Stolz, Ugur Acioglu is holding his town’s cookbook in his hands. “A Taste of Sun and Fire” is the name of the colorfully illustrated volume. “It only contains 163 of Gaziantep’s 500 recipes,” says Acioglu, who represents the interests of the 600 restaurants in the city in south-eastern Turkey in the Chamber of Commerce. She also commissioned the book and launched it in Turkish and English.
Acioglu learned the cooking trade from his father. He was seven when he stood with him in the restaurant kitchen for the first time, every weekend and every holiday week. He learned what his father had learned from his mother. In 1991, Ugur Acioglu took over the family restaurant and, with youthful enthusiasm, first tried his hand at catering. He quickly returned to what is the strength of Gaziantep’s cuisine: slow food.
Fertile soil along the Silk Road
At that time, the city made a big leap economically. Gaziantep left poverty behind earlier than other cities in Anatolia. Industrialization began in the 1980s, making Gaziantep one of the oldest “Anatolian tigers” and bringing prosperity to many people.
That had its price. Few places in Anatolia and the entire Middle East are blessed with such fertile soil and near-ideal climate as this northern Mesopotamian city. That is why Gaziantep also became a station along the Silk Road. “But now the appreciation for agriculture has declined,” says Acioglu, “the quality of the products has deteriorated, and even working in gastronomy has lost its attraction among young people.”
Gaziantep had a reputation to lose, because in Turkey the city has always been considered a place for gastronomy. But now she lacked the specialists for the dishes, such as baklava, the dessert “Nightingale’s Nest”, the many types of kebab and kofte. In the fledgling industrial city, people like Ugur Acioglu struggled to be top notch again. To this end, the Chamber of Commerce launched a program to improve the seeds. With a lot of effort they were distributed to the farmers and in the villages.
Psychologically important, UNESCO rewarded Gaziantep. In 2015, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization included Gaziantep in its “Creative Cities Network”. There, the metropolis benefits from the exchange with other creative cities on five continents in the gastronomy department. In addition, “Gaziantep Baklava” has now been registered with the EU as a geographically protected designation of origin.
“Every house used to have an orchard”
Now the people around Acioglu were faced with the question of how the city’s recipes, which had been passed down by the mothers over centuries, should be carried on into the future. Supported by the European Union, they founded the “Academy of Culinary Arts Gaziantep” and thus formalized the training of chefs and confectioners.
In the first year, 50 young Turks are trained by successful chefs and confectioners for 18 months. “For the needs of the city’s gastronomy,” says Acioglu. The courses range from the sustainable use of agricultural products and food – “nothing should be thrown away,” says Acioglu – to the multi-course menus that are offered in the two attached training restaurants. And it shouldn’t stop there. The academy should grow. Acioglu wants to attract restaurateurs and chefs from other parts of Turkey and abroad to Gaziantep for courses. You should see how the animals are raised here, how they are slaughtered, how they are marinated, how the kebab is made here, how they bake in the wood oven and over charcoal fire – and what uses the tomato has locally.
Actually the tomato. “It’s only been a part of our cuisine for a century,” says Acioglu. For a long time it was only used as animal feed. “Until the French occupiers made us familiar with the tomato after the First World War.” Otherwise, however, the residents had resisted so heroically that the founder of the republic, Atatürk, gave the city, which was then called Antep, the honorary title of Gazi, “warrior”. and renamed it Gaziantep. Only a little of the former idyll remains. “Every house used to have an orchard,” Acioglu recalls.
The quality of the grapes and quinces was well known. The main difference to other regional cuisines was the quality of the vegetables, such as aubergines, and the spices, such as red pepper. In the bazaar, the colors of the spices continue to be a feast for the eyes, and the scent is intoxicating. And finally, the interaction of the first-class local products flour, pistachios and buffalo milk results in the baklava, the most famous of all Turkish desserts.
“In Gaziantep, gastronomy is also synonymous with festivals, intercultural dialogue and social cohesion,” writes UNESCO in its verdict. Acioglu explains: “The city used to be a tangle of cul-de-sacs, and in each cul-de-sac doors opened into a dozen houses.” When a house received visitors, the neighbors gathered there. Turks, Armenians and Jews cooked together, mothers found daughters-in-law, the elders looked after the young people, gave them advice and motivated them.
That’s history. But it lives on in institutions such as soup kitchens. A new layer is laid over the long history of the city, which has been inhabited for thousands of years by Hittites, Arabs and Turks in a place blessed by nature in Mesopotamia. “Every civilization had its dishes that it passed on.” So Acioglu isn’t just proud of his cookbook and the academy he helped found. He is particularly proud of the variety of dishes in his city, which has no equal, at least in Turkey.