By 11 p.m., the street theater on Nevizade Street, a narrow lane lined with outdoor restaurants around Istanbul's fish market, works up to a kind of Felliniesque mayhem. Flower sellers push big thorny roses at passersby's noses, while a Gypsy quartet cranks background music for a parade of street peddlers.
Amid this carnival, waiters unload trays of small dishes on tables and refill glasses with raki, Turkey's favorite anise-based liquor. Our own table, at an old Armenian restaurant called Boncuk, is mosaicked with plates of dips, crisp fish croquettes redolent of allspice and cinnamon, a chickpea pâté layered with dried currants and pine nuts, and a majestic börek, a pastry oozing a tangy filling of cheese and pastirma, or spiced cured beef.
These are meze, Turkey's signature little dishes and the Middle East's answer to Spanish tapas, Venetian baccari or Mexican antojitos.
On our own shores, meze offer yet another twist on the small-plates trend. Entertaining at home? Meze could have been invented for Southern California, where, much like in Istanbul, they can be languidly savored al fresco on the patio. Less fussy than hors d'oeuvres, a welcome break from Italian antipasti, infinitely more varied than hummus and baba ghanouj, a few meze together make an exciting light feast.
Meze — the name is derived from the Persian word maza, or flavor — seem to flourish in Istanbul as an edible life force: from a plethora of eggplant preparations to a veritable encyclopedia of dolma, or stuffed vegetables; from multitudes of böreks, savory pastries, to a vast roster of salads and dips. They can be cold or hot, light or substantial, as humble as a wedge of salty white cheese or as chichi as the langoustine salads dished out at the glamorous fish restaurants along the Bosphorus shores. Though most travelers to Turkey encounter meze at restaurants, they taste even better when prepared at home. "Meze is all about socializing — nibbling, drinking, laughing," says Gökçan Adar, an Istanbul food writer. One breezy night, under a sour cherry tree in his overgrown garden, he treats us to a 19-dish meze marathon.
Spontaneity is essential Typical of modern-day Istanbul, where the cuisine evolves with lightning speed, his spread is both creative and classic: braised eggplant topped with a flourish of walnut and sun-dried tomato paste, langoustines with their roe resting atop lemony wild greens, fritters of just-picked zucchini flowers on a vibrant red pepper purée. This could almost be Catalonia — or California. Not to be outdone, my friend Engin Akin, a food writer and radio host legendary in Istanbul for her swank soirees, throws a bash on the lawn of her home overlooking the Bosphorus. Ever willing to experiment, Akin deep-fries paper-thin leaves of yufka (a phyllo-like dough) and serves the crisps with shavings of Turkish cured mullet roe similar to bottarga. She fashions nifty bruschetta from the ubiquitous fava bean pâté, topping the toasts with fried almonds.
Grazing gets more cosmopolitan still when Akin and I move on to Bodrum, a jet-set resort on the Aegean. Here, at a cocktail party at the white-washed villa of a shipping tycoon, white-gloved waiters pass such dainties as miniature French fry "kebabs," Gruyère köfte (meatballs), and spicy sucuk (soujuk) sausage wrapped in phyllo.
In Turkey, meze are intimately linked with the city's history as a cosmopolitan port and to drinking establishments called meyhane.
What — drinking in a Muslim culture, with its Koranic prohibitions on alcohol? Well sure.
Even before Kemal Atatürk secularized Turkey in the 1920s, restrictions on alcohol were sporadic, a whim of one sultan or another. Selling alcohol was taboo, though, entrusted to Istanbul's numerous non-Muslim minorities: Greeks, Armenians and Jews. It was they who established the original meyhane, raucous dives packed with foreign sailors, where meze was an excuse for another round of raki. Dating back to early Ottoman times or even further, meyhane continue to thrive.
To learn more, I rendezvous with Akin and Deniz Gursoy, an author of books on raki and meze, at Safa, the city's oldest meyhane. With whirling fans, burnished mirrors and pictures of Atatürk striking Hollywood poses, the place feels like a souvenir from another era. When Safa opened some 125 ago, Gursoy explains, meze came free with consumption, consisting of basics like anchovies, pickled cabbage, a tiny börek and a bowl of leblebi, or dried chickpeas. Today, the repertoire seems inexhaustible.
