Sitting in a taxi cab in Istanbul at 3 in the morning, doused with rakı and with a full belly, either going to a club to dance the calories away or to your hotel (depending on your fitness), you will be caught in a traffic jam. Not if, not when, there will be a traffic jam. The cab driver, if he is not from Istanbul (as are many of his 18,500 registered colleagues), will get mad, pound on the steering wheel and go: “I don’t understand it. Why don’t these people go home and sleep? What is it with this city? I just don’t get it! They are crazy!” But you will know better, you had the street food, you had the meyhane food: You don’t have to understand Istanbul, you just go with the flow. You eat what comes to your table, you drink, you have fun, you live.
Whenever I go to Istanbul, the highlight is the night when we go to a meyhane. Literally, this means a “wine house”; although nowadays you would be hard-pressed to find good, or any, wine in a meyhane. (Don’t let me get started on the theme “Turkish wine”. It is a pity that the 4th biggest grape grower country in the world, just after Italy, is not capable of producing decent wines. And the very, very few good wines are often ruined by uneducated restaurant owners and waiters, who don’t know how to store and serve it.) You should rather stick to rakı (the i without the dot is pronounced liked the “e” in “vowel”), the Turkish national drink.
This is a clear, 45% – 50% alcoholic beverage that smells like aniseed (there is some involved in the production process) and turns cloudy when you add water, just like absinth. Despite the high percentage, it is not drunk as a digestive; rather throughout the whole meal as an accompaniment, especially to meze and fish. Although it may not be obvious at first glance, the aim is not getting drunk as fast as possible. The idea behind it, just as the whole idea behind a night out in a meyhane, is enjoying. Enjoying the food, the rakı, the company, the music. You eat slowly, take small sips of rakı, chat with your friends, save the country (- from all its political problems; a favorite pastime for all Turks. As a tourist you should stay clear of such discussions and just tell everyone how much you love everything. Copious amounts of alcohol and criticism don’t go well together!) and go home as a happy soldier after a long night out.
You don’t go to a meyhane to have your own, individual dishes. Meyhane is about sharing. The tray you see in the opening picture is full of 26 different cold meze. Such a tray is brought to each table at the very beginning. Everyone at the table points out the ones they want to eat and these are put on the table. Our waiter saw himself forced to say “stop” after 19 meze the four of us chose:
And then there were these, which weren’t on the tray:
Kavun and beyaz peynir, a.k.a. melon and white cheese (feta) are the most traditional sides to rakı. Usually they are brought to the table without being explicitly asked for.
If you are visiting Istanbul in the right season (early summer) and you are very very lucky, you will see a guy entering your meyhane with a huge tray of fresh almonds and/or fresh walnuts. Don’t let him go before you buy a plateful of his goods! The ice on the almonds not only cools them refreshingly down, it also makes the skins damp and plump up, so that it becomes very easy to get rid of them. An ideal snack.
This is eggplant salad. The eggplants are first charred on the grill, then peeled and pureed with some garlic and lemon juice. This is a delicious and light meze I make very often, the eggplant has this smoky flavor which T. and I just love.
This was a first for me. Pastırma is usually dried and cured beef covered with a paste made of garlic, hot red pepper, cumin and fenugreek, served cold in paper thin slices or as a filling for börek (baked pastry). This was made of fish, sturgeon, to be precise. A great method to make fish durable and delicious, rather pungent and spicy, of course.
A salad of salicornia, which is literally called sea bean in Turkish. When I lived in Turkey, I was not aware of this salty plant, which smells definitely of sea shores (where it grows). I first got to know it in Europe, where it is very expensive and considered a delicacy. My brother, who lives in Istanbul and is a foodie himself, has been talking about it for some time now, this was the first time I ate it in Turkey, I think…
Whiting ceviche, delicious tender fish pieces marinated with lemon juice, garlic and basil.
This was also a first for me: Topik is an Armenian delicacy which has almost completely disappeared from kitchens. In the Ottoman Empire, of which Istanbul was the capital for centuries, lived many nationalities and religions together. The traditions, especially the kitchen traditions, are tightly intermingled and have succeeded in many an understanding and friendship which unfortunately hasn’t been supported through politics. This dish is a perfect showcase how food evolves, incorporating ingredients from other cultures.
