Tarsus, a town in Turkey’s southeastern Mediterranean region, is known as the hometown of St. Paul. A Greek Orthodox Church carrying his name — originally built in the 12th century and rebuilt in the 19th — opens its doors for special services at Christmas and Easter to visitors and pilgrims every year, who sit under the church’s impressive ceiling frescos that show Jesus surrounded by his disciples.
Tarsus’ Christian heritage extends to its gastronomy, as a group of visitors and journalists discovered after a traditional tastes festival in November. The guests departed with a gift box of two key products in identical bottles. The local olive oil was to be expected, while the second choice was much less obvious: It was a thick dark brown liquid labeled as harnup pekmezi, or carob molasses. As would be expected from the hometown of St. Paul, both products carry biblical connections; while olive oil is mentioned numerous times in the Bible, the role of carob in the rise of Christianity is hardly known. Many believe that John the Baptist survived eating carob pods — also known as locust beans — in the wilderness east of Jerusalem. “John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey,” says Matthew 3:4.
Carob (Ceratonia siliqua) is a versatile plant with diverse uses, also known as St. John’s bread due to its connection with the saint.
The Turkish name for carob is either harnup, which comes from Arabic, or keciboynuzu, literally “goat horn,” which is descriptive of its almost inedible-looking, woody, curled horn-like shape.
Carob trees grow abundantly in the Taurus Mountains and the beans have been traditionally part of the cuisine of Tarsus and the nearby cities of Mersin and Adana. A well-known source of nutrition, carob is used as fodder for animals, a nibble for children to munch on and as a source for syrups and drinks.
Now considered as a diet miracle containing high fiber, powdered carob pods are used as a substitute for cacao in cakes, in health-food bars and even in chocolates; its crushed beans have a sticky glutinous substance used as an emulsifying, stabilizing, gelling and binding agent and as a thickener in the food industry, especially in ice creams; it also is can be used as a plant-based edible glue in various products.
The use of carob molasses as a traditional sweetener might be in decline due to availability of sugar in modern times, but its place as a unique taste still survives. Supermarket shelves carry carob jam and spreads.
Gastro Magazine by Metro, a wholesale markets chain, featured Tarsus cuisine in its latest issue, covering a wide range of recipes from the town.
Nilhan Aras, editor of Istanbul-based Gastro, told Al-Monitor that today sugar might have replaced molasses in many recipes, but that carob molasses, together with its newly attributed health virtues, can be a product worth promoting. She added, “After all, carob is still growing abundantly in this geography, it has historical connections, it is in the traditional taste palate, why not make use of it?”
“Tarsus is midway between the two megacities of Cukurova, that is Adana and Mersin; it can play the bridging role between these two cities as hometown of St. Paul. We all have our reference from ancient Cilicia which has been home to several cultures in the history from the Hittites to Romans, from the Ottomans to modern-day Turkey,” Tayyar Zaimoglu, head of the Cukurova Hotels Association, told Al-Monitor.
He added that the cuisines of Adana, Mersin and Tarsus are very similar, all making use of regional crops, such as bulgur, sesame seed (which is made into tahini) and carob, “We enjoy similar foods, we all mix tahini with carob molasses as our breakfast spread, we have to help each other and create a gastronomic destination enclave here, having our reference from history.”
Yasmina Lokmanoglu, head of the Citizens’ Councils Platform of Turkey, which organized the Tarsus Gastronomy of Research Days, agreed that promoting gastronomic tourism is the right way forward to draw in more tourists. A native of Mersin and a Christian by birth, she told Al-Monitor that people "come to the church only on holy days, but we eat every single day. Gastronomy is a bridge between people, it is beyond faiths, whether we are Muslim or Christian, we all eat the same food, the same hummus, the same kebab, the same halva here in Tarsus.”