The Best Humus in Antakya

Ibrahim of Aleppo has been ladling out the Mediterranean staple for two decades

By / March 2014

“You have to try Ibrahim’s humus,” my friend told me when I mentioned I was headed to Antakya, the Turkish city built on the ruins of ancient Antioch between the Mediterranean and the border with Syria. The place, down the street from the Orthodox church on the eastern bank of the Asi River, was easy enough to find. The sign out front read, “Famous Master Ibrahim of Aleppo.” Short and stocky, with a head of gray hair, Ibrahim Ketremizgil greeted me at the door. He flashed a big smile and proffered a small sample of humus from a blue plastic tub sitting on the counter. The humus was not so different as it was penultimate, a near-perfect blend of chickpeas, sesame, garlic and lemon.

The hole-in-the-wall, an expressly simple affair replete with a kitchen in the back, belies its world-class humus. The work counter where Ibrahim fills orders is lined with spices, bottles of olive oil and lemon juice, and bowls of tomatoes, peppers, and pickles. In the storefront window rests a large cone-shaped pot for extracting bakla, a kind of broad bean cooked and then mashed with sesame and olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, and red pepper flakes. A fan on a table blows on tubs of warm, not-yet-finished humus to speed the cooling process. Magazine covers on the wall highlight Ibrahim’s culinary artisanship. A refrigerator capped with a small television completes the decor.

In Antakya, humus and bakla are a package deal. Tradition dictates that purveyors of one also serve the other. I watched as Ibrahim readied my order. He grabbed the nearby pestle and worked it into the bakla until it became a rough paste. His forearms were thick from years of mashing. Legend has it, Ibrahim said, that the builders of the pyramids ate bakla for breakfast. Ibrahim placed a bowl of it on the table, along with a plate of pickled peppers and a basket of fresh pita bread. In between customers, mouthfuls of food, and Ibrahim’s shouted exchanges with passers-by on the sidewalk, he told me his story.

Photograph by Mike Cervantez

Although born and raised in Antakya, Ibrahim’s family comes from Aleppo, Syria, roughly 60 miles to the east of Antakya. He’s not sure when, but at some point in the distant past his ancestors made their way west to Antakya, possibly when the entire region was still ruled by the Ottoman Sultan. Ibrahim’s father worked in textiles and also served as a reader at the nearby Orthodox church. In the early 1980s, when he was approaching 20 years old, Ibrahim headed to Beirut, 200 miles south, to visit an aunt who ran a small humus operation.

What was supposed to be a summertime visit became an unexpectedly long sojourn. Ibrahim stayed in Beirut for the next 10 years. He was fascinated with every aspect of the humus business. He learned the logistics and money side of the business but, more importantly, he perfected his method for making the humus–the process for getting it so smooth, which chickpeas work best, the right mix of sesame oil, spices and flavorings–and learned to prepare his own fresh sides. It became his dream to open his own establishment back in Antakya. In 1994 his apprenticeship ended and he hung out his sign at his current digs.

Now in his twentieth year of making humus, Ibrahim says he is still invigorated by the work. Running his café is not just about making the food, he says, but about serving it and watching others enjoy it. The store is a way to connect with the neighborhood around him.

He switches effortlessly between Arabic and Turkish, depending on the customer. He has thought about taking his product on the road but says that in Antakya, with its immeasurably diverse population and constant flow of visitors, the world comes to him. Personally, I hope he stays put. That kilo of humus I ordered is long gone.

 

Michael Cervantez is a writer living in Turkey.

 

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