Heard of Antioch? It’s called Antakya in Turkish. Well, it’s located in a region of southeast Turkey called Hatay. Hatay has been a Turkish province since 1939. It is also claimed by Syria. It has an eclectic mix of people and religions. Arabic can be heard spoken in the streets. It also has, in my opinion, the best food in Turkey, incorporating lots of meats, spices, and incredible flavor. Apparently, there’s only one place that knows how to do Hatay cuisine in Istanbul – Hatay Medeniyetler Sofrası in Aksaray. I doubt that’s true, but this place was recommended by many Turks who know food extremely well, including many of my students.
My chance to visit this restaurant came when Tim’s parents were visiting Istanbul and they invited me along to dinner. I met them at the restaurant as they were arriving, and a friendly waiter escorted us to our table.
We started off with a few meze plates – haydari (yogurt with garlic and mint), patlıcan salatası (eggplant dip), and muhammara (spicy walnut dip). All were excellent. The waiter even brought out a fresh loaf of hot bread with Tim’s mom’s name spelled out on top of it in black seeds. Nice touch!
For the main course, it was difficult to choose. The entire menu looked phenomenal. There was a plethora of kebabs to choose from, but they didn’t exactly whet our appetite because they didn’t look much different than any other kebabs found at other restaurants in Istanbul.
We asked our waiter for something special, and he recommended two dishes – one was lamb and vegetables in a clay jug, another was chicken stuffed with rice in a dome of salt. Presentation was wonderful as both dishes were brought to the table in flames. The waiter very carefully broke open the dome of salt and dissected the chicken before carefully putting it on the plate. He then smashed the clay jug and poured the contents onto another plate.
Both dishes were delicious. The lamb was very tender and perfectly spiced. The chicken was not dry at all, as we were kind of expecting, and the rice was incredible. It was enough for all four of us and very reasonably priced. The chicken was surprisingly affordable at 40TL!
We didn’t have much room for dessert after such a huge meal, but we had to try the künefe. It was good.
The only thing on the menu I would love to go back and try is the çığ köfte – raw meatballs. I had them often during my visit to Lebanon and Syria and loved the taste. They are very difficult to find in Istanbul due to health codes, but Hatay Medeniyetler Sofrası has them.
Overall, we were all very pleased by the meal. We actually came back a few nights later and had the exact same thing. The chicken was a bit dry the second time, but it didn’t take away from the meal. The flavor was still there. I recommend either branch of this restaurant to anyone who visits Istanbul. In addition to the branch in Aksaray, there’s also one at Taksim Square.