A Stir The Pots Post

Istanbul part III:Gökhan Sökmen, the baker from Antakya (Antioch)

by | Sep 6, 2008 | Uncategorized


Before going on my adventure to Turkey I took time thinking of dishes to do on my visit.  Dilara had sent me several e-mails, in one asking if I could make bagels. “Sure,” I said. Honestly, it seemed funny, being the last bread I would want to bake,  my idea had been to bring some dried sourdough. Then again, I’m a New Yorker so “they want bagels, we’re gonna make ’em bagels!”Photo


Entering her kitchen for the first time, I saw breadbaskets filled with three distinct bread; a
whole wheat bread covered in oats, a corn-textured  muffin and some round pide covered with nigella and sesame seeds. The young man baking them was training another baker. As he kneaded the dough, I wondered whether to share the dough-kneading (and no-kneading) methods of experts like Jim Lahey and Dan Lepard. Actually,  Dan Lepards bagel recipe came up later.

Anyway, Dilara told me the baker, Gökhan, was from Antakya or Antioch, close to the border of Syria in Hatay province, an important city during the time of the Crusades. Though we didn’t speak each other’s language, we managed to find enough common words and gestures to trade ideas, him showing me how to shape pide, me teaching him about bagel. Seeing the finished bagels, he told me that they reminded him of Simit, a Turkish Cimg5430_2
bread also with a hole in the center, also covered with seeds. But the poaching of the dough in water mystified him.


During the course of my time in Dilara’s kitchen, Gökhan cut an elegant figure as baker, stretching, kneading, and shaping Middle Eastern flatbreads with ease. Employing various hand signs (like squeezing his thumb and forefinger to his ear), which were signs describing the hydration and texture. Watching him on basic tasks of mixing flour, water, yeast and salt without a scale, I walked away impressed with his rich mix of sensory and hand’s-on baking skills. Dilara and her husband Ahmet noticed my interest. They told me that Gökhan had been baking since the age of seven, learning at his father’s side.  Though he is limited in the variety of bread he bakes for their restaurant, his overall deft touch with baking was obvious. I felt flattered being the New Yorker who got to add a bagel recipe to this gifted baker’s portfolio.

After learning how to make bagel dough, the next day Gökhan set about making a batch on his own. He showed me the dough, folded it, then let it proof. A bit later he came over with the dough in the bowl with a shocked look, asking if I thought the dough was over proofed. While prepping other breads and restaurant items, he had lost track of time of the bagel dough. I gave him a Jewish gesture for, “no problem” (raise shoulders up towards ears, twist lips slightly, say inner prayer to God).  My new friend wasn’t as optimistic.  So we quickly divided the dough, shaped it together, then poached them in water, covering the batch with seeds. Then off they went to the stove.

When the bagels came out, Dilara came over. She wanted to know why were they so big. To her, they didn’t look the same as mine. But by now, I was starting to feel at home. “Hell, these look good, nothing wrong with this batch,” I said!  Telling them stories of how both the bagel and croissant came out of the Turkish seige of Vienna, I almost felt like my mix of Ashkanazi and Mediterranean ancestors had brought me home, a New York baker now baking bagel in 21st century Istanbul!Photo




Before my visit was up,Gökhan and I looked at pictures of my breads on Stir the Pots, as well as my favorite online baking forums. he described his version of pizza, and I tried to give him the basics of it New York style. Turns out that he prefers thin crisp dough. Gökhan chided me for my beer drinking, but he did love listening to my ipod’s Arabic music, amazed that this American guy loved Fairouz. Above all we shared  a common appreciation in making bread as well some recipes.

Gökhan told me he had to go back to his city for a wedding in the family, so we shook hands and we said goodbye. But I am sure we will meet again. Next trip I am learning some kitchen Turkish and writing down everything I see. This guy Gökhan is a diamond in the rough! Actually, not rough, just diamond.


  1. Nils

    What a trip. Those breads look refreshingly different and excellent. Someone should write a book about Turkish baking.

  2. Jeremy

    So true Nils,
    Though I didn’t find any naturale levain, I did see some amazing baking dexterity and a true bread culture, working on that idea for a book!


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