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COOKING

Thoroughly modern meze

June 09, 2004|Anya von Bremzen | Special to The Times

Istanbul — Istanbul

By 11 p.m., the street theater on Nevizade Street, a narrow lane lined with outdoor restaurants around Istanbul's fish market, works up to a kind of Felliniesque mayhem. Flower sellers push big thorny roses at passersby's noses, while a Gypsy quartet cranks background music for a parade of street peddlers.

Amid this carnival, waiters unload trays of small dishes on tables and refill glasses with raki, Turkey's favorite anise-based liquor. Our own table, at an old Armenian restaurant called Boncuk, is mosaicked with plates of dips, crisp fish croquettes redolent of allspice and cinnamon, a chickpea pate layered with dried currants and pine nuts, and a majestic borek, a pastry oozing a tangy filling of cheese and pastirma, or spiced cured beef.

These are meze, Turkey's signature little dishes and the Middle East's answer to Spanish tapas, Venetian baccari or Mexican antojitos.

On our own shores, meze offer yet another twist on the small-plates trend. Entertaining at home? Meze could have been invented for Southern California, where, much like in Istanbul, they can be languidly savored al fresco on the patio. Less fussy than hors d'oeuvres, a welcome break from Italian antipasti, infinitely more varied than hummus and baba ghanouj, a few meze together make an exciting light feast.

Meze -- the name is derived from the Persian word maza, or flavor -- seem to flourish in Istanbul as an edible life force: from a plethora of eggplant preparations to a veritable encyclopedia of dolma, or stuffed vegetables; from multitudes of boreks, savory pastries, to a vast roster of salads and dips. They can be cold or hot, light or substantial, as humble as a wedge of salty white cheese or as chichi as the langoustine salads dished out at the glamorous fish restaurants along the Bosphorus shores. Though most travelers to Turkey encounter meze at restaurants, they taste even better when prepared at home. "Meze is all about socializing -- nibbling, drinking, laughing," says Gokcan Adar, an Istanbul food writer. One breezy night, under a sour cherry tree in his overgrown garden, he treats us to a 19-dish meze marathon.

Spontaneity is essential

Typical of modern-day Istanbul, where the cuisine evolves with lightning speed, his spread is both creative and classic: braised eggplant topped with a flourish of walnut and sun-dried tomato paste, langoustines with their roe resting atop lemony wild greens, fritters of just-picked zucchini flowers on a vibrant red pepper puree. This could almost be Catalonia -- or California. Not to be outdone, my friend Engin Akin, a food writer and radio host legendary in Istanbul for her swank soirees, throws a bash on the lawn of her home overlooking the Bosphorus. Ever willing to experiment, Akin deep-fries paper-thin leaves of yufka (a phyllo-like dough) and serves the crisps with shavings of Turkish cured mullet roe similar to bottarga. She fashions nifty bruschetta from the ubiquitous fava bean pate, topping the toasts with fried almonds.

Grazing gets more cosmopolitan still when Akin and I move on to Bodrum, a jet-set resort on the Aegean. Here, at a cocktail party at the white-washed villa of a shipping tycoon, white-gloved waiters pass such dainties as miniature French fry "kebabs," Gruyere kofte (meatballs), and spicy sucuk (soujuk) sausage wrapped in phyllo.

In Turkey, meze are intimately linked with the city's history as a cosmopolitan port and to drinking establishments called meyhane.

What -- drinking in a Muslim culture, with its Koranic prohibitions on alcohol? Well ... sure.

Even before Kemal Ataturk secularized Turkey in the 1920s, restrictions on alcohol were sporadic, a whim of one sultan or another. Selling alcohol was taboo, though, entrusted to Istanbul's numerous non-Muslim minorities: Greeks, Armenians and Jews. It was they who established the original meyhane, raucous dives packed with foreign sailors, where meze was an excuse for another round of raki. Dating back to early Ottoman times or even further, meyhane continue to thrive.

To learn more, I rendezvous with Akin and Deniz Gursoy, an author of books on raki and meze, at Safa, the city's oldest meyhane. With whirling fans, burnished mirrors and pictures of Ataturk striking Hollywood poses, the place feels like a souvenir from another era. When Safa opened some 125 ago, Gursoy explains, meze came free with consumption, consisting of basics like anchovies, pickled cabbage, a tiny borek and a bowl of leblebi, or dried chickpeas. Today, the repertoire seems inexhaustible.

Akin explains that flavors Westerners usually associate with Middle Eastern cuisines -- bulgur, pomegranate molasses, lavish spicing, hummus, kebabs -- are rather new to Istanbul, a consequence of the enormous influx of immigrants from eastern Turkey.

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