The casing is made of potatoes and garbanzo beans, the filling is to die for: slow roasted onions, tahini, black currants, allspice and pine nuts. I would have gobbled up the whole plate if they had let me. The meyhane where we were is one of the very few last places who offer this specialty. Nowadays it is only (and even then rarely, as it is very cumbersome to prepare) found in the private kitchens of the Armenian minority in Istanbul, especially around New Year.
This is the original I geared to as I made my own octopus salad. As you can see, here the octopus is “peeled” after it has been cooked, a process I deem unnecessary, but can make the dish more accessible for the faint-hearted.
Grilled and marinated red peppers. These long red peppers are so much more flavorful than the bell peppers, try to find these next time you are cooking with red peppers, it is worth the search.
Purslane salad with yogurt is a typical summer salad in Turkey. The green leaves are very tasty and yogurt (and a little bit of garlic) is always very refreshing. Green leaves like purslane, spinach, swiss chard etc. are in Turkey often mixed with yogurt and used as a bed for meaty dishes. A nice idea to try in the hot days of summer.
Fasulye plaki is a dish of dried big red beans cooked in a lot of olive oil, along with carrots, green peppers and tomatoes. Olive oil dishes are usually eaten either at the end of a series of cold meze (as we have done here) or after the main dish.
This was the first warm meze: Shrimps sauteed in an earthenware pot. Very fresh and actually with a lot of taste, as opposed to in a lot of restaurants nowadays.
Squid rings, fried and served with a great sauce: tarator. This sauce is made of old bread, yogurt, walnuts, garlic, lemon juice and some spices and can be eaten alone as a bread spread. In Turkey it is often served as a dipping sauce for fried squid or fried mussels. Oh, I am hungry right now!
This was the last warm meze, before we got fried sardines as the main, which I forgot to take a picture of. Remember, by this time the four of us had already drunk just short of two 0,75 bottles of the devilish, 50%, rakı; which also explains the decreasing picture quality. Anyways, this was a bonito meatball (I told you there are over 30 kinds of meatballs), which T. and I found to be wanting more seasoning. But it might have been our tongues numbing…
I always think that a mixed or green salad tastes best in Turkey. I don’t know what the reason is: The nostalgia, the freshness of the produce or the use of lemon juice instead of vinegar. It might be a combination of all, of course, but do try dressing your next salad with olive oil and lemon juice and leave the balsamic on the shelf. You might like it a lot.
The first dessert was very thin yufka dough (similar to the greek filo but thinner) rolls filled with pistachios and soaked in syrup, with a dollop of triple cream to “lighten up”. Please, please stop talking about the “honey-laden” Turkish sweets, there is almost never honey involved in these pastries: It is just a simple and sweet syrup!
And the last “first” for me this evening: Baked halva. Of course I grew up eating halva (or helva, as we call it; or better yet, “tahin helva” is the very correct term for this), this sweet paste made with tahini, sugar and the powdered roots of the gypsophila plant. But never before had I eaten it baked. My brother recommended it, and I have to say I wasn’t crazy about it, there is such a thing as “too sweet” in my vocabulary. But I hear this is a popular dessert in the Black Sea shore of Turkey.
Of course a night out in a meyhane is perfect only with music. Usually musicians go from one meyhane to the other and play as long as they are asked to by the customers. These two could play an array of instruments and sang a couple of popular old Turkish songs which every Turk feels like singing along to when they are drunk.
He is not holding his ear shut, he is cupping it so as to hear it better: Do this only if you are a) a crazy Turk b) have worked as a DJ for the last ten years or c) you are already deaf.
One last word about music and dancing in Turkey: You will notice that a lot of Turks start belly dancing as the hours go by. All tourists are encouraged to dance along. Don’t be fooled. Watch this video. She is not a professional! Next try doing the same in front of a mirror. Only now may you decide if you want to belly dance in front of a Turkish public. I personally know of only one non-Turkish friend (hi, A.!) who could dance like this. Consider carefully if you are an exception as well!
We almost always go to this meyhane:
Nevizade Sokak 19
0212-243 12 19
right behind the “Balıkpazarı”, the fish market. But any meyhane on this street is bound to be good, just avoid the ones in the touristy “Çiçek Pasajı” at the beginning of the market.