Akin explains that flavors Westerners usually associate with Middle Eastern cuisines — bulgur, pomegranate molasses, lavish spicing, hummus, kebabs — are rather new to Istanbul, a consequence of the enormous influx of immigrants from eastern Turkey.
Other classic meze we sample reflect the city's historical layers of cultures. Delicious fried liver nuggets, with wisps of raw onion and a dusting of sumac, hail from the Balkans. The plaki is Greek, Gursoy notes, referring to a classic cold preparation in which beans or fish are simmered in tomato sauce sweetened with onions and cinnamon. Jews might have contributed zeytinyagli, an iconic cold meze of vegetables, such as artichokes or leeks, braised slowly in water and olive oil with a little sugar until they melt in the mouth.
And though raki still reigns, these days, younger Turks are just as likely to sip a locally made Cabernet or a dry Muscat with their meze.
It is actually on Istanbul's Asian side, at a humble joint called Çiya, that I discover the city's most exciting small dishes. Little surprise, because chef-owner Musa Dageviren hails from Gaziantep, a city near the Syrian border renowned for Turkey's finest cuisine.
Each of his dishes vibrates with flavor: A simple tomato and parsley salad comes alive with a sprinkling of pungent orange-hued powder made from dried curd cheese. Grape leaves are filled with dried onions, bulgur and pomegranate syrup. Boiled wheat berries and home-pickled green tomatoes sport a creamy cloak of dense, tart yogurt.
"Gaziantep doesn't have a meze tradition per se," Dageviren explains, "but small dishes are normally served at kebab houses. At home, cooks often fashion light cold meals from leftovers."
Lacking white-gloved waiters or a grandma from Gaziantep, a meze spread is still easy to improvise. The rich thick Turkish yogurt alone — which can be replicated in the United States by draining good-quality yogurt in a cheesecloth-lined sieve — provides a dozen simple ideas. Stir in some crushed garlic, minced herbs and grated cucumbers and spread it on pita. Or fold it into shredded beets, sautéed zucchini or the chopped smoky flesh of an eggplant that has been grilled whole over charcoal (and why not sprinkle some toasted almond on top?). Alternatively, a dollop of yogurt can top fried eggplant or zucchini slices.
Bulgur also makes a fine meze, say as a salad tossed with chickpeas, tomatoes, parsley and mint and drizzled with pomegranate molasses and olive oil. The mandatory raki accompaniment of feta and honeydew melon becomes elegant when cut into cubes and threaded on long wooden skewers. Not to forget olives, pistachios, good, creamy feta and roasted chickpeas. And unless you have a bottle of raki that's been burning a hole in your liquor cabinet, try Greek ouzo, Pernod, a fruity, light red wine (slightly chilled) or a crisp, delicate white (no oaky Chardonnay, please).
Still, raki is our drink as Akin and I prepare a meze feast on her boat for an indolent Aegean voyage. As for the menu, our plan is to test-run the best meze recipes we've collected from parties and restaurants. From Tugra, the palatial Ottoman restaurant at Istanbul's Çiragan Palace hotel, we steal the idea of wrapping haloumi cheese in grape leaves, grilling them and serving this unusual dolma drizzled with pomegranate molasses. A hit.
A floating feast From the shipping tycoon's party we've emerged with a recipe for müjver, crisp zucchini pancakes, which we make cocktail-sized, with the addition of the nontraditional baking soda — for puffier fritters. In Akin's hands, the ubiquitous köfte, or meatballs, turn out studded with nuts and laced with herbs.
Suddenly, Akin confesses that she's never made topik, my favorite Armenian chickpea pâté filled with caramelized onions, currants and pine nuts and dusted with cinnamon. A flurry of phone calls to Armenian matriarchs. Akin nods and scribbles furiously. She got it. Except we are not shaping it by spreading the chickpea purée on a wet muslin cloth with a rolling pin, as tradition dictates. A shortcut will do.
