Antakya, Hatay, Turkey
Turkey’s Hatay province juts out from southern Turkey like a peninsula. It’s sandwiched between the Mediterranean Sea to the west and Syria the east. Hatay was previously part of Syria and only became part of Turkey in 1939. Consequently, Arab culture has a strong presence in Hatay and influences the local culture, language, and cuisine. Hatay is home to a diverse mixture of faiths such as Orthodox Christians, Syriac Christians, Sunnis, and Alevis. The city of Antakya (a destination on the Silk Road historically called Antioch) is the multicultural cosmopolitan city where we based ourselves while visiting Hatay.
We arrived in Antakya after a few baklava-filled days in the gastronomic paradise of Gaziantep, Turkey. Our bus wound through the Nur Mountains until we sighted views of the coast. The bus continued south until reaching Antakya, not far from the Syrian border. The scenic ride was tainted by our unwilling inhalation of cigarette smoke from the bus driver and another passenger. These men saw it fit to light up in the midst of transit, inside the confines of the regional bus where the windows don’t open! Gesturing that we didn’t care for the smoking the bus attendant laughably sprayed some air-freshener down the bus aisle as the duo carried on smoking. At first, observing the exorbitant amount of smoking in Turkey was an amusing novelty, but it’s become quite a nuisance. It’s proving hard to escape the second-hand smoke even though there was a public ban on smoking in 1997.
Despite this irritation, we fell in love with historical Hatay. Hatay is loaded with diversity, history and some seriously delicious cuisine. Read on to learn about what to eat, see, and do in Hatay.
Don’t Miss These Foods in Antakya (Hatay)
Kunefe: What Dreams are Made of
With two months in Turkey under our belt we’d been eagerly anticipating our arrival in Hatay. We had just one thing on our minds, and one thing alone, the reason for our visit to this southern most region of Turkey; kunefe (alternate spellings; kanafeh,kunafeh, kunafa, knafeh, konafi). We’d been patiently waiting to try this dessert, even abstaining from trying elsewhere in Turkey. Hatay, we’d been told by locals, is where you go for kunefe. Just the sheer mention of kunefe brings a smile to locals faces and a glint to their eyes as they divulge their favorite place in town to try this sweet and cheesy treat.
Cinaralti Kunefe Yusuf Usta inside Antakya’s bazaar has the best kunefe in Antakya, Hatay. A bold statement I know, but before we visited this spot we had it verified by several locals and, upon tasting it, we can confirm; their kunefe is divine. At Cinaralti Kunefe Yusuf Usta the kunefe is cooked the good ol’ fashioned way, on coals over an open flame. To make kunefe strands of sweet filo dough called kadayif are layered with cheese and cooked until the cheese is melted. We observed the entire process as the workers masterfully piled on the ingredients, cooked the kunefe until the top was golden brown and then flipped the entire dish like a giant pancake. We were served the kunefe while it was still hot. Stretchy strands of cheese followed the slice of kunefe from the cooking pan to our plate like a cheesy slice of lasagna. Simultaneously sweet, savory, crispy and buttery, kunefe is perfection in a pan. Holding out for this dessert was absolutely worth it. We even splurged for a side of ice cream - what’s a little more dairy in addition to the cheese-filled, butter-coated kunefe anyways?
Biberli Ekmek - Red Pepper Bread
On the note of food, another regional specialty to try is a red pepper paste flat bread called biberli ekmek. It’s hard to miss this Syrian-influenced bread as it’s available in stalls, street corners and bakeries everywhere in Antakya. We were lucky to spot this local bread fresh out of a tandoor. While ordering the spicy, flavorful flat bread to-go a woman passing by helped us to translate the transaction. When departing she reached into her shopping bag and handed us some of her own recently purchased warm breakfast rolls. We will surely never starve in Turkey! To the dismay of our waistlines, the Turkish people continue to ensure we are well fed.
Rose Syrup Dessert & Other Hatay Culinary Specialities
While taking the public bus into Hatay’s Old Town two friendly teenage girls shyly pursued the opportunity to practice their English with us. Before we exited the bus they kindly insisted that we allow them to show us their home town. We agreed and they appointed themselves our tour guides for the morning. Following their lead we strolled through the twisted alleyways until we reached Kurtuluş Street. Actually, until we were on top of Kurtuluş Street which currently sits 9m (30ft) below ground. This ancient Roman road was at one time a popular shopping destination for people across the Middle East. It’s claim to fame is that it was the first street in the world to have street lighting. There are future plans to create underground tunnels to access this historical site.
Next our new friends lead to us a cafe in Old Town to try bici bici rose dessert. The milky dessert is served with fragrant homemade rose syrup and ice-cream. The highlighter pink confection is best enjoyed in the ivy covered tea garden of Tarihi Affan Kahvesi, a historical neighborhood cafe.
Other local culinary specialities to try in Hatay include:
Kekik salatasasi a zesty wild thyme salad served with onions and tomatoes
Cevizli biber a spicy red pepper paste meze dip made with crushed walnuts and olive oil
Oruk an oblong meat patty encased in a crispy fried bulgur shell.
What to Do in Antakya
In the Old Town section of Antakya you’ll find the local bazaar. With colorful spice stands and home-made soap venders the bazaar retains some of its old world charm. We purchased spicy Samandag red pepper flakes and laurel soap from a stall where the sales lady divulged that laurel soap is the reason for the Turkish women’s shiny hair. We got lost in the narrow pathways of the bazaar and stumbled upon a few shopkeepers enjoying cay (Turkish tea) in a quiet little corner of the bazaar. They smiled at us and, in typical Turkish fashion, invited us to join them and share a tulip shaped glass of tea. They spoke with us using google translate and smiles. Our hearts were warmed by their tea and kindness. One of the women sent us on our way with a green herb, called perslane, that she’d been pruning as we talked. She recommended we try it mixed into yogurt.
Hatay Archaeology Museum
Hatay was a part of ancient Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization. The artifacts contained in Hatay’s Archeological Museum provide a glimpse into ancient life. Just a ten minute drive north of the city center, the museum is an impressive showcase of artifacts from the Paleolithic age through the present day (not to mention an assortment of 40,000 year old stone tools!). The museum houses a large collections of Roman and Byzantine era mosaics that were unearthed not too far from the museum. Give yourself at least two hours to properly explore this extensive museum.
Church of St. Peter
The Church of St. Peter, caved into the side of a mountain, is one of the world’s oldest Christian churches. It’s documented that both Peter and Paul visited Antakya. Antakya is believed to be where Peter began preaching. Though the inside of the church was restored in the 20th century you can see some original elements that remain such as sections of mosaic on the floors. Dripping water near the alter is said to having healing properties. The Church of St. Peter is only 1.5km from Hatay’s Archeological Museum, so it’s possible to walk to one from the other and make a half day trip of both destinations.
Hatay is a culturally diverse city that stands out from the rest of Turkey. The Arabic influence is more pronounced in this beautiful region than other parts of the country. Hatay is absolutely worth a visit. Make sure to try the kunefe!
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