Anyone who has eaten a Turkish meal will be familiar with mezze, the tradition of serving many different dishes at the beginning of a meal alongside grilled meats or with drinks. The word mezze (or meze) translates from a Persian word meaning ‘a pleasant taste’ and the dishes are designed to stimulate the appetite, complement larger menu items or soak up alcohol. Really, there is never a time when mezze is inappropriate.
The custom of sharing many small plates in this way was adopted by traders and travellers, in need of something to sustain, or sop up excess alcohol; they would graze on the various dishes, padding out meals with bread. In the eleventh century, when Turks were converted to Islam, the drinking stopped but the grazing continued, leaving us with the tradition we enjoy today.
Mezze evolved over the years, from simple arrangements of a few ingredients eaten with bread to more elaborate and impressive recipes developed in the palace kitchens of Istanbul. Some of the most carefully prepared mezze are to be found in meyhane, which are a little like Turkish pubs. I remember visiting the fantastic Çukur Meyhane in Beyoglu, Istanbul, a bar/restaurant which specialises in the aniseed spirit Raki. The walls are lined with bottles, many of them marked with customer’s names, ready and waiting for their owner’s return. They also serve good mezze, and it’s the combination of atmosphere, food and free-flowing Raki that keeps people coming back for more. This perfectly sums up the experience of eating mezze – convivial, with many hands stretching across the table, scooping, passing plates and tearing bread.