by Mindy Trotta
I’d read somewhere that the true sign of quality baklava is the sound you hear as your fork makes its first cut into the top crust. The sound of my fork tines, as they hit, was something akin to the crunch shoes make when they tread on dry leaves, and shards of handmade phyllo dough flaked away as I made my preliminary stab at the pastry. The thick line of coarsely chopped pistachios was a perfect complement to the syrup-soaked, buttery layers surrounding it. While I in no way profess myself to be a baklava maven, I knew that this was first-class baklava.
The word usta means “master” in Turkish, and it was bandied about quite a lot the first time I heard
Sirvan Payasli’s name. He is a short and rather rotund, unassuming guy who happens to make a mean Baklava. He lives in the town of Gaziantep in the southeastern Anatolian region. This town, long-known for its display of intense heroism during the fight for Turkey’s independence, is now also known as its “foodie heaven” and is an important agricultural center.
Antep’s claim to fame is the pistachio, and in addition to being utilized in every dessert Sirvan creates, it can also can be found everywhere you go in town. The myriad food kiosks dotting the city burst at the seams with overflowing burlap sacks filled with the ubiquitous creamy, pea-green nuts. In addition are the regional peppers, the cordovan-colored urfa and the cherry-red maras (pronounced “marash”)–fresh, dried, and pureed into thick smoky pastes a little like harissa, but with a richer, more complex flavor. Hevenik, strings of dried purple eggplants and yellow and green striped squash now faded from the sun, stream down from above every food stall waiting to be reconstituted and stuffed with minced meat or rice. Breads, cheeses, olives–it’s all there.
Sirvan was raised in this part ancient, part modern world dedicated to the earth’s bounty, and he plied his craft for twenty-four years at the renowned Imam Cagdas restaurant in Old Town Antep. This is the mecca of baklava, and tourists and locals alike can be seen purchasing multiple kilos of the delicious pistachio studded pastry from morning until nighttime. While scores of “baklavari” can be found on every street, Imam Cagdas reigns king. Well, that was what we thought until we met Sirvan and stepped into his own eponymous establishment.
His phone number came to us through an acquaintance of an acquaintance who had received word that I was interested in taking a cooking class. It was on quite short notice, on the busiest day of the week, but he agreed to do a demo for me. We didn’t know what to expect, and at first glance, Sirvan did not look as though he was really interested in having any visitors. Through our translator, he told us to sit down and wait until he was ready. While we all sat at a small table amid the hustle and bustle of the early dinner crowd, Sirvan sent out some of his amazing baklava for us to try. He then proceeded to give us not only a demo of baklava prep, but he was kind enough to show us how he made kebap (kabobs) and cheese borek (turnovers). We were then steered over to a large fire-belching wall oven where bakers using rudimentary wooden dowels were hand rolling balls of dough into paper-thin bases for lahmacun, a kind of flatbread topped with minced lamb, peppers, and spices. (This was clearly the Turkish pizzeria section of the kitchen.) As we stood and watched it all, it was obvious that our presence was in no way disturbing the well-oiled machine of restaurant activity.
How could we not come back for dinner and taste all that was being prepared before us? So, we did! And it was at dinner that Sirvan’s graciousness and the true Gaziantep hospitality shone through. As we dined on lamb, chicken, (and a specially prepared seasonal mushroom) kebap, salads, and more lahmacun, our chef sat and dined with us. He spoke in an animated manner about sustainability and the importance of using quality ingredients with our translator and driver, and still made eye contact with us well. I could sense the passion he had for his work in his voice, and without actually knowing what he was saying, I did know. This gentle man, who knew not of our existence a few hours before, was treating us like family. He wanted us to know about his life and his philosophy. The restaurant was an extension of his home, and we were treasured guests.
When we returned yet again the next day to merely drop off a “thank you” plant, Sirvan insisted on gifting us once more with some treats for the plane. He is someone who would not take “no” for an answer, and felt the true responsibility of being a merchant–and a representative of his city. Sirvan’s restaurant is located in the more modern section of Antep, right across the boulevard from The Grand Hotel. If you’re ever in the neighborhood, drop by to see him, have some lahmacun, some baklava to go, and experience a little bit of true Turkish hospitality. And don’t forget to say merhaba (hello) for me.
Incilipinar Mah. Ali Fuat Cebesoy Bul.
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