Unlike 'Nam, Turkish food has rules.
They have specific restaurants for specific eating. For example, you go to a baklavacı if you want baklava, a kebapçı if you want a kebap, a muhallebici for milk pudding, and a lokanta for ready-made food on the go.
For no apparent reason (clears throat), my favorite dining establishments were the meyhanes, or taverns. This is were the lovely Leyla introduced us to the magic of the rakı meal. Rakı (think rooka) is Turkey's national anise flavored booze, not unlike Greek ouzo. You don't just drink rakı though, it's really more of an event.
The most important thing about a rakı meal is who you're eating with. Rakı is partially about the food, but mainly about hanging out for hours, chatting, making friends, and just generally not stressing about crap.
Since I can't help you with that part though, lets talk about what to order. For starters, rakı has to be accompanied by a milk product of some sort. It's almost a crime not to have it with a nice hunk of beyaz peynir, a silky, tangy, umami laden cheese, similar to feta. The best is made from unpasturized ewe or goat milk. In addition to cheese, yogurt dishes are also encouraged.
When you start by ordering a bottle of rakı, the waiter will also bring out water, ice, and some tall thin glasses. Don't be afraid to mix the booze liberally with water as unadulterated rakı is pushing about 40% abv or 80 proof.
Next, if you're lucky, a huge and beautiful selection of mezes will appear for you to choose from. All of these dishes are served cold and will either be olive oil based, yogurt based, or some sort of cured or pickled seafood.
Dolmas are a good example of the amazing mezes awaiting you. The ones on the left are made from dried baby eggplant, reconstituted and stuffed with spiced rice. Insert in mouth bit please.
Hot food is generally reserved for the second course, with a few exceptions. The best exception is paçanga, fried pastry packets filled with melty white cheese and a specially spiced pastrami. Highly recommended.
Can these ladies pretend to have fun or what?
After you eat for a while, drink for a while, and generally work yourself into a social lather, it's time to move on to the next step.
The seafood is so fresh the vendors turn out the bright red gills to flaunt it.
I understand that some meats make an acceptable second course for a rakı meal, but I wouldn't bother. The seafood is where it's at. Most of the smaller fish are served whole and deep fried. Bigger ones come in a variety of preparations.
My favorite main were these little black anchovies, made into sandwiches stuffed with sautéed onions and greens. Totally incredible. If you wrap them up in arugula with a piece of raw red onion, your face may explode from deliciousness.
The Turks are also crazy for calamari. I had the best fried squid of my life in Istanbul. They generally serve it with cool, creamy, garlic yogurt sauce. Order it.
If you've done it right, the end of a rakı meal is no place for dessert. Available stomach space will be at an extreme premium. However, if you like to end with a little something sweet, you can't go wrong with rakı's other famous pairing, slices of melon (called kavun). Turkish melon is velvety and tender, not crisp. It's quite juicy and has a lovely slightly burned sugar finish. It'll quickly become clear why it goes with the drink.
As a lagniappe, a strolling almond vendor may happen by as well. In season, they're fresh from the trees, chilled on ice, and are a perfectly sweet and nutty way to wrap things up.
If rakı's not doing it for you though, don't worry- Istanbul still has you covered in spades.
You won't be able to avoid glass after glass of bittersweet çay (pronounced chai) served in these adorable glasses. They say the best çay has the color of rabbit's blood, so, um, look out for that I guess.
If you require a bit more caffeine, turkish coffee can set you straight. To make it, they grind the beans super fine (finer than espresso) and let it heat slowly in little copper pots. You have to order it pre-sweetened as stirring in sugar would make your cup a gritty undrinkable mess. Be sure to leave some at the bottom as well since you'll have a good quarter inch of sludge hanging out down there.
Traditionally, turkish coffee comes with a piece or two of lokum, and if you get really lucky, they'll bring it out with soda water and tiny shot of amaretto.
Even if booze and caffeine are both off the list (shudder) no one is allowed to miss a big frosty glass of nar. Or pomegranate juice if you don't speak Turkish. If you're from the US and have tried something like Pom™ Brand Pom-wonderful Pom-e-granate juice, the real stuff will blow you away. It's tart, sweet, a little planty, super rich, and just feels like it's good for you. And they squeeze it right there in little street side stalls so you can clap and cheer them on. Go nar go!
On the more adventurous side (or more dehydrated side) you could always order up a glass of pickle juice. It might sound strange, but Turkish pickles are so good, even the juice is hard to pass up. Beet, turnip, and a spicy mix of a little of everything, are all popular options.
I was totally shocked by the Turks' love of pickles. They not only pickle well, they pickle everything. In addition to the usual peppers, vegetables, and olives, we saw whole corn on the cob, bananas, and even green pine cones. I desperately wanted to try the pine cones but the guy was only selling them in 5 liter jars. Next time.
They say that the morning after too much rakı, pickle juice is the way to go. Personally, I found that a nice Turkish breakfast made for a more successful (and less salty) day.
Traditionally, they like to bring out a big spread of meats, cheeses, vegetables, breads, and spreads.
I liked it, but I really loved the menemen- a big mess of tomatoes, peppers, onions, and scrambled eggs that you eat out of a communal platter with hunks of fresh baked rolls. It's lightly spicy, full of fresh vegetable flavors, and you get to eat it with your hands. Sold.
The menemen of champions.
Of course, if you really want to live (and maybe not for long) you should skip all this other nonsense and go straight for the kaymak. Kaymak is oral sex and a bypass surgery right on a spoon. You start by simmering a vat of uber-rich water buffalo milk until the mellifluous cream layer separates. Then you skim it off, let it cool and roll it up into little logs of heaven.
Then you eat it with honey and crusty bread and turn into a raging freak, attacking and disabling anyone, friend or foe, who gets near your precious kaymak. Or maybe that was just me.
That wraps up our brief overview of Turkish food. There's so much more too it, but if one of you, just one, is inspired to fly to Turkey, buy me and Rachel first class tickets to join you, put us all up in an amazing palace, and then buy us all the Turkish food we didn't get a chance to eat, it will have made this all worthwhile. Thank you.