How to prepare a Turkish mezze banquet

How to prepare a Turkish mezze banquet

by Helen Graves 11 January 2017

Helen Graves analyses the elements of a mezze feast, looking at the different dishes, when they should be served and top tips for hosting your own mezze banquet at home.

Helen Graves is Content Editor at Great British Chefs. She's also the author of the cookbook Live Fire: Seasonal Barbecue Recipes and Stories of Live Fire Traditions, Old and New, and the editor of Pit, an independent magazine with roots in live fire cooking. She is based in South East London and loves carbs, cats, crabs and kebabs.

Helen Graves is Content Editor at Great British Chefs. She's also the author of the cookbook Live Fire: Seasonal Barbecue Recipes and Stories of Live Fire Traditions, Old and New, and the editor of Pit, an independent magazine with roots in live fire cooking. She is based in South East London and loves carbs, cats, crabs and kebabs.

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.

Types of mezze

Part of the excitement of the mezze tradition is the endless variety of dishes; around coastal parts of Turkey and in Istanbul, seafood features heavily, whereas cabbage is popular near the Black Sea. There are, however, staple dishes which are common on many tables – these are some of my favourites.

  • Çoban salatası: This ‘shepherd’s salad’ is everywhere during the Turkish summer. Made with diced tomato, cucumber, pepper and onion, it is seasoned with sumac and plenty of fresh parsley.

  • Ezme: A salad of very finely chopped tomato mixed with garlic, herbs and hot peppers; the secret here is to use very ripe, seasonal fruit.

  • Patlıcan salatası: An aubergine salad with a rich texture and smoky flavour thanks to the blackening of the aubergines. Their flesh is chopped and mixed with garlic, lemon juice, yoghurt and parsley.

  • Kalamar tava: Particularly popular in Istanbul and coastal regions, this is sliced calamari or squid dipped in a seasoned flour, fried and served with lemon or tarator sauce (yoghurt with chopped walnuts). Stuffed or fried mussels are also popular.

[i]Ezme[/i] is a simple combination of tomato, garlic, herbs and peppers
[i]Sarma[/i] consist of rice, meat and/or vegetables wrapped up in a leaf
  • Cacık: Yoghurt is a must for the Turkish table and mixing it with cucumber, garlic and dried mint makes cacık an essential mezze dish. Many other vegetables and ingredients may be mixed with yoghurt to make other mezze dishes, including purslane, a succulent which adds salty crunch.

  • Sarma: Grape or other leaves are used to wrap stuffings like rice, meat and herbs. Vegetables may also be filled, particularly bell peppers or aubergines.

  • Fava dip: This broad bean dip is traditionally made with dried beans, which are soaked, then boiled and blended with roasted onion, sugar, salt and oil.

  • Acuka: A rich dip made with Aleppo pepper paste, tomato paste, ground walnuts, breadcrumbs and seasonings.

  • Kısır: Bulgur wheat is used widely in Turkish cuisine and this is a very popular mezze dish that combines the grain with tomato paste, parsley and other ingredients such as pomegranate molasses, depending on region.

  • Çiğ köfte: These small patties are made with very finely minced raw meat (usually beef) mixed with bulgur wheat to give a very distinctive texture.

  • Fritters: A variety of fritters may be served, depending on vegetables in season. For example, courgette fritters are excellent in summer, while carrot fritters work better in winter. Grated vegetable is mixed with seasonings and flour to make a light batter which is then deep fried and served with yoghurt.

Some tips for preparing a mezze banquet

In a restaurant, the chef may prepare a varying selection of mezze depending on what ingredients are available that day. These prepared mezze are then often brought to the table as a selection, for the diner to choose what they would like. In a home environment, it is best to lay everything out on the table, with the group seated around, so everything can be shared and eaten at the same time. Here are some general tips which will help your mezze meal go smoothly.

  • Have cold mezze ready on the table with warm bread, then cook the warm mezze and bring them out as they are ready. This will stop the warm mezze spoiling, and you’ll have provided guests with plenty to get started with.

  • Make sure you have a good variety of dishes on the table; contrasting flavours and textures are a must. This means plenty of cooling yoghurt alongside spicy chilli, and crisp fried dishes next to smooth, creamy ones.

  • Try making variations on classic dishes using seasonal ingredients, for example adding vegetables to yoghurt. Grated celeriac is lovely in winter. Remember however that it’s important not to do a variation on every single dish – keep some classic and simple.

  • Have plenty of fluffy Turkish bread ready for dipping, and make sure to warm it in the oven before serving.

  • A plate of pickles (or several) will always brighten a table.

  • Have several plates of Turkish white cheese and herbs around the table for people to add to their own plates.

  • Consider which drinks you will serve with your mezze. Sweet Turkish tea is refreshing, particularly at lunchtime, but Raki is a lot of fun. Just make sure to have lots of water and ice available on the table, and plenty of bread to mop up the booze. Raki is strong.

  • If you are planning to serve more food afterwards, be careful that people don’t fill up on mezze, because it is very easily done.

  • Baklava makes a great dessert with tea and it is easy to source good baklava in shops if you don’t have time to make it (or don’t want to).