The table is finally set on the deck under a vast starry sky. Akin's husband, Nuri, proffers a CD with fasil, the traditional meyhane music.
"You pour, we drink," the song blasts. We take the cue. A sip, a nibble, a gulp — and luckily no one falls in the water. Luckier still, we don't have far to go. No need for a hamal, a porter who in Ottoman times would wait by the meyhane doors to deliver the inebriated back to their families.
Topik (layered garbanzo bean pâté )
Total time: 1½ hours, plus chilling time
Servings: Makes 9 squares
2/3cups dried Zante currants
1/4cup mild olive oil
4 cups chopped white onions (medium dice)
1 teaspoon cinnamon, plus more for sprinkling the pâté
3/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 cup toasted pine nuts
3 cups canned garbanzo beans, well drained, liquid
3 tablespoons tahini paste, room temperature, well stirred
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 medium-sized yellow-fleshed potatoes, peeled and boiled
1. Place the currants in a medium bowl, add boiling water to a level one-half inch above the currants and let them stand for 30 minutes. Drain and reserve the soaking liquid.
2. In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add onions and cook, stirring, until they begin to soften, about 7 minutes. Reduce heat to medium-low and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until onions are soft and very lightly browned, about 15 to 20 minutes, adding 2 to 3 tablespoons of the currant soaking liquid when onions begin to look dry.
3. Add the currants and another 2 to 3 tablespoons of their soaking liquid and cook for 5 more minutes, stirring. Stir in the cinnamon and allspice and cook for 2 more minutes. Remove from heat and let the mixture cool to room temperature. Stir in the pine nuts.
4. In a food processor, purée the garbanzo beans in 2 batches with the tahini, lemon juice and 4 to 5 tablespoons of the bean liquid until very smooth. Scrape the mixture into a large bowl.
5. Mash the potatoes until smooth with a potato masher or pass through a ricer. Stir the mashed potatoes into the puréed mixture and mix thoroughly. Season with salt.
6. Line an 8-inch square baking pan with plastic wrap, leaving 4 to 5 inches of overhang on all sides. Wet your hands with cold water and use them to spread half of the garbanzo mixture evenly on the bottom. Spread the onion mixture evenly on top; it will be a rather thick layer. With wet hands, spread the other half of the garbanzo mixture on top of that. Fold in the overhang to enclose the pâté. Weight the pâté with a small cast-iron skillet, a plate topped with two 16-ounce cans or something of similar weight, and refrigerate for 2 to 3 hours.
7. To serve, bring the pâté to room temperature, invert it onto a serving plate and remove the plastic wrap. Sprinkle the top lightly with cinnamon (you can do this decoratively through a doily). Cut into squares.
Each serving: 306 calories; 9 grams protein; 41 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams fiber; 14 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 246 mg. sodium.
Herbed zucchini and feta fritters
Total time: 1 hour, 30 minutes, plus refrigerator time
Servings: 36 fritters
1 1/2 cups plain yogurt, preferably full-fat organic
1 large garlic clove, crushed through a garlic press
1 pound zucchini (about 2 large), shredded in a food processor using a three-eighths-inch hole
4 ounces feta, grated
1/3cup minced dill
1/3cup minced parsley
1/4 cup thinly sliced mint leaves
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
2 large eggs, beaten
Mild olive oil for frying
1. Place yogurt in a small sieve lined with cheesecloth and set over a bowl. Drain in the refrigerator for 2 hours or overnight.
2. Place drained yogurt in a bowl, stir in garlic and salt to taste and let mixture stand at room temperature while preparing fritters.
3. Place shredded zucchini in a fine sieve and press hard against the sieve to extract as much liquid as possible. In a large bowl, mix zucchini, feta, dill, parsley and mint and stir until well combined.
4. Sift flour and baking powder into bowl. Add half of mixture to the eggs and stir to form a smooth paste. Stir paste into zucchini and combine thoroughly. Sprinkle in the rest of the flour mixture and stir in well. Let stand for about 10 minutes. Stir again.
