What: The domain of meyhanes, traditional, raucous Turkish taverns, meze are the shareable small, savory, dishes that kick off a meal—or constitute a meal, paired with rakı—generally translated as “starters” on English menus. Shareable is the key word here, as these are dishes meant to be among others on a table crowded with food, friends, and conversation. Meze can be hot or cold, as we’ve previously discussed; here we will overview the hot stuff.
Cold mezes always come first, but once you’ve had your fill of dips and salads and zeytinyağlı, you’ll want something warming, with a bit more substance. Hot meze tend to be meat/seafood meze; among the popular orders are ciğer (fried liver), börek (meat, seafood, or cheese pastry), sarma (stuffed things with meat, like cabbage stuffed with rice and minced beef), grilled or fried kalamar (calamari), beyin tava (fried calf brains), fried karides (shrimp), and various köfte (meat or fish balls), savory pies, and casseroles (güveç).
A note about meze: Meze comprise a long list of delicious and varied foods that tend to be great fun to eat, but they also represent an indispensable part of Turkish social life—particularly nightlife—in a manner similar to tapas (and pintxos) in Spain. In the interest of brevity, we’re breaking up our discussion of mezes in Istanbul into two parts: cold meze and hot meze. Taken together, these are merely an introduction—there are far more meze available than we write about here. Consider these entries the prelude to your own (hopefully comprehensive!) studies of meze in the meyhanes of Istanbul and beyond.
Where: Pictured is one of the hot mezes—ciğer, or fried liver—we enjoyed at the terrific, no-frills Çukur Meyhane (212-244-5575; Kartal Sokak No.1/A, map) in Beyoğlu. The place is below street level and decidedly less trendy (as well as less expensive) than some other restaurants in this area, which makes us love it even more.
When: Daily, noon-1am
Order: The tasty ciğer (14 TL), thin slices of crispy-fried lamb liver, is given a colorful presentation here, with raw onion, carrots, cabbage, and rice pilaf—the veggies are a great crunchy contrast to the liver’s smooth unctuousness. We also loved the (cold) oyster mushrooms and the creamy yogurt with shaved celery root and purslane (yoğurtlu kereviz), addictively dip-worthy of the toasted bread on the table. If you’re here in the winter, this is a good place to try grilled hamsi, anchovies from the Black Sea. And any time of year, this is a great place to throw back some rakı.
Alternatively: On the meze front, we also like Asmalı Cavit (212-292-4950; Asmalı Mescit Cad. No.16/D, map) in Beyoğlu, for its excellent cold meze, grilled meat börek, fried liver, and kalamar tava (grilled calamari), to name a few, and Karaköy Lokantası (Kemankeş Cad. No. 37, map) in Karaköy, which offers a lot of nice casseroles, sarma, ciğer, and more. Fish-heavy İsmet Baba (216-553-1232; Çarşı Cad. No.1/A, map), on the Bosphorus in Üsküdar, is a great spot for hot (and cold) meze of the seafood variety, as is Cibalikapı Balıkçısı Haliҫ (multiple locations including Kadir Has Cad. No. 5, Cibali, map), owned by a former TV journalist interested in food history.