As a fertile land with abundant agriculture, Turkey is the third-largest country for pistachio production. These green gems are gathered in the late summer months right before they reach their full blossom, when they are higher in iron and lower in fat. Fortunately for pistachio lovers, there is no specific season for eating them; you can enjoy pistachios as often as you wish on its own or incorporated into your favorite Turkish dish. In the future, you may even be able to heat your home with their shells — a nutty new form of renewable energy.
What's a pistachio?
While most people call pistachios a nut, it is technically a drupe, or a type of fruit in which the edible seed is covered by a hard exterior coating. Like many other drupes, pistachios are packed with proteins, vitamins, and minerals; when combined with legumes and dairy, it can give you all the essential amino acids for overall health maintenance.
Though pricey in other parts of the world, pistachios are plentiful and comparatively inexpensive in Turkey. In 2015, the total number of fruit-bearing trees in Turkey stood at 40 million, or one pistachio tree for about every two people in this country. They are grown in more than 44 provinces around Turkey, mostly from southeastern Anatolia, particularly the cities of Gaziantep, Şanlıurfa, and Siirt.
Pistachio production is cyclical and depending on the climate, yields vary year to year. In 2013 and 2014, due to frost and drought in the main production regions in the winter and spring, the amount of pistachios harvested was lower than the expected average. Luckily, 2015 and 2016 had better harvests, and Turkey is looking to increase production with a project to plant more saplings in Şanlıurfa and Siirt. It is hoped more trees will reduce the impact of the climate and stabilize production.
Pistachios to baklava
Ask anybody who has lived in Turkey where to find the best pistachios and their answer will most likely be Gaziantep. They will also most likely rave about the city’s baklava, which uses Antep pistachios as a main ingredient. While other types of baklava use cinnamon and rosewater to enhance taste, pastry chefs in Gaziantep do not use additional fillings in the traditional treat. They use a simple blend of sugar syrup, filo pastry dough, butter, and crushed pistachio to make Turkey’s most famous dessert.
If you are outside Gaziantep but have a craving for their sweet, there are many pastry shops in Turkey owned and ran by Gaziantep natives who bake their baklava the Antep way. You can choose many varieties of Antep baklava that come in all shapes and sizes. Havuç dilimi, or baklava in the shape of carrot slices, and bülbül yavusı, a type of baklava with a single pistachio in the middle of its nest-like shape, are two examples of a traditional Antep baklava.
Pistachios are not only used to add taste and depth to Turkey’s favorite treat. The Gaziantep metropolitan municipality partnered with a French environmental engineering firm to use pistachio shells as a source of renewable energy in the province. The calorific value, or the amount of heat produced by a food in its combustion process, of pistachios is extremely high. Given the large amount of leftover pistachio shells in the Gaziantep region, more than 55 hectares of buildings can be sourced with heating and cooling systems from this form of renewable energy. The municipality’s aim to build up Turkey’s first eco-city is taking slow steps toward becoming a reality. As of now, a pilot project in the form of a 320 meter ecohouse is underway.
If the project gets approved, the entire 3,200 hectare area between Gaziantep and Kilis could be fueled by eco-friendly energy from pistachio shells. The next time you are cracking a pistachio, remember the versatile nature of this drupe.
Eat Antep-style in Istanbul
For an authentic taste of southeastern Anatolian cuisine, visit Develi in one of its three locations (Samatya, Kalamış, or Etiler) and try some of their speciality dishes, all made from ingredients sourced from the regions around Gaziantep. Try their house specialty, fıstıklı kebab, which includes crushed pistachios in the meat. Other specialties include ala nazik, Antep-style dried eggplant dolma, and kebab made with keme, the Gaziantep word for truffles. Open daily noon-midnight. Gümüşyüzük Sokak No.5, Samatya; T: (0212) 529 08 33
If you are craving a bite of baklava, visit Gaziantepli Baklavacı Bilgeoğlu and indulge in their classic pistachio kuru baklava, or an alternative, yet equally delicious, variety. Open daily 6am-9pm. Muvakkithane Caddesi No.56, Kadıköy; T: (0216) 336 00 49
Pistachio Pesto recipe by Aylin Öney Tan
Pistachios can be used not only in sweet dishes, but savory ones as well. The delicate sweetness of early harvest pistachios balances savory tastes, from juicy kebabs to tangy cheese mezze. Pistachios also make a perfect pesto as a substitute for pine nuts, and one does not need to add basil for the bright green color so iconic of a pesto sauce. The following pesto recipe gives the most intense pistachio taste, but if you prefer a flavor with herbs, add a handful of basil leaves or half a bunch of flat leaf parsley. Likewise, this pistachio pesto does not need cheese and can be made vegan. For cheese fans, add grated Parmesan or an aged sharp Turkish kaşar cheese directly on top of your pasta. You can also use this ingredient as a sauce if you play around with the amount of herbs and cheese varieties added.
1 ½ cups early harvest raw (unroasted) shelled Antep pistachios
½ cup early harvest extra virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic
½ teaspoon salt
Mix together pistachios, extra virgin olive oil, garlic, and salt in a blender until smooth. If necessary, dilute the mixture with a spoonful of the cooking water from the pasta. Pour it over pasta and enjoy!