A famous line by the great poet Orhan Veli reads, Would that I were a fish in a bottle of rakı. The subtle humour always leaves a smile, but what it truly drives home is the warm environment that develops around rakı. His desire is to be removed from trickery, ulterior motives and intrigue, and release himself to the warmth of good friendship; and he wishes that the rest of the world would be that way as well. In reality, the place he’d love to live is the realm of pure humanism, the realm of the heart. The wish of this master of modern Turkish poetry has been shared by the public. A grand meyhane tradition has been created; an enormous feast consisting of every imaginable type of meze has been laid out; and an encompassing culture has grown up; all around the central element of rakı. In this way, the scent of anise wafts through literature, art, cinema and all aspects of culture.
Even though the word meyhane is understood in Turkey today to mean