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What: Meze are the shareable small, savory, dishes that kick off a meal—or constitute a meal, paired with rakı—generally translated as “starters” on English menus. Shareable is the key word here, as these are dishes meant to be among others on a table crowded with food, friends, and conversation. They are typically the domain of meyhanes, traditional, convivial Turkish taverns where many a Turk has had many a long night that starts with crusty bread and a good handful of cold meze (the hot meze follows suit).
Cold mezes boast wonderful variety. They tend to be vegetarian (or pescatarian, really), including a wide range of salads, pickled vegetables, pickled raw fish (lakerda), sliced kavun (melon) with beyaz peynir (white cheese), blocks of mashed fava beans with lemon and dill, tarama (fish roe spread), topik (an Armenian chickpea paté), various beans in olive oil, grilled vegetables like okra or artichokes cooked in olive oil and served cold—those encompass a whole class of meze called zeytinyağlı. There’s the ever-popular ezme, a spicy dip-like mixture of diced tomatoes, green peppers, and onions; patlıcan soslu, strips of fried eggplant with peppers in tomato sauce; dolma, the general word for vegetables stuffed with seasoned rice (but see also: midye dolma); patlıcan salatası, a smoky eggplant dip (eggplants/aubergines feature heavily here). Then there’s your yogurt-based mezes: cacık, yogurt with cucumbers and mint (similar to tzatziki); haydari, strained garlicky yogurt; yogurt with celery root, yogurt with purslane, and more. At meyhanes, cold mezes typically live in refrigerated cases, which you can browse in lieu of a menu, or they’re displayed on trays brought around by your server.
A note about meze: Meze comprise a long list of delicious and varied foods that tend to be great fun to eat, but they also represent an indispensable part of Turkish social life—particularly nightlife—in a manner similar to tapas (and pintxos) in Spain. In the interest of brevity, we’re breaking up our discussion of mezes in Istanbul into two parts: cold meze and hot meze. Taken together, these are merely an introduction—there are far more meze available than we write about here. Consider these entries the prelude to your own (hopefully comprehensive!) studies of meze in the meyhanes of Istanbul and beyond.
Where: Our selection of cold meze comes from Asmalı Cavit (212-292-4950; Asmalı Mescit Cad. No.16/D, map), a popular meyhane in Beyoğlu that boasts both great food and atmosphere—a handsome, low-lit space heavy on the wood and brick, buzzing with rakı-fueled conversation. Reservations are recommended.
When: Mon-Sat, 1pm-1am
Order: Pictured is a trio of cold meze (8 TL each) we chose from behind a refrigerated case: spicy, tomato-y ezme; perfectly cooked, smoky patlıcan soslu; and yaprak dolma, grape leaves stuffed with seasoned rice and pine nuts. This is only the tip of the iceberg, of course; on any given night you might try lakerda, the popular patlıcan salatası, yoghurt with purslane. And you must try the hot meze too; particularly good here is the grilled börek, flaky triangles of meat pastry; ciğer (fried liver); and the olive-oil-doused kalamar tava, or grilled calamari (although the night we visited it was a bit chewy). If you’re hungry for more, move on to the seasonal-fish-heavy menu. To drink, it has to be rakı (if you’re drinking alcohol).
Alternatively: We had some great cold mezes, including lakerda, melon and cheese, and haydari, off the tray at İsmet Baba (216-553-1232; Çarşı Cad. No.1/A, map), a fish restaurant on the Bosphorus in Üsküdar, as well as at excellent, low-key Çukur Meyhane (212-244-5575; Kartal Sokak No.1/A, Beyoğlu, map), where we fell in love with a creamy yogurt dip, studded with shaved celery root and drizzled with olive oil (the sliced oyster mushrooms and fried liver were delicious too). Karaköy Lokantası (Kemankeş Cad. No. 37, map), in Karaköy, does some great cold meze, including a lot of zeytinyağlı, while in Kadiköy, on the Anatolian side, the glowingly reviewed Çiya Sofrasi (216-330-3190; Güneşlibahçe Sokak No. 43, map) counts among its delicious, regional-Turkish offerings a nice selection of cold meze that you choose and pay for by weight. Good luck not trying them all.
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