Exploring Turkish Antakyan (Antioch) Cuisine at Hatay Sultan Sofrası

In one of my favorite countries for eating, is Antakya the BEST region to eat?

In the southern tip of Turkey that juts into Syria lies Hatay province, well-known for its ancient Roman mosaics, playing host to the sole remaining Armenian village in the country, and the city of Antakya, formerly known as Antioch. For a bit of history, Antioch was founded in ~300 B.C. by Seleucus I Nicator, a comrade of Alexander the Great. Due to its geographic position by the Mediterranean, it was a major center of trade, at one point even rivaling Constantinople and Rome for its wealth and architectural  grandeur.

Consequently, merchants from all over the Middle East, Asia Minor, and the Mediterranean would trade in Antioch, often bringing ingredients from their homelands with them. Thus, dishes that you would see in today’s Antakya stand out amongst other regional Turkish foods, not simply because of its geography, but also due to its erstwhile bustling centers of commerce.

hatay sultan sofrasi restaurant antakya turkey
Enjoying a Variety of Antakyan (Antioch) Dishes at Hatay Sultan Sofrası, Antakya, Turkey

For example, you might notice more cumin, walnuts, and chickpeas on the menu in Antakya than elsewhere in the country. In fact, one of the principle dishes in that area is called aşur, a surprisingly chewy yet undeniably decadent mix of chickpeas, walnuts, cumin, onions, peppers, and bulgur wheat (used in tabbouleh and its Turkish cousin kısır). Indeed, considering its location in the Levant (comprising Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan, as well as Hatay province), many dishes are more emblematic of that part of the world than of Turkey.

Henüz aç mı? (Hungry yet?) Check out my video below from the restaurant Hatay Sultan Sofrası, located in downtown Antakya.

Semolina Halva/İrmik Helvası (Turkey)

My first trip to Turkey was in 2006; I went with my family to Istanbul, Kayseri, and Göreme, the epicenter of Cappadocia and its unusual fairy chimneys:

Cappadocia fairy chimneys
Göreme, Turkey, Home of Cappadocia’s Fairy Chimneys

Now, even 16 years ago, I realized that Turkish food was excellent; the kebabs, baklava, dried fruit … just about everything was delicious. But those were already well-known foods before visiting Turkey. How about something new?

While on a tour of Cappadocia, we were invited to eat with a local Turkish family. Although I recall the entire meal being good, only the dessert is still memorable to this day. Why? Perhaps because it was the only dish that I was trying for the first time– the main ingredients were some sort of grain, mixed with copious amounts of butter, sugar, and pine nuts.

I didn’t know the name of the meal until a chance encounter last year in Skopje, North Macedonia:

pistachio halva with peanuts
Helvacı Ali, Skopje, North Macedonia- Semolina Halva (İrmik Helvası)

I couldn’t believe it. After 16 years, I had finally rediscovered the very same dessert, and perhaps more importantly, found out its name– irmik helvası, in English, semolina halva.

Of course! Semolina, the milled wheat product also commonly used in pasta and couscous, was the grain. More embarrassingly, I’ve had nearly identical semolina-based desserts — similarly called halwah — in India.

But this version, found at a Turkish dessert chain called Helvacı Ali, was a dolled-up one, flavored with pistachios and topped with peanuts.

Last month, I popped by the same chain in Istanbul, for an even more ridiculous exemplar– pistachio and chocolate halva topped with tahini and crushed pistachios:

pistachio chocolate semolina halva
Helvacı Ali, Istanbul, Turkey – Semolina Halva (İrmik Helvası)

It’s customary to have semolina halva with black tea during the winter, and Turkish ice cream, called dondurma, during the summer.

Recipe!

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