According to a friend who lives in Istanbul, the best place to plunge head-on into an authentic Turkish food experience is at a local meyhane – the traditional Turkish tavern. We are advised to stay away from the touristy Sultanahmet area and find a meyhane around the Beyoglu area where they remain popular local haunts. The many small lanes that lead off from Istiklal Caddesi, one of the most famous avenues in Istanbul, are treasure troves of delight starting from the Çiçek Pasajı (Flower Passage) where small, intimate, local taverns are found, and moving to Balık Pazarı (Fish Market) where a line of restaurants serve up the freshest possible catch.
We wander around for a short while soaking in the vibrant atmosphere of this stylish avenue and find ourselves at Imroz on Nevizade Sokak (street), a narrow, nearly hidden alleyway filled with smoky meyhanes and bars. The entire atmosphere is one of a large outdoor party and we soon find ourselves at a prime table comfortably squeezed between two tables of locals. We are now ready for our first meyhane experience.
We decide to start with a kick and order a quart bottle of raki, the anise-flavored apéritif that is unofficially considered to be the national drink of Turkey. Raki is believed to be the inspiration behind the pastis, ouzo, arak and sambuca that are popular all over the Mediterranean and the Balkans. When diluted with water, the alcohol turns a milky-white colour and though deceptively sweet this mixture packs a mean punch. It is perhaps for both these reasons that the slang for raki in Turkey is aslan sütü or arslan sütü, both literally meaning ‘lion’s milk’.
Then the waiter arrives with a giant tray filled with cold mezes. In a few short minutes, our table is groaning under the load of sardines in olive oil, dolmas, plates of tiny meat filled ravioli-type pastry called manti, lemony fried mussels, an incredibly garlicky creamy eggplant dip, spicy cured-meat pastry pastirmali boregi and the fried cheese dish called kasarli pane. Satisfied but not sated we ask for a plate of sis kebabs, a wine and prawns dish baked in a clay casserole (which we spot on a neighbouring table and point at frantically) and one order of imam bayildi. The latter roughly translates as ‘the imam fainted’, and according to one legend, the imam was so overcome by the wonderful taste of this dish that he swooned after his first bite. According to another legend, the imam fainted with shock at the amount of precious (and expensive) olive oil used.
On another deliciously flavoured evening, I discover the Bereket chain of Turkish fast food restaurants that specialise in takeaway doner kebabs and ayran (a drink of beaten yogurt, cold water and salt much like our salt lassi or chaas). This is a popular lunch for many locals in the same way as a shawarma is a lunch staple all over Lebanon and the Middle East. I taste my way through several small pide, the traditional Anatolian pizza-type dish, topped with various meat, fish, cheese and vegetables. The Italian word pizza is actually a derivative from pita, the Middle Eastern offshoot of Turkish pide.
I also order the legendary testi kebab, ‘earthenware-jug kebab’, native to Central Anatolia and the mid-western Black Sea region. This unusual kebab is essentially a meat and vegetable dish that is sealed in a clay pot and baked over a slow fire for several hours. Again, the cooking technique and the flavour of this dish are reminiscent of the tagines of Morocco and the dum cooking of India. The dagger-wielding waiter puts on an impressive show, dramatically slashing off the neck of the clay pot and inadvertently serving the food with small chunks of edible clay that have found their way onto the plate. The food in Istanbul, I discover, is more than a plate of Turkish Delight!
Imam Bayildi (Serves 4)
Medium eggplants, 3 nos; Salt, 6 tbsp; Medium onions, finely sliced into rings, 6 nos; Onion, chopped, 1 no; Tomatoes, chopped, half kg; Olive oil, half cup; Garlic cloves, 6 nos; Water, 1 cup; Flat leaf parsley, chopped, half cup.
Chop off the ends of the eggplant and cut in half lengthwise. Make slashes in the flesh along the length and sprinkle with salt. Soak in cold water with a weighted plate on top. Toss the onion slices in salt and place in a colander over the sink. Leave both at room temperature for 30 minutes. Rinse and dry the eggplant and onions. Mix the chopped onion and tomatoes with 2 tsp salt and set aside. In a shallow pan, pour 2 tbsp olive oil and arrange the eggplant cut side up in a single layer. Stuff the tomato-onion mixture into the slashes and then top with the remaining mixture. Place a garlic clove on top of each eggplant and drizzle with remaining olive oil. Pour one cup water around the vegetables and bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer for one hour until cooked. Remove from heat and leave to cool before transferring to a serving dish. Sprinkle with parsley and sliced onion and serve at room temperature with a few slices of crusty bread.
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