Halls of Food

The old foodways find a new audience in Gaziantep

By / December 2013

In 2005 the Turkish statesman Ali Ihsan Gogus donated his boyhood home, a two-story stone mansion perched on a hill down the street from a Roman castle, to the city of Gaziantep in southern Turkey. The gift came with two stipulations. The residence was to be named after his mother, Emine Gogus. And it was to be turned into a museum dedicated to Gaziantep’s culinary heritage.

Gaziantep is mighty proud of its grub. Perhaps a sign in the museum (which opened to much fanfare in February 2008) says it best. “The people of Gaziantep,” it proclaims, “prepare their meals with the labor of an artist.” The museum strives to preserve the old traditions, techniques, and recipes and to encourage the current generation of chefs and consumers to carry this inheritance into the future.

What is it that makes Gaziantep’s gastronomy so singular? The city’s geographic location, between the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia, gives it four seasons of fresh fruits and vegetables. Gaziantep has been the meeting place of cultures ever since people have wondered what was over the next hill. The food mixes Turkish and Arab influences, but features touches of Hittite and Assyrian cuisine as well.

Dried veggy strings

The museum has model kitchens with traditional pots and pans and cookware to make local staples like dolma (stuffed eggplant) and sarma (stuffed grape leafs). Colorful bilingual Turkish and English displays on the wall highlight the provenance and ingredients of countless dishes. There are life-sized dioramas of historical table scenes. In one, figures sit on the floor around a low table covered with bowls of dried fruits and nuts. It is winter. Beneath the table a small pan of hot coals warms the mannequins’ feet.

Many museums the world over pride themselves on giving guests hands-on experiences, chances to interact with the ideas they’ve encountered. The Emine Gogus Cuisine Museum has taken it a step further, opening a cooking school in the house next door. The school teaches students how to bring to life the dishes in the pictures on the walls of the museum. Presently, classes of twelve to fifteen students, diverse in age and walk of life, come to the kitchen five days a week for three months to learn how to make nearly 300 dishes.

The students’ common bond, the one real requirement for admission to the school, is a passion for local food. These budding connoisseurs seem eager to acquire the skills and knowledge to recreate nearly forgotten dishes. At the end of class, when it’s time to sample the day’s work, students find themselves pleasantly surprised by the things they have heard of but never before tasted.

Stuffed cabbage and peppers

Ahmet, the head teacher, worked as a chef for a number of years at a tourist hotel in the coastal resort town of Antalya. A native of Gaziantep, he was drawn back by the opportunity to more deeply explore and discover his hometown’s culinary legacy. His two assistants, Sesli and Bilgen, were hired on after they won a city-wide cooking contest. For all three, as for the rest of the museum staff, it’s not just about spreading knowledge but about keeping their history alive.

The museum will soon boast a restaurant, too. In the dining room, a number of cases set into the floor and covered with clear glass showcase other Gaziantep treasures like its copper etching and polished wood inlaid with mother-of-pearl. When the restaurant is completed, visitors will be able to cap their museum experience by sampling the dishes they’ve only just learned about. The hope, Ahmet says, is that folks will leave with a rich appreciation, and an insatiable craving, for Gaziantep’s singular cuisine.


Michael Cervantez is a writer living in Turkey.