One of Turkey’s most popular culinary traditions is that of rakı balık. Literally translated as rakı fish, this is the great tradition that comes from the Turkish meyhane, or tavern. Rakı is a grape spirit-based, anise-infused liquor similar to Greece’s ouzo and Lebanon’s arak. In Turkey, this drink, served over ice and diluted with water, accompanies traditional fish and small bite meze. While a modern tradition, and no offense to those who love the rakı balık, the heavy anise flavor of rakı doesn’t really go with a lot of foods. It’s time to make room on the meze table for wine.
In my last article, Pairing Turkish Wines with Herbs and Spices, I mentioned that there is a terrible rumor floating around which claims that Turkish wine does not pair well with food. Not only is this massively untrue, I listed a few dishes that do pair well. This time, I’m going a step further and combining my assertion that Turkish wines pair well with food and that it deserves a place with the meze.
The below list is by no means an exhaustive list of the small dishes and meze to be found in Turkish cuisine! I’ve tried to stick with those most often found on menus but am guilty of making sure my own personal favorites made the list.
Acılı ezme is Turkey’s answer to salsa. It blends together tomatoes, spicy green chilies, onion, parsley, pomegranate vinegar, and a splash of lemon.
The wines that pair: Çalkarası, Çavuş, Hasandede, Karaoğlan, Kösetevek
Why the pairing works: Acılı ezme is spicy! So, you want to stay away from bold and tannic reds. While some high acidity whites and rosés may help balance the acidity from all the tomatoes, they too can accentuate the spice. The best bet is round, fruity wines with low to medium acidity and tannin.
Börek may not be entirely fair to include here. It’s more of a way of life than a simple meze. It comes in a variety of styles such as su böreği (steamed), kol böreği (baked), and sigara böreği (fried). Börek may also have a variety of fillings from cheese to meat to potatoes.
The wines that pair: Çalkarası (rosé for a cheese version, red for meat or potato), Çavuş, Haandede, Kalecik Karası (rosé for a cheese version, red for meat or potato), Karaskız, Narince, Öküzgözü (rosé for a cheese version, red for meat or potato) … the list here goes on and on!
Why the pairing works: Whichever style of börek you’re eating, it’s bound to be rich and, in some cases, quite heavy. The high acidity in the wines cuts through the richness and the fruitiness in the reds balances it. Pro tip! High acid wines and bubbles pair really well with fried foods!
Çiğ köfte literally translates to “raw meatball”. Traditionally they are made with raw ground meat but outside of private homes this version is disappearing. Today’s çiğ köfte are made with bulgar mixed with tomato paste and spices. Usually, very thin lavaş (lavash) gets layered with head lettuce, then a few of the köfte, followed by a squeeze of lemon juice, fresh mint leaves, and a special sauce (think brown sauce but better!). This is one of my personal favorite meze and I like to serve it with a side of beyaz peynir (white cheese-think Turkish feta).
The wines that pair: Bornova Misketi, Çalkarası, Hasandede, Kalecik Karası rosé, and Narince.
Why the pairing works: Çiğ köfte often have at least a mild amount of hot spice in them that pairs beautifully with a semi-sweet Bornova Misketi whereas Çalkarası’s fruitiness and the richness of Hasnadede and Narince both tame the heat and complement the tomato and spices.
Hamsi are anchovies that have been lightly breaded and fried in oil. These small fish are eaten whole and are the mainstay for the rakı balık table, but they pair well with wine too!
The wines that pair: Çalkarası rosé, Çavuş, Emir, Karaskız rosé, Vasilaki
Why the pairing works: The high acidity in the wines cuts through the breading and the oil and the lightness of the wines doesn’t overwhelm the delicacy of the fish.
İçli köfte, known in other parts of the world as kibbeh, are one of the best meze to come from Turkey’s Hatay region. Ground beef, onion, walnuts, and spice are mixed and stuffed into a special dough made from bulgar, yet more ground beef, and more spices. These are boiled or fried (fried being more common).
The wines that pair: Barburi, Çalkarası, Kalecik Karası, Karasakız, Narince, Papzkarası
Why the pairing works: Personally, I will eat içli köfte with anything! Especially for the fried version, fruity and high acidity wines will help cut through the oiliness. Even with the boiled version though you’ll want a richer, more flavorful wine to stand up to the richness of the meat and spice filling.
Muhammara is one of those recipes that changes from person to person. For example, the recipe I learned includes cheese which is not particularly common. At its core, muhammara is a dip made by blending roasted red peppers with walnuts, a bit of tomato paste, a splash of vinegar (or lemon juice), olive oil, and the most key ingredient: pomegranate vinegar. It is rich, spicy, and absolutely addictive.
