Hospitality is an important part of Turkish life. Following the principles of the Koran, as well as their own naturally friendly and welcoming nature, Turks are the most generous of hosts. In Turkey, a stranger is never a tourist. He is a konuk, a guest in the truest sense. The only embarrassment a foreign visitor might feel is at not being able to refuse anything that is politely offered to him. Accepting coffee, tea or fruit will be the best of thanks.
Entertaining Turkish-style often involves meze. Similar to Spanish tapas, meze refers to dishes that are offered in small quantities to start the meal off. The more guests, the greater the number of hors-d’oeuvre served, usually in the form of a buffet set up in the garden or on the balcony, to be accompanied by several hours of conversation before the main course is served.
The meze are accompanied by wine – or more likely by raki, the anise-flavoured national drink of Turkey, sometimes referred to as “lion's milk.” As soon as the sun goes down, the bottle of raki comes out of the refrigerator. It is drunk mixed with water, or with water on the side, but either way, pairing it with meze is a true Turkish ritual.
The bare minimum when it comes to meze is slices of honeydew melon and creamy feta cheese with freshly baked bread. Beyond these, a typical meze menu includes dried and marinated mackerel, cacik – sliced cucumber in thick yogurt and garlic dressing, platters of cold vegetables that have been cooked or fried in olive oil, crisp fried savory pastries, deep fried mussels and calamari served in sauce, tomato and cucumber salad, and tarama, a fish egg dip.
In Turkey, a meal is planned so that it balances the meze. If substantial meze are served, the main course that follows might be fish or grilled meat.
When the main course is kebab, then the selection of meze is different. In this case, you would likely be presented with several plates of various minced salad greens and tomatoes in spicy olive oil combined with yogurt or cheese, hummus (chick peas mashed with sesame paste), bulgur and red lentil balls, raw köfte, marinated stuffed eggplant, peppers with spices and nuts, and pickles.
Eating is taken very seriously in Turkey. It would be inconceivable for household members to eat alone, raid the refrigerator, or eat on the go while others are at home. It is customary to have three sit-down meals a day.
Breakfast or kahvalti (literally “foundation for coffee”), typically consists of bread, feta cheese, black olives and tea.
Dinner starts when all members of the family gather around the table to share the events of the day. The menu consists of three or more courses eaten in succession, accompanied by salad. In summer, dinner is served at about eight. If substantial meze are served because there are guests, the main course will be served a few hours later. Otherwise, the dinner starts with soup, followed by the meat and vegetable main course accompanied by salad. Then the olive oil-based dishes such as dolmas are served, followed by dessert and fruit. While the table is cleared, the guests retire to the living room to have tea or Turkish coffee.
The concept of having a “pot-luck” at someone’s house is entirely foreign to Turks. The responsibility of supplying all the food belongs entirely to the host, who expects to be treated the same way in return. There are two occasions when the notion of “host” does not apply. One such situation is when neighbours collaborate in making large quantities of food for the winter, such as tarhana – a soup made from dried yogurt powder, herbs, tomato and starch. Another is when families get together to go on a day’s excursion into the countryside. Arrangements are made ahead of time as to who will make the köfte, dolma, salads and pilafs, and who will supply the meat, beverages and fruits. The mangal (copper charcoal burner), kilims, hammocks, pillows, musical instruments (such as the saz, ud or violin) and samovars are loaded up for a day trip. “Picnic” would be a pale comparison to these occasions, often referred to as “stealing a day from fate.”
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