5. Line a cookie sheet with paper towels. In a 12-inch skillet, heat 1 inch of oil to 375 degrees, or until a drop of batter sizzles on contact. Drop 3 (1-tablespoon) portions of batter into oil without overcrowding and flatten lightly with the back of a spoon. Fry until deep golden and crusty, about 1 1/2 minutes per side. With a slotted spoon, transfer fritters to the paper towels to drain and continue to fry remaining fritters. Serve hot or warm, with the yogurt dip.
Each fritter: 50 calories; 2 grams protein; 3 grams carbohydrates;
0 fiber; 4 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 16 mg. cholesterol; 52 mg. sodium.
Herbed köfte with tahini sauce
Total time: 45 minutes plus 1 hour chilling time
Servings: 42 meatballs
Note: Sumac is available at Middle Eastern markets.
1/2 cup tahini paste, well stirred
1/2 cup chicken broth
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon mild paprika
1. Combine tahini, chicken broth, lemon juice, cumin and paprika, stirring well.
2 slices white sandwich bread, crusts removed
1/2 pound ground beef
1/2 pound ground lamb
1 medium onion, grated
1 heaping teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
Large pinch ground allspice
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
3/4 teaspoon black pepper
3/4 cup minced parsley
1/2 cup finely chopped mint
1 cup toasted walnut pieces
2 tablespoons mild olive oil
1/2 red onion, very thinly sliced
Minced parsley or sumac for garnish
1. Dip the bread in cold water and squeeze dry against the bottom of a fine sieve. In a large bowl, mix bread with beef, lamb, onion, salt, cumin, allspice, red pepper and black pepper. Mix thoroughly, but avoid overhandling. Refrigerate for 1 hour.
2. Mix in parsley, mint and walnuts with your hands and shape mixture into balls.
3. Heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium heat in a large skillet. Add half the meatballs and sauté until browned and cooked through, about 7 minutes. Regulate heat so meatballs don't burn, and shake pan vigorously to turn them. Transfer to paper towels. Wipe skillet and repeat with remaining oil and meatballs.
4. Top with onions. Garnish and serve hot or warm, with tahini sauce.
Each meatball: 69 calories;
3 grams protein; 2 grams carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 6 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 7 mg. cholesterol; 78 mg. sodium.
Grilled haloumi-stuffed grape leaves with pomegranate sauce
Total time: 25 minutes
Servings: Makes 12 dolmas
Note: Haloumi cheese is available at Bristol Farms and at Middle Eastern markets. Haloumi and grape leaves can both be quite salty; if your brand of leaves is too briny, soak them longer or blanch in boiling water for 1 minute.
12 grape leaves preserved in brine
12 (3-inch by one-half-inch) logs haloumi cheese, one-half-inch thick (queso blanco can be substituted)
2 1/2 tablespoons mild olive oil,
2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
1 tablespoon water
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1. Place the grape leaves in a bowl. Add boiling water to cover and soak for about 2 minutes. Taste, and if the leaves still taste assertively briny, soak for few minutes more. Rinse under cold water, drain and pat dry with paper towels. Heat the grill to medium.
2. Place a grape leaf shiny side down on a work surface with the stem facing you. Trim off the stem. Place a log of haloumi across the bottom end of the leaf and fold the bottom over it. Fold in the sides and roll up like a cigar to make a dolma. Make sure there are no tears in the leaf, or the cheese will ooze out. Continue until you have used all the grape leaves.
3. Brush the dolmas lightly with one-half tablespoon olive oil. Grill them until they are lightly charred and the cheese is beginning to soften but is not oozing out, about 1½ minutes per side. Transfer the dolmas to a plate and let them cool for about 10 minutes.
4. Meanwhile, whisk the remaining oil with the pomegranate molasses, water and sugar.
5. To serve, drizzle a white serving plate with the pomegranate mixture and arrange the dolmas on top, drizzling with some extra sauce if desired.
Each dolma: 246 calories; 14 grams protein; 3 grams carbohydrates;
0 fiber; 20 grams fat; 11 grams saturated fat; 50 mg. cholesterol; 418 mg. sodium.