct’. My father said to me: ‘If I see something wrong on your scales one day, I won’t let you come to the shop.’ The second was ‘Try to sell the best goods you can sell’, and the third was ‘Be nice to people’.”

Bülent Akınal, the second generation owner of Yemen Coffee, says that he received the same recommendations from his father Cevdet Akınal: “My father’s most frequent warning was ‘establish weight in justice and not to violate human rights.’ Previously we had a small traditional type of scales. My father did not used electronic scales for years. There were no plastic bags, they used only paper bag 40-50 years ago.  While weighing the coffee with paper bag, he put another paper bag on the other part of the scale, so he would not violate the rightful due (kul hakkı) of anyone. In other words, he would not sell that paper bag for the price of coffee. We have seen such sensitivities. He also said, ‘My son, you will sell clean goods, you will be honest, you will not deceive anyone. Halal should pass through my son’s throat.’ The advice he gave me was countless. I try my best to transmit what I heard from my father to my two sons when they come here from time to time.”

Almacı Bazaar shopkeepers share with us a very valuable moral code which is a legacy of Ahilik tradition: After a shopkeeper has made a sale, if he sees that neighboring shopkeeper has not made their first sale, he directs his customer to them. This moral code, which is not very common nowadays, was just one of the traditions of Ahilik, which has strengthened the brotherhood link between artisans and craftsmen for hundreds of years in Anatolia.

Good coffee comes from Yemen

Coffee, which does not grow in Anatolian lands, entered the Ottoman lands in the 1500s. Özdemir Pasha, the governor of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in Yemen, brought the coffee from Yemen to the palace. However, it was the roasting and cooking style which was unique to Ottoman culture that created the Turkish coffee that is famous today. Coffee was cooked in copper, brass or tombac coffeepots and vessels, and was served together with Turkish delight, water and sherbet. Turkish coffee has gained a worldwide reputation not only with its taste, but also with its presentation, and with the role it played as a bridge in human relations. We see that one of the most famous words about coffee is the proverb “A (bitter) cup of coffee will be remembered for 40 years.” We almost always experience that Turkish coffee culture is based on friendship and loyalty. Thanks to this reputation, in 2013, Turkish coffee was entitled to be included in the UNESCO Representative List of Humanity’s Intangible Cultural Heritage with titled “Turkish Coffee Culture and Tradition”.

Bülent Akınal, states that they bought coffee beans from Yemen especially during the time of his father Cevdet Akınal, the founder of the shop, but this legendary coffee does not come any more because of the ongoing civil war in Yemen: “The coffee of Yemen is completely different due to its climate. I remember it from my childhood. Coffee has not been coming from Yemen for a long time. My father used to offer a pinch of coffee to our customers, and they would leave here with a great pleasure. The flavor and the oily taste of Yemeni coffee is absolutely different. Now coffee comes from Brazil and Colombia. In the past, very small or big size coffee beans would not be acceptable, as they would not have a good taste. But nowadays even big size coffee beans can have a fine taste. Today, genes of many products can be modified. Maybe it is because of that. But old flavors are never forgotten.”

Akınal states that there is a huge demand for their coffee and gives tips about keeping the coffee fresh in your kitchen: “A customer from Germany says that the coffee they bought from us a year ago remained fresh despite opening the package a year later. In order to keep it fresh, first evacuate the air in the coffee, which you put in the glass jar by pressing it with a spoon. Don’t keep the coffee in the fridge. Store it in a cabinet away from sunlight. Also, do not store coffee together with other spices. We also press the coffee to evacuate its air while we pack it. My late father said that it would be useful to put a sugar cube on the coffee kept in the jar to protect its freshness.”

Akınal, who sells other spices in his shop, says that fermented sausage spices with special formulas are very popular among the butchers. It is almost always possible to see a queue in front of the shop. Akınal keeps the first scale used by her father in the seat of honor to remember his father’s “balance your scales in justice” advice.

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