The taste of Tarsus
“Very hot,” I said apologetically to the juice seller.
“Yes, humid,” he said, gently wiping away a single drop of sweat adorning his own forehead.
For those not brought up in this part of the world, the climate all along Turkey's south coast can be pretty punishing, but the wet heat concentrates its worst on the corner where the coastline makes its abrupt downward turn into Hatay. The good thing is that this ensures lush Levantine vegetation of palms, fig trees and banana plants. The bad thing is that it can make it hard to make oneself stir far from a hotel room with its air conditioning unit turned up high.
At the juice bar I downed a mixed fruit juice followed in short order by a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. But at that time of year I could easily have been more adventurous, because this is when the prickly pear bushes come into fruit and glasses of prickly pear juice (hint inciri suyu) are a common sight in Tarsus. Almost as common are bowls of yayla karsambaç, the Tarsus take on a slushie, with fruit juice poured over crushed ice to help you cool down.
Şalgam: an acquired taste
Finally, one can always take a deep breath and order a glass of şalgam, the so-called “turnip juice” that is claimed for itself by nearby Adana but spills over in large quantities to Tarsus too. Şalgam is actually made from carrots that have been added to fermented bulgur with a dose of salt. True aficionados drink it in between crunching on sticks of carrot called tane. It's very much an acquired taste.
Mention Tarsus to most people and the first thing that will come to their mind is St. Paul, the Tarsus-born Saul who underwent a religious experience on the road to Damascus and not only converted to Christianity and changed his name but also became one of the most ardent advocates for his new religion. A few people, after scratching their heads, will recall that Tarsus also had something to do with Queen Cleopatra of Egypt, who was summoned to the city in 41 BC to meet Marc Anthony, the Roman leader of the eastern part of what was then still a rambling republic. The queen is said to have sailed up the Cyndus river to meet him in a perfumed barge full of flowers. Needless to say, he promptly fell in love with her and forgot all about politics. Today, a poorly restored gate from the old city wall is named after the queen, although it can't have been standing when she visited.
Finally, a few sharper Turks will remember a link with the Şahmeran, a Mesopotamian fertility symbol with the body of a snake and the head of a human. These days the Şahmeran tends to be most closely associated with Mardin, where craftsmen in the bazaar turn out beautiful images of a creature that appears to be female under glass. The Tarsus Şahmeran, however, was firmly male, and a bit of an unreconstructed, voyeuristic male at that, since a local story records him climbing onto the roof of the Roman bathhouse to spy on the daughter of the king of Tarsus as she bathed. Unluckily for him, he lost his footing and fell into the arms of her waiting bodyguards who promptly put him to death. A statue of the Şahmeran looking like a many-headed cobra presides over a road junction in the center of town.
What few people know, however, is that on the quiet, Tarsus is almost as intriguing a place for people interested in food as Antakya further along the coast. This is mainly a result of its complex crossroads position, lost in the Mersin-Adana sprawl yet near enough to Hatay to have borrowed some of its trendy culinary clothing.
Take hummus, for example. This crushed chickpea and tahini dish is a Middle Eastern favorite that frequently crops up in Antakya by reason of its geographical proximity to Syria. Its popularity in Tarsus is less easy to understand, and does not, as in Kilis, have anything to do with the recent influx of refugees. But the hummus of Tarsus is hummus with a novel twist, because here you can eat it warmed through, dribbled with olive oil and dotted with chickpeas and slithers of pastırma (pastırmalı humus). It's absolutely delicious and best sampled at the award-winning Kervan Humus Salonu, tucked away on a side street.
The other dish that Tarsus seems to have borrowed from its eastern neighbors is the Gaziantep and Kilis favorite lahmacun, but here too it puts its own spin on the familiar serving of paper-thin bread spread with a paste of ground meat and vegetables. In Tarsus they take their lahmacun in bite-sized portions on sale by the hundred in the town's many bakeries. Fresh from the oven and piping hot, they're incredibly moreish.
If şalgam was Adana's gift to Tarsus, then tantuni was Mersin's. Tantuni is a dish of stir-fried meat or chicken that is served in the same sort of soft-bread dürüm wrap as a döner kebab, except that this bread has been used to mop up the meat juices before being wrapped round the contents. The tantuni on offer in Tarsus may not quite match up to the version on sale in Mersin itself, but it certainly makes a good alternative to the more familiar döner.
When it comes to dessert, Tarsus lays claim to one sweet entirely of its own making, and that is cezerye, a gelatinous confection that, like şalgam, has carrot as its base ingredient but now with the addition of crushed hazelnuts or pistachios, honey, sugar and a mixture of different spices all sprinkled with grated coconut, then sliced into squares. You'll see it rising up in conical pyramids in the windows of every other sweetshop in town.
Dinner and cezerye dessert over, Tarsuslus, like Turks all over the country, adjourn to a teahouse to let their meal digest in the relative cool of evening over glass after glass of tea. Until recently the best and most obvious place to take one's tea was the pedestrianized Atatürk Bulvarı Yarenlik Alanı, which sits near an impressive stretch of exposed Roman road. As its name made plain, this used to be a place where one was encouraged to sit down for a friendly chat with others at one of a number of small cafes. Unfortunately these have now vanished, their place taken only by a string of park benches interspersed with busts of every famous or half-famous person ever to have graced Tarsus with their presence. In their absence you'll have to settle for an ordinary teahouse in a rather male-dominated town or (whisper it) head up to the Tarsu shopping mall for a drink in a branch of a cheerier coffeehouse chain.
WHERE TO STAY
Tarsus is low on decent places to stay, so you might want to stay overnight in Mersin, where there are lots of hotels near the bus terminal, or in Adana and visit on a day trip.
Hotel Bosnalı, Adana. Tel: 0322-359 8000
Hotel Mercan, Adana. Tel: 0322-351 2603
Konak Efsus, Tarsus. Tel: 0324-614 0807
Şelale Hotel, Tarsus. Tel: 0324-614 0600
Taşköprü Hotel, Adana. Tel: 0322-359 1144
HOW TO GET HERE
The nearest airport is in Adana, which is also served, like Mersin, by most big bus companies. Frequent minibuses connect Adana and Mersin with Tarsus. Driving, you'll need to keep your eyes peeled for the turn-off to Tarsus marked by a Kültür Park housing the Nusret minelayer that played a big part in the events at Gallipoli in 1915 -- it's easy to miss amid the heavy traffic.