SANLIURFA, Turkey — It could be a scene from “The Arabian Nights.” The narrow, dusty streets of the bazaar in this ancient southeastern Turkish city are filled with vendors selling everything from fruits and vegetables to charms and perfume. People stroll the cobbled pathways flanked by domed stone buildings, stopping to chat with vendors and haggle good-naturedly over prices. In the background, the sun goes down in a glorious ball of fire over the Harran plains.
Then, the smell of sizzling kebabs or, to be specific, Urfa kebabs, fills the night, dragging you back to the present. It is a familiar aroma in this city, home to age-old cooking traditions at the center of which is the Urfa kebab. Turkish cuisine, with its Balkan, Mediterranean, North African, and Middle Eastern influences, is fairly uniform through the country, but there are distinct regional flavors and specialties. Driving east from western Turkey, we notice the cuisine becoming heavier on meat and spices as we near the Middle East.
“The landscape in southeastern Turkey is more arid, the climate hotter, and the food more Middle Eastern,” says Ozcan Ozan, owner of Sultan’s Kitchen in Boston and author of “The Sultan’s Kitchen: A Turkish Cookbook.” “In the last 40 years, more kebabs from eastern Turkey have made their way to the west,” he says, “and Mediterranean fare from the west has traveled east.”
Home to its own unique cuisine, Sanliurfa lies in the Fertile Crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, about 50 miles north of Syria. The Urfa kebab, less known to the world than its neighbor, the Adana kebab, gets its distinct flavor from its most important ingredient: locally grown Urfa and Maras peppers. The peppers, after harvesting, are dried to a milder deep red or hotter black, then ground with stone wheels to release their flavor. Local Turkish restaurants that take pride in serving authentic Turkish food get their Maras and Urfa peppers from Turkey.
“The [Maras and Urfa] peppers have a smoky sweetness,” says Osman Kiranoglu, owner of two Turkish restaurants in Boston, Cafe Hemshin and Boston Kebab House. “You have some and you will want more and more. There is more flavor and less heat.”
It isn’t just the pepper that makes an Urfa kebab an Urfa kebab. It is also the tender lamb from local sheep farms, considered some of the best in Turkey, and the way the meat is minced and cooked. Sanliurfa butchers use a special crescent moon-shaped knife, called a zirh, with a sharp outer edge and blunt inner side, to chop the lamb. A hand is placed on each end of the blunt inner edge and the knife is worked with a swinging, seesaw-like motion. Cutting meat this way preserves the flavors and juices. The meat is mixed with peeled tomatoes, crushed Urfa pepper, oregano, cumin, and salt, cooled for an hour, squeezed onto 24-inch metal skewers, and grilled over an open charcoal fire.
In this bazaar, almost every corner has a kebab stall. The kebabs come straight from the grill, wrapped in newspaper, which customers take home or eat right there, sitting on plastic chairs by the stall.
For a more relaxed, comfortable atmosphere, there are dozens of restaurants with air conditioning, an important consideration in summer, when the temperatures climb over 120 degrees. At a sit-down restaurant, the Urfa kebabs are served with a variety of sides, different from western Turkey. There is always a plate of onions sauteed with olive oil and pepper, a dish of roasted Urfa peppers, a raw onion salad with lemon, mint, and cilantro, and a cold bowl of yogurt and bulgur wheat called lebeni. The ezme, a spicy tomato and pepper salad, is also different here, made with minced peppers, whereas in other parts of Turkey it is a salsa-like dish with tomatoes, onions, and olive oil. Sanliurfans definitely like their food spicy.
The city of over 500,000 is a fast-growing metropolis and many restaurants now cater to tourists and may offer vegetarian dishes such as patlicanli kebab with eggplant, domatesli kebab of tomatoes, and others with variations on vegetables.
Wherever you have your kebab, the drink served with it is ayran, made with yogurt, salt, and water. Ayran’s coolness offsets the kebab’s spiciness and it is a popular drink countrywide, usually made with cow’s milk yogurt. Traditional Sanliurfa vendors, though, make ayran the way it was made hundreds of years ago — with sheep’s milk fermented to yogurt, using cultures from the animal’s stomach and shaken with salt and water in a dried sheepskin bag hung from a pole.
This city on the Harran plains, inhabited since 4000 BC, takes you back in time.Sena Desai Gopal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.