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lavaş istanbul

Müşterek’s Mezes on the Move

Müşterek has been my favorite meyhane for quite some time, but I’ve been less than vocal about this in public. During its heyday, it could be tough to get a table in the cozy space even on a weekday, so I preferred to keep mum about this beloved spot on Beyoğlu’s Mis Sokak for fear of it becoming overhyped and overcrowded. Such concerns are now a remnant of what seems to be a distant past, as Müşterek has been closed for months due to licensing issues – a result of government-imposed pandemic precautions in Turkey that many have criticized as arbitrary.

Fortunately, the collective behind Müşterek (appropriately, itself an old Turkish word meaning “collective”) had launched a sister meyhane, Meclis, and a bar called Marlen on the floor above it, in a building just around the corner from the original location late last year, and these new establishments were able to stay open as they hold different licenses. They provided relief and a sense of normalcy during the summer months, as both are expansive spaces with tables near wide-open windows.

The mezes at Meclis are the same as those served at Müşterek, and though Marlen has an excellent menu of bar food, the mezes could be ordered upstairs. The large selection features a wide range of classics, many with a modern or experimental twist. My favorites include patlicanlı atom (roasted eggplant and fiery peppers tempered by cool yogurt) Girit ezmesi (a creamy, rich spread of cheese, nuts and herbs) and fesleğenli soslu levrek (fresh morsels of sea bass bathed in a bright-green basil sauce).

On one warm evening earlier this year, I arrived to find that Meclis was completely booked due to a wedding celebration, but Marlen’s friendly bartender Metincan quickly set up a proper çilingir sofrası for me and my friends, ferrying the mezes and rakı that we had come for up to the bar. Summer faded into fall far too quickly, and the second wave of the virus reared its ugly head. A new set of precautions included the prohibition of dine-in service at all cafés, bars and restaurants. Some forged on with takeaway and delivery models, but Meclis and Marlen were forced to shut their doors (temporarily, we hope).

Left with limited options, the core collective of Emre, Aliye, Cihan and Inan didn’t waste any time ensuring that their delicious mezes can be enjoyed with several glasses of rakı at home, which is better than nothing. To do that they opened up Müşterek Meze, a takeout spot in the Kurtuluş neighborhood, this month, renting a small space that they quickly renovated, painting the outer wall a warm pink hue and setting up a Christmas tree in the window.

Upon entry, the sight of the meze counter immediately brought back fond memories of Müşterek. While I miss the meyhane dearly, I’m impressed with how the collective has made it their priority to do everything they can to keep their heads above water. Takeout service is available, and Cihan delivers their high-quality yet reasonably priced mezes by bike in the Kurtuluş area.

Müşterek and the collective behind it have helped keep me going during this difficult year, with their genuine desire to create bonds with their customers and the consistency of their delicious mezes, which I will enjoy from home until the much-anticipated day when this all blows over and Müşterek opens its doors once again.

– Paul Benjamin Osterlund, Istanbul correspondent

Lavaş for All Seasons

Ah, lavaş. The wrap that makes dürüm possible. Ubiquitous in Istanbul, lavaş comes in a wide range of styles, from thick and chewy to delicate and crispy – at times it’s only a pinch of yeast away from being a sheet of yufka. Lavaş made in a tandır, a traditional clay oven, is a central Anatolian specialty, a culinary tradition that stretches into Iran, the Caucasus region and Central Asia.

The neighborhood of Feriköy, with its density of köy derneği (village associations) established by migrants from the Turkish city of Erzincan, is home to a number of tandır bakeries, some of which offer a lavish breakfast spread (think freshly cooked eggs served alongside hunks of pure white butter and dripping honeycomb). Others sell regional ingredients, from the area’s famous dairy products to erişte and tarhana. Duck into one of these shops and you’ll notice a blazing heat radiating from the back of the store, where the tandır, built down in the floor like a well, is roaring. The bakers roll out small pads of dough into flat, oblong shapes around a meter in length before placing them onto a wide round cushion at the end of a paddle, which is used to affix the dough to the walls of the oven. Once the dough bubbles and blisters from the heat, it is fished out with a metal rod and stacked to cool.

When I have ventured out of my apartment for supplies in preparation for a weekend lockdown, I often find an excuse to make a quick detour to pick up a few sheets of fresh lavaş. In pre-pandemic times, one sheet may not have made it the short walk back to the apartment. Now, I can barely wait to take off my mask and wash my hands before tearing into the bread, warm and supple from the tandır.

While just-out-of-the-oven lavaş is something to fantasize about, the bread has kept me going through the year because of its versatility. In Erzincan it is commonly eaten with local butter and/or cheese, especially the piquant tulum, a cheese aged in casks, or civil, a stringy cheese laced with blue mold. It goes perfectly around tomato, onion and grilled meat, of course, but can turn any spread of herbs, pickles and veggies into a meal. If left out for a few days it becomes brittle, perfect for crumbling into soup. Or it can be sprinkled with water and heated up for a minute or so to restore its freshly baked flexibility. The differing thicknesses of the bread means it meets your teeth with a satisfying chew or simply melts away. I even enjoy tossing a single sheet topped with an egg and cheese (or olive oil and za’atar) into the oven until crisp, a sort of instant pide. Or better yet, spread with butter and honey, still warm, for breakfast. Now here’s to wishing I could wrap myself in a warm sheet or two until the pandemic – and winter – are over.

– Geoffrey Ballinger, Istanbul correspondent

Editor’s note: Normally when December rolls around, we ask our correspondents to share their “Best Bites,” as a way to reflect on the year in eating. But 2020 was not a normal year. So at a time when the act of eating has changed for so many, our correspondents will write about their “Essential Bites,” the places, dishes, ingredients and other food-related items that were grounding and sustaining in this year of upheaval.

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and Paul Benjamin Osterlund and Geoffrey Ballinger

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