A Turkish Food Primer: Mezeler

On our return Stateside we’ve been cooking all our meals from scratch – partially because we don’t have a lot of money right now, we’re sick of eating out at restaurants, and we wanted to try to make some of the dishes that we’ve eaten on this trip. We’ve been reflecting a lot on Turkish food in particular because generally it doesn’t require any crazy ingredients or specialized equipment. So for the next few posts we’ll share what we observed about food while we were in Turkey and present some recipes.

One aspect of Turkish food that I fell in love with is the meze (plural: mezeler). Mezeler consist of small plates of food, similar to tapas, that are eaten at the beginning of lunch or dinner as appetizers, or can make up the entire meal if enough dishes are ordered. At many restaurants, the waiter wheels out a cart loaded to the brim with dishes wrapped in saran wrap for you to ogle, prod and salivate over.

at Değirmen Restaurant

I’ve watched Turkish families hotly debate over which dishes to order and grill the waiter about which dishes were the freshest and considered the house specialties. Other restaurants have the hot and cold mezeler behind a counter with a server dedicated to dishing them out.

I love eating both small amounts of food and a wide variety in one sitting, so mezeler suit me perfectly. There is literally a galaxy of mezeler that fall into various categories. For instance, the zeytinyağli mezeler are any combination of vegetables and beans that have been cooked in olive oil. Borlotti beans (known as barbunya) cooked in olive oil, black eyed peas cooked in olive oil, eggplant cooked in olive oil, mild peppers cooked in olive oil, hot peppers cooked in olive oil,  green beans cooked in olive oil – you get the idea. And usually garlic, chopped tomatoes and a dash of lemon juice rounded out the dish, but additional spices aren’t really used at all.

Let’s talk ingredients. Parsley and/or mint is ubiquitous, not just as garnish but as a featured component. One meze that I couldn’t get enough of was a salad that was mostly chopped parsley, walnuts, shaved hard sheep cheese, and a dressing that was probably grape molasses. I loved it so much that I ordered it three nights in a row! Many mezeler consist of a thick, sour yogurt mixed with vegetables such as eggplant or purslane with a bit of garlic. Other dishes use bulgur, a cereal made most commonly from durum wheat and probably most familiar to Americans as the main ingredient in tabbouleh. We encountered bulgur in cig kofte, a long patty that can be made with raw meat, tomato paste and spices but that we usually found in a vegetarian version.

Kiriktabak – our first lunch in Istanbul with many mezeler.

On my plate, from 9 o’clock moving counterclockwise: cig kofte, dolmas (stuffed grape leaves), ispanakli borek (flaky savory pastry filled with spinach), yogurtlu semizotu (purslane salad), mixed salad, eggplant and lentils, and beans cooked in olive oil(center).

On Wayne’s plate, from 9 o’clock moving counterclockwise: cig kofte, roasted potatoes, kofte, patates salatasi (potato yogurt salad), some kind of mini kofte, dolmas, tabbouleh.

Purslane salad (Yoğurtlu Semizotu)
Purslane is everywhere in Turkey, it literally grows like a weed, and Turks consume massive quantities of it. It sort of looks like a succulent, has a crisp texture and a vaguely lemony, fresh flavor. Reputedly purslane is also one of the healthiest vegetables you can eat, with ridiculous amounts of omega-3 fatty acids and loads of other vitamins. You can often find it in farmers’ markets in the summer, and $2 or $3 will get you a huge bunch.

This is one of the easiest salads to make. These are just general guidelines, it totally depends on how much purslane you’re using and the consistency of the yogurt.

– 1 bunch of purslane
– ½ cup – ¾ cup of thick plain yogurt (Greek yogurt if you can find it)
– a few tablespoons of olive oil
– 1 clove of raw or roasted garlic, minced
– squeeze of lemon juice
– salt and pepper to taste

Chop off the roots and remove any unhealthy leaves. Pick off all the tender stems about 3-4” in length, leaves intact. Wash the purslane in cold water and dry.  Break up the purslane with your fingers or a knife into smaller sections and put into a bowl. In a separate bowl, mix the other ingredients. Pour this dressing onto the purslane. Mix well and serve cold.

A few restaurants in Istanbul where we enjoyed mezeler:
It’s located in a narrow alley off of Istiklal, the main street in Beyoğlu. Atmospheric and homey feeling at the same time. Definitely sit out on the street and peoplewatch.
[212] 293 37 86 – 245 48 58
Kallavi Sok. No:13/1 – 7/1 Beyoğlu / iSTANBUL

Galata Kiva Han
This restaurant is in the plaza surrounding the Galata tower. We walked into this place because it started pouring outside. We expected it to be dumbed down and touristy, but we were pleasantly surprised with the quality, variety and creativity of the mezeler. We liked so much that we went back for dinner another night!
0212 292 98 98

This restaurant is across the water in the neighborhood of Kadikoy. Even if it wasn’t our favorite, we enjoyed the ferry ride at sunset to get there.
Tel: (216) 330 31 90 – Faks: (216) 349 19 02
Caferaga Mah. Güneslibahce Sk. No:43 Kadiköy – Istanbul


2 thoughts on “A Turkish Food Primer: Mezeler

  1. We used to live in West Africa, were all the merchants were Lebanese. Interesting that almost all the food you describe has an exact Lebanese counterpoint, and all of it delicious. The Lebanese equivalent of the meze was maza. Pretty much the same dishes too, from what I can see. One noted difference: cig kofte. They had it too, called kibbe, but also served it raw, dipped up with a cabbage leaf.

  2. Julie Lee says:

    I always feel that even though every culture has its own but when it comes down to it we are all so similar. These dishes that you describe are like when we go for dim sum. I guess that’s why it’s good to travel so we can understand each other better.

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