The wines that pair: Bornova Misketi, Çalkarası blanc de noir, Çavuş, Hasandede, Karaoğlan, Kösetevek, Narince
Why the pairing works: Muhammara has spice but there’s also a lot of richness here from the roasted peppers and walnuts. The best wines to pair here are round and fruity whites and red with low to medium acidity and tannin. A little semi-sweetness on the Bornova Misketi is also a nice foil for the heat in the muhammara!
Mücver is a courgette-based fritter usually fried in oil. The batter to make this includes grated courgette, flour, egg, onion, sometimes dill, cheese, walnuts… Like many recipes there’s room for individuality but regardless, mücver are always delicious!
The wines that pair: Emir, Çavuş, Kalecik Karası rosé, Öküzgözü rosé, Vasilaki
Why the pairing works: Since these are usually fried in oil, a wine with higher acidity will help cut through that. You also don’t want an intensely flavored wine because that will overwhelm the delicate courgette in the mücver.
Yaprak sarma, stuffed grape leaves, are one of the most commonly seen meze in Turkey. Considered one of the “oily” class meze, these are grape leaves stuffed with spiced rice, pine nuts, and dried currants. Sometimes there might be meat or sour cherries instead of currants.
The wines that pair: Bornova Misketi, Çalkarası, Çavuş, Emir, Kalecik Karası rosé, Narince, Öküzgözü rosé, and Vasilaki
Why the pairing works: Because yaprak sarma have so many aspects (savory-sweet flavors, spices, oily texture) there’s not one answer for why the pairings work. The high acidity in grapes like Çalkarası, Emir, Vasilaki, and rosé wines cut through the oil-soaked vine leaves whereas richer grapes like Bornova Misketi, Narince, and Çavuş complement the herbs and fruit and the dolma.
Paçanga böreği is a börek that deserves its own mention. Filled with kaşar cheese and pastırma, this pocket full of deliciousness is wrapped in phyllo dough and often flavored with tomato and green peppers before being baked or fried.
The wines that pair: Çalkarası blanc de noir, Hasandede, Narince, Karaoğlan, Karasakız, Kösetevek, Öküzgözü, Papzkarası
Why the pairing works: With the melty cheese and pastırma, this is one of the richer and more flavorful böreks and it needs equally flavorful wine to stand up to the tastes but not to overwhelm it! Rich and fruity but not too bold wines are your friend here.
Pastırma is cured beef that can be used in sandwiches and burgers, on pide, served with eggs, or on its own as charcuterie. There are two main kinds of pastırma: with a coating of çimen and without. Çimen is a strongly-flavored, fenugreek-heavy herb rub that people joke that eating too much of it makes the smell ooze from your skin the next day. Sounds like something difficult to pair…but we’ve got you covered.
The wines that pair: Karalahna, Karasakız, Öküzgözü, Papzkarası
Why the pairing works: The trick to pairing pastırma is whether or not there’s çimen. For the versions with it, you need a fruity, less tannic red wine like Öküzgözü or Papzkarası. For pastırma without this spice paste coating, you can use more boldly flavored and savory wines.
Şakşuka in Turkey is not at all like the shakshuka you’ll find in the Middle East. For one thing, it’s not a breakfast dish and there are no eggs involved. Şakşuka is an eggplant and tomato-based side dish usually served at room temperature or chilled. The addition of potatoes, garlic, green chilies, and lots of spices make this a very flavorful dish.
The wines that pair: Hasandede, Karasakız, Kalecik Karası, Öküzgözü, Papzkarası, Vasilaki
Why the pairing works: Fruity and high acidity wines will pair best with this tomato-heavy dish as the acidity in the wines balances the acidity from the tomatoes. High acidity wines will also balance well with the eggplant which gets fried in oil.
Yoğurtlu & Cevizli Kabak Salata, or yogurt and walnut courgette salad, involves grating lots of courgette, sautéing it lightly, then mixing it with a blend of thick yogurt, garlic, and walnuts. It’s amazing. Yogurt in one form or another appears on almost every table for each meal. In Turkey, even for breakfast, it’s usually more salty than sweet and can be served as part of a dish like this, or as a side to serve with other meze like the yaprak sarma, mücver, next to grilled vegetables, etc. And pairing wine with yogurt gets a little tricky!
The wines that pair: Çalkarası rosé, Çavuş, Öküzgözü rosé, Vasilaki
Why the pairing works: Öküzgözü rosé, Öküzgözü rosé, Öküzgözü rosé! While other wines make a fine pairing for yogurt, this one in particular is a perfect pairing for yogurt and yogurty dishes. Bright acidity. Generally, though, fruity and/or high acidity white wines and rosés cut through the mouth coating yogurt and complement the delicacy of the courgette.