May 2012

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We have Suleyman the Magnificent's paranoia to thank for the invention of the meze.

Jim and Perihan Masters live on the Aegean Coast of Turkey about 50 miles south of Izmir where, as they say, they live “an idyllic life by the sea—writing, drawing and painting, and teaching English.” They also sponsor the Turkophile website Learning Practical Turkish. Ask these linguists about the origin of meze and here’s what they’ll tell you:

“Apparently, times were tough in ancient Persia, because a successful ruler had to employ personal food tasters if he wanted to stay alive past the midnight snack. When Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent’s Ottoman forces conquered the Persian Safavids in 1538, the Sultan took the idea of tasters home with him. Thereafter, Süleyman’s staff of çesnici (taste) slaves were given small plates of food samples, known by the Persian word, meze, meaning pleasant, enjoyable taste.

“As news of the Sultan’s safety practice reached public ears, it became the fashion of the rich and famous to exercise a variation of it. Before long, replicas of the revered meze plates of Süleyman’s chief food taster were seen at posh dinner parties throughout Istanbul. The meze craze caught on in upper-class haunts as gedikli meyhaneler (all night bars) and, not to be outdone, the working men’s clubs also adopted the idea. And so it was that meze passed into Turkish culinary culture, dutifully accompanied by glasses of Turkish raki.”

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What is meze?

Meze photo by David Lansing.

Meze is an event rather than a type of dish. It’s an evening gathering of family and friends for drinking, chatting, and leisurely grazing on nibbles and tidbits. The defining feature of meze is that people are there to partake; there’s no prescription for what must appear on the table. A spread could be as simple as bread, white cheese, and melon. It could be as bar-snacky as nuts and olives. A more substantial meze will often constitute the whole meal and last for hours. This is the one course that Turks don’t mind lingering over; as long as there’s still a smattering of food and something in the raki bottle, the meze will continue.

Most Turks find meze unthinkable without raki. Indeed, much meze lore relates to what tastes best with a tipple and what guards the body against the ill effects of alcohol. Purists insist that fruit, especially melon, is the only authentic and healthy meze. Others put olives and white cheese on the essentials list. In summer, many invite erik (plum), often dipped in salt, to their table.

–Excerpted from World Food Turkey

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Istanbul: Kosebasi meze

Toros salata, bottom, and the classic gavurdagi salata at Kosebasi in Istanbul.

I said yesterday that when you order a raki, the anise-flavored Turkish spirit made from either fresh grapes or, more likely, well-preserved dried grapes, that you should order a meze or two. Or three or five.

At Kosebasi, the kebab place Sidar took me to, we didn’t even have a chance to look at the menu before plate after plate of this-and-that starting arriving: raw meatballs with scallions and fine bulghur (cig kofte); thin Turkish pizza covered with highly seasoned meat and veggies (lahmacun); classic Turkish pita (balon) to wrap around broiled eggplant with yoghurt and olive oil or rich hummus.

And then came the salads: toros, a snappy Turkish salad made with arugula, water cress, green onion, mint and flavored with a sour pomegranate syrup and Kosebasi’s famous gavurdagi salata—diced tomatoes (“Only when in season,” our waiter told us), onion, parsley, and Turkish herbs (such as sumac, which I had always thought was poisonous), the whole mixture drizzled with fresh lemon juice.

“So, what do you think?” Sidar asked me as I looked over the many plates on our table.

“I think perhaps we should have another raki,” I said.

And we did.

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Photo by David Lansing.

I have been in Istanbul for only a few hours when my good friend Sidar spirits me away from my hotel to “the best kebab place in the city.” No sooner have we been seated in a quiet outdoor garden area than a young waiter in a tuxedo shirt comes up and pours us each a glass of raki. “Just one,” I firmly tell Sidar.

“Yes, of course. Just one,” he says, laughing.

Raki: The lion’s milk of turkey. They say you never forget where, when, and with whom you sipped your first glass of raki. I’ll vouch for that (just as I’ll never forget the where, when, and with whom I shared my first glass of pastis in Paris).

There is a certain etiquette to drinking raki. First, it should be chilled in the bottle, like a white wine, before serving. Secondly, it must be sipped from a straight cylindrical glass, never a rocks glass or a shot. Then you might add just two or three ice cubes and mix it with a little soda water (although Sidar prefers still water).

That’s it. Although you would also be wise, at this point, to order a meze or two—before the raki goes to your head.

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Gwyneth and Coldplay and Moses

Just to add a couple of things to the whole Gwyneth Paltrow bit that I wrote about yesterday.

She was engaged to Brad Pitt a thousand of years ago (I suggested to her that she break it off and, wisely, she did). And she also had kind of a serious relationship with Ben Affleck (Ben seems to have trouble “landing” the big fish he catches). But in 2003, she married Chris Martin of Coldplay. Five months later, they had a daughter, Apple (I know—kind of quick, huh).

Why Apple? “It sounded so sweet and it conjured such a lovely picture for me – you know, apples are so sweet and they’re wholesome and it’s biblical – and I just thought it sounded so lovely and … clean! And I just thought, ‘Perfect!’”


Two years later, they had a second child, a boy named Moses (I like that!).

Why Moses? Well, says Gwyneth, “Moses” was the title of a song that her husband wrote for her just before their wedding. Sort of his wedding gift to her. So Moses-the-baby was like her gift back to him.

Cute. Sort of. (What if Martin had titled the song “Dick Cheney”?)

Anyway, here’s the YouTube video of Coldplay’s “Moses”—just in case you’re curious about the lyrics and such.

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