Meze means more
One essential element to understand the food culture in Turkey is to master a meze table. Meze is often defined as a selection of hot and cold dishes typically served as hors d’oeuvre in Turkish, Greek and Middle Eastern cooking. These small plates are served all at once, first cold mezes, and then a succession of hot ones. Meze is meant to be served with alcoholic drinks, namely rakı in Turkey, the anise-infused distilled grape spirit.
There are unwritten rules in a meze table. First there are the essentials. Beyaz peynir, literally white cheese, the tangy-brined cheese is a classic essential, almost always paired with kavun, melon, but the white-fleshed variety, which is highly aromatic. Rakı-white cheese-melon is the iconic trio of a meze table. Rakı contains no sugar but has a sensation of sweetness due to its anise content as anise evokes the feeling of sweet taste. Rakı also has a cooling effect, again because of the anise, and also because it is always drunk with ice-cold water and ice. These qualities match perfectly with the cucumber-like coolness of the melon, which is at the same time as perfumed and aromatic as the anise, and faintly sweet. The sharp, briny and salty cheese contrasts these qualities completing the taste palette.
After this essential basis, the same taste pattern is followed by other meze choices, this time including other tastes and textures. My idea of a perfect meze table has to display a diverse variety, not necessarily everything spicy and garlicky, but also bland, soothing and soft choices. A refreshing yoghurt meze should be contrasted with a spiky spicy meze, think of haydari (yogurt-based meze with dried mint) and acılı ezme (crushed ripe tomatoes with onions and hot red peppers and spices), or smooth creamy fava (puree of fava beans with olive oil and dill), or rich humus (tahini-based chick pea puree). There has to be a balance between a controlled dose of sweetness on the table as well. Dolma, the cold stuffed vine leaves have just the right amount of sweetness coming from the copious amount of onions and currants. Of course the sweet taste contrasts with salty cured fishes, lakerda, salt-cured bonito, is just the right choice.
Not all the mezes have to be mushy and mashed; there needs to be a few crunchy bites as well. Usually the hot mezes fill this gap. Crispy calamari, crisp fried liver slivers, batter-fried thin slices of courgettes, or crunchy fried borek varieties complete the frame. In summers no meze table is complete without eggplants. Eggplant either comes in pureed form as salad, or fried form with tomato sauce. The fried delights go wonderfully again with yogurt, so you start all over. Actually at a meze table every single meze is tasted at regular intervals, a forkful of that, a spoonful of this, a bite of that. Playing with the salty, sweet, acidic, sharp, briny, smooth, bland, spicy, aromatic, crunchy mezes, one can dine and drink all night long.
Meze is surely a tradition of all Eastern Mediterranean countries from the Balkans to the Middle East, and North Africa, mostly countries of former Ottoman territory. Al though it is usually pointed as akin to Spanish tapas or Venetian cichetti, meze is about sitting down long hours around a table and not as a stand-up bar food. But one cannot deny the fact that there is a certain shared vibe about meze that reaches beyond the borders of its geography. The Antalya Meze Festival, initiated by Akra Hotel, hits that special essence, and invites international chefs from across the Mediterranean; now in its second year it is becoming a fall tradition of Antalya. It proves once again that meze means more than small plates of assorted food; it is about communication between people. With the efforts of organizer Gökmen Sözen and gastronomy consultant of Akra group Tolga Atalay, a group of celebrated chefs come together and serve their mezes side by side by Turkish chefs, and most importantly Antalya chefs.
The interaction and the fraternity among the chefs are amazing, and just prove the connecting powers of meze. This year the guest chefs included Pere Planaguma and Rubén Arnanz from Spain, Joe Barza from Lebanon, Mostafa Seif from Egypt, Mohammad Orfali from Syria, Marouane Bouhmidi from Morocco, Johnny Goric from Palestine, Christos Athanasiadis from Greece, and even one chef from beyond the Mediterranean basin, Prin Polsuk from Thailand. This is the proof, meze means more than mere a selection of dishes; it contains the magic of connecting people, even beyond borders.
Fork of the Week: When in Antalya there are certain rituals I always try to do, however one just does not want to leave the Akra Hotel with its stunning views embracing the Mediterranean facing Bey Mountains. One must-to-do is to eat piyaz with tahini; in Antalya this popular bean salad is made with a tahini sauce, which is to die for. My other ritual is to have a meal in 7 Mehmet Restaurant. This time I did not have to step outside. Luckily the best piyaz master Ahmet Semerci participated in the Meze Festival, so did Mehmet Akdağ of 7 Mehmet. Among all the other exciting mezes, theirs stood out, perhaps it is a feeling of locality, their tastes seemed so right in place, as local as it could be.
Cork of the Week: Our weekend beachside drink was Aperol spritz, but for meze it has to be rakı, but I was in a mood of wine drinking, so I stuck with Likya Chardonnay, and for the reds it was Likya Kızılbel 2013, a delicious and unusual blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Boğazkere. I also managed to grab a bottle of the elusive Acıkara 2017 from their shop, the same grape that turned heads the previous year when a bottle received 96 points from Oz Clarke. Likya is the proud local winery of Antalya, producing top-notch wines up in the Taurus Mountains from wineries at 1000-1200 meters altitude.
One interesting observation: Meze is naturally associated with drinking, but in Antalya Meze Festival there was a considerable group of diners that were obviously pious Muslim nondrinkers, but they enjoyed their meze table just as much as others, pairing their mezes with fruit juices, and best of all şalgam suyu, the salty and briny black-carrot, turnip fermented drink. This is the secret power of meze, it is so enjoyable that it brings people together, even nondrinkers and drinkers alike.