Star flavors of Malatya
Taste and history are two assets of the city of Malatya in southeastern Turkey. Recently the 8,000-year-old Arslantepe Mound has been included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. This long-awaited inclusion will help for the recognition of the city in the world, but it is not only historical assets that the city possesses. Malatya apricots are already world famous, and the city has numerous registered flavors.
The very first Arslantepe excavations started in 1930 at Atatürk’s request, and since 1961 carried out by the La Sapienza University of Rome. The Anatolian Civilizations Museum in Ankara houses many Arslantepe artifacts. The mound carries the traces of many civilizations, starting from the late Chalcolithic period, between the fourth and third millennium BC. The importance of Arslantepe lies in the fact that it represents the birth of one of the earliest city-states of Anatolia, where the first state model emerged, and that it created a central hierarchal authority controlling the agriculture, trade and regional economy around it. Agriculture and trade had always been important in the history of Malatya, for centuries its environs were famed for its fruit orchards and in particular apricots. The ancient name of the city is Melita, which comes from the Hittite word melit, or milit, which means honey. The word later passed to Greek, and eventually forming of the basis of the word melittology used for beekeeping. Today Malatya has good honey, but it is the almost honey-sweet apricots the city is famed for.
Malatya had always been like the fruit basket of eastern Anatolia region being home to wonderful vineyards and fruit gardens bearing the sweetest fruits. The 17th century Ottoman traveler Evliya Çelebi describes the city as a heavenly place blessed with delicious fruits, mentioning the existence of 7,800 vineyards and 600 fruit and vegetable gardens. He seems to be fascinated by the abundance of apples, cherries, apricots and grapes. He reckons that the climate is a very pleasant one with crisp clean air and plenty of fresh water sources, the fruit orchards flowing like a river along the long valley of Malatya.
Today, most of those fruits are listed in the geographical appellation list of Turkey. Malatya has in total 12 tastes registered, 4 local dishes and products with regionality indication, and 7 fruits and dried fruits with geographical appellation. Needless to say, the apricot took the lead and got listed back in 2002. Its fame was already in dried fruit shelves around the globe, especially in Europe, but it was in 2007 that the Malatya apricot got registered by the EU, receiving the title of protected designation of origin. When talking of apricots in Malatya it is not only the fresh fruit itself that has tremendous economic value—actually dried apricots have more, the city produces 90 percent of all apricots exported from Turkey. Considering that Turkey is the number one apricot producer in the world, one can easily say that the city is the epicenter of apricot growing in the world. There are many apricot products in the city, even the dried varieties are dazzling, sun-dried with rich toffee-like flavor, fresh looking bright orange oven-dried ones with fruitier taste, butterflied extra sour ones ideal for cooking in meat stews, and so on. The variety of apricot flavors extend to apricot nectar, jams and preserves, apricot-based Turkish delight and above all apricot fruit leather, which must be the most intensely flavored of all. Just nibbled with a handful of almonds or apricot kernels, it makes the most ideal healthy snack ever. By the way, apricot kernel of Malatya also got in the GI list in 2020.
In such an apricot-centric city, it seems that the other stars of the fruit basket go missing unfortunately, but Malatya is also reputed with its cherries, especially the Dalbastı variety, which is not a word easy to translate. “Dal” means branch in Turkish, and “bastı” stands for “laden with, or “heavily crowded with,” which indicates a fruit that comes in cascading clusters, branches bursting with cherries. Mulberries are also very important in Malatya’s culture, but only its fruit leather is listed with regional indication. Normally, the fruit leather made from white mulberry juice (dut pestili) is silky smooth, but here it is dotted by the crunchiness of poppy seeds. Then there are the grapes, of course. Here the most famous ones are the deep dark colored black grapes. Among all, two varieties are listed: “Köhnü Üzümü” from Arapgir district, and “Malatya Banazı Karası,” the latter usually dried in whole bunches, making the most attractive decoration in winter tables. Arapgir grapes are now also revived in wine making in the city Tokat, giving promising results. Grape products are also abundant in Şire Pazarı in town, which gets its name “Şire” meaning grape juice or must. Threaded walnut garlands dipped in thickened grape juice that gels around the nuts and forms the tastiest health snack, hanging up in Şire Pazarı gracefully like the most delicious edible decoration ever. Of course, the walnuts are also listed, the fat, pale-colored “Hekimhan Cevizi” grown in Hekinhan district is another GI list product of the town. Last but not least, a surprising 2017 addition to the list is not a fruit, but an herb, so tasty and colorful that it is almost treated like a fruit in Malatya. It is the purple basil, “Reyhan” in Turkish. It is not only the trademark herb of Malatla cuisine, but it is made into salads, pesto-like pastes with walnuts, turned into jams, jellies, and the brightest colored warm tisanes or cold sherbets.
It would not be a far-fetched description to call Malatya the fruit basket of Anatolia, even if the basket would be full of apricots.
Cork of the Week: Another grape from Arapgir is making a comeback in bottles. Karaoğlan is an indigenous grape of the region, now revived to make a wonderfully balanced delicious wine in Tokat. Powerful, yet velvety, this newly re-discovered grape variety will surely conquer the heart of wine lovers, even the name meaning “Black Boy” has heroic annotations, often a loving nickname for brave-heart young men of Anatolia, sometimes the hero of a desperate love, sometimes the unsung hero in defense of a good cause.
Fork of the Week: Malatya cuisine is one of the richest in Turkey, yet to be discovered, not justly recognized. Now we have a new book published by Chef Ali Açıkgül, owner of Chefs Academy in Ankara. He is originally a native of Malatya, still having elderly relatives living in rural Arapgir district. The book is both in Turkish and English, gives a selection of the childhood tastes of the chef (44 one of them, if not more hidden in between the lines), some almost forgotten, giving a broad insight to the local produce and traditions. The book is only available on the internet, but probably his Academy in Ankara would stock copies.