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 pate layered with dried currants and pine nuts, and a majestic borek, 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 boreks, 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 Gokcan 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 puree. 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 pate, 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,” Gruyere kofte (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 Ataturk 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 Ataturk 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 borek 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 Ciya, 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, sauteed 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 Ciragan 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 mujver, 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 kofte, or meatballs, turn out studded with nuts and laced with herbs.
Suddenly, Akin confesses that she’s never made topik, my favorite Armenian chickpea pate 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 puree 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.