Mesopotamia is renowned for the unique tastes of its cuisine, as well as for its historical and cultural values. It is home to Mardin, the “Shining City of Mesopotamia”, and the largest city in the province, Midyat, where the highly-acclaimed and popular 2019 Turkish TV series Hercai (A Fickle Heart) is currently being filmed. Watching this TV series heightened my interest in this ancient region of Turkey. Having written about the area of Mardin in a previous blog, learning about the cuisine of the region was a logical next step. Different cuisines and foods are a particular love of mine as well.
The food is spicier in the Southeast Anatolia Region than elsewhere in Turkey. Peppers grow best in this area. The sweet-spicy pepper flakes of Maras; the hot, dark-red pepper flakes of Urfa; and Antep red pepper paste are choice souvenirs for visitors to take back home. Cooks use the pepper paste like tomato paste, often combining tomato and pepper pastes in stews and grain dishes. Pepper paste is also useful in marinades for grilled meat and adds a wonderful flavor to Turkish tabbouleh, known as kisir, which is often flavored with pomegranate paste.
Agriculture might be described as the first revolution in the history of humanity, and took place 10-12 thousand years ago. It occurred within the area of Turkey known in historical geography as Upper Mesopotamia, and in modern times as the Southeast Anatolia Region.
The cultivation of wheat was vital in the cuisine of the region, being used in many kinds of breads. Wheat was also an important source of nutrition in the form of bulgur and coarsely ground wheat, until rice production started in the region. The picture is of Lahmacun, the Southeastern Turkey Flatbread with Spicy Lamb Topping. Described by many as meat-topped pizza, it is very popular throughout Turkey.
Using wood ovens in the cuisine of Southeast Anatolia is a reflection of the culture that existed 12,000 years ago. Various dishes are still cooked in wood ovens and eaten with wheat breads such as flatbread, thick bread, cracker bread, and rusk. The word “Nan” – which means “bread” in Sumerian, Hittite and Kurdish – is still the same name for bread being used today.
Chickpeas were cultivated and their consumption has become very high in the region. For example, a popular breakfast in the Birecik district of Urfa Province is the Chickpea Wrap. It is prepared by wrapping chickpeas baked in the oven with thin flatbread then chili pepper, black pepper and salt are added. Tahini is used in savory dishes in Southeast Anatolia, and Hummus is more popular in this region than in other areas of Turkey.
The Southeast Anatolia Region is the second smallest region of Turkey. Most of the region is far from the sea in a high altitude with semi-arid climate. This brings very hot and dry summers, and cold and often snowy winters. Since it is colder, the region specializes in livestock farming, and grain and cereal production.
Mesopotamia and Anatolia are geographic locations where, since ancient times, sheep have been domesticated and raised. Anatolian mutton is the ancestor of present-day domestic sheep. The rich outdoor environment is surrounded by large steppes and suits raising sheep. To survive on the steppes, sheep increase their fat mass in the summer. This becomes fuel for them in the winter season when they cannot easily find food. Containing fatty meat and milk, sheep are a fundamental source of food.
The tail fat from sheep is widely used. Several kinds of kebabs are prepared with sheep meat and this kind of fat. A so-called “plain butter” is produced from the milk of these sheep. It can be defined as a refined type of butter and is made only in the Urfa region. Ayran, one of the most consumed beverages in the region, is made of yogurt derived from this very fatty sheep’s milk.
Peppers, eggplant, tomatoes and various spices are the main nutritional elements in the Mesopotamia region. They emerged in the region later in the 16th Century – through Spain, South Africa, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. Many kinds of vegetables and fruits were then cultivated in the rich, alluvial soils at the coast of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. The indispensable vegetables of all Anatolian cuisines entered through Mesopotamia, gradually transforming the region into a vegetable-oriented cuisine.
Hundreds of years ago, refrigeration was not available. Meat that would decay in the summer heat was cooked with Capsicum annum (isot) and various spices. It became known as the “taste of the Urfa district”, or çig köfte. Isot is a word composed of “ısı” (hot / heat) and “ot” (weed).
The Gaziantep pistachio is another important taste of the region. The pistachio is the product of the arid climate and semi-desert conditions. It is widely cultivated in Gaziantep, Mardin, Siirt and Urfa. In terms of nutritional value, 100 grams of pistachio is more valuable than 100 grams of veal. A paste of dough made with wheat (the main element of the regional cuisine), butter (made from the fat of sheep raised in the region), and sherbet (made of honey in ancient times and sugar in modern times) creates a scrumptious baklava. The sheets of dough are layered with ground or finely-chopped pistachios until the desired number of layers have been prepared.
An incredible gastronomic richness exists in the Southeast Anatolia Region due to the wealth of its natural resources. The similarities and differences that developed from these resources are primarily seen in larger city centers like Gaziantep, Sanliurfa, Mardin, Diyarbakır and Siirt. For the sake of some brevity in this article, we will only look at Gaziantep, Sanliurfa, and Mardin.
Cuisine of Gaziantep (or Antep): A specialty is yuvarlama, a rich soup with chickpeas, tiny chickpea-size meatballs and lamb cubes, which is garnished with a sprinkling of mint. Another favorite soup is Antep-Style Beyran Soup. A lamb-based broth, it has white rice, strands of lamb meat, minced garlic, and red pepper flakes. In Gaziantep, it is considered a breakfast soup. In contrast to this, it is enjoyed all day long in Istanbul, especially late at night or early morning after a long night of drinking.
A memorable treat in Gaziantep is a sweet pastry called Katmer. It is an ancient flaky pastry of Anatolia with history that might date back to the 11th Century. It is prepared much the same way as flatbread (yufka) or baklava. What makes it different, and so indulgent and delicious, is the generous amounts of butter and oil used in the preparation of the pastry.
Katmer is served plan or filled, sweet or savory. As with many traditional Turkish foods, each region tends to serve their own variations. In Afyon in central Turkey, it is filled with poppy seed paste. In Konya, only a few hundred kilometers away, it is usually filled with tahini (sesame seed paste) and served as a sweet topped with pekmez (fruit molasses) or icing sugar. However, Gaziantep-style Katmer is the tastiest and best-loved version. A sweet pastry, it is filled with both clotted cream and pistachios.
Cuisine of Sanliurfa: It has been nominated as UNESCO’s City of Gastronomy. The city’s rich cuisine is famous for its liver kebabs (seen in this picture). On-the-street vendors are on many street corners around the city, and open 24 hours a day so there is always smoke in the city. Also eggplant kebab, kıymalı (known as lahmacun, a kind of pancake with spicy meat filling), lebeni (cold soup prepared with yogurt), meatball with eggs and a special bread called tırnaklı, çig köfte (raw meatballs) and Mırra (a traditional type of bitter coffee, served in several provinces of Turkey, including Mardin.)
Cuisine of Mardin: A significant contribution to the cuisine culture of Turkey comes from Mardin. Containing traces of at least 30 civilizations that lived on these soils for ages, a unique and original cuisine developed from a blend of these different cultures. It has been nominated to enter the UNESCO World Heritage Cities List with its rich cultural and historical history.
Because Mardin is the settlement center of many civilizations throughout history, this rich cultural texture is reflected in its cuisine. Mardin cuisine is based on the cultural diversity of Mesopotamia. The oldest food production and production techniques in the world were developed in this region.
Mardin cuisine is not vegetable-oriented or spicy like the Aegean region. It is not kebab-oriented like the Gaziantep and Urfa cuisines. It is a special cuisine filled with delicious tastes and combinations. Meat comes together with bulgur, and vegetables come together with spices, creating a great harmony where extraordinary tastes can emerge.
Here is a sample of Mardin dishes that are rich in spice: Ikbeybet (boiled, stuffed meatballs). Irok (roasted, stuffed meatballs). Bacanak soup, stuffed lamb ribs, seasoned rice with almonds, and pomegranate salad. Keskek, sembusek, dobo, kitel raha (boiled meatball on metal tray). Cig köfte, sarma, frik rice, alluciye (plum dish with meat). Pumpkin with sesame oil, syrup and walnuts.
Other important tastes of Mardin are Assyrian wine, gingery lemonade and Mardin mahaleb liquor. Kiliçe (Mardin muffin), kakuleli mırra, hariri dessert. Bread and biscuits with cinnamon, sugared almonds, and roasted chickpeas.
Cheeses of Southeast Anatolia Region: It would be an injustice to close this article without paying a small tribute to Cheese!
Five different types of cheese are produced in southern Turkey (Mesopotamia), due to the richness of its dairy products. The region is covered with wide plains and prairies. Sheep and goats are raised on a widespread scale. Although small in number, these five cheeses are renowned throughout Turkey: Urfa White Cheese, Antep Sikma Cheese, Örgü (Braided) Cheese, Otlu (Herb) Cheese, and Künefe Cheese.
Urfa White Cheese: A regional cheese typical of the province of Sanliurfa. It has a smooth appearance and is also called Kiz memesi (maiden’s breasts).
Antep Sikma (Hand Pressed) Cheese: Widely consumed in the province of Gaziantep and the surrounding regions. Not generally produced by standard methods, each family makes the cheese according to its own knowledge and experience. Mainly eaten at breakfast, it is also sprinkled over regional dishes cooked on bricks, and used in desserts.
Örgü (Braided) Cheese: Produced in Mardin, Siirt and Sanliurfa, it accounts for 60–65% of the cheese consumed in the region. This cheese is mostly made in households and frequently comes in the form of a braid.
Herb Cheese: Produced in rural areas primarily in the Eastern Anatolia Region, but it is also made in the provinces of Diyarbakir and Siirt in the Southeast Anatolia Region. Classed as a White Cheese, the herbs added to it give it a distinctly different flavor. The herbs vary according to the province.
Künefe Cheese: This cheese is not a special cheese variety, since it is similar to the commonly known White Cheese. However, special care is taken in its production to use milk containing a high level of fat. Because it is used on a daily basis, it is made without salt and without being given a particular shape. Its name derives from its use in the preparation of künefe pastry in the Southern provinces.
MESOPOTAMIA, BEYOND A LAND:
Mesopotamia, the place where the story began and continues to endure. Mesopotamia, the land of the oldest and the land of firsts. Discover a legendary history, a legendary culture, a legendary nature, and legendary tastes in Mesopotamia.
Mary Bloyd is a retired corporate manager, living in Centerville, Ohio, USA with her husband, Jon. A mother of one daughter and grandmother to four beautiful children, Mary loves cooking for family and friends. Taught by a professional chef how to use spices and herbs, make stocks and mother sauces, she developed a curiosity about all manner of foods and cuisine. After discovering the wonderful storytelling of Turkish dizis and films, Mary became interested in and has written many articles about Turkish cuisine, traditions, and culture. Mary loves to travel, is a journal-keeper, writer of short stories and poetry, and is currently working on her first book, a personal memoir.
@Copyright by North America TEN and Mary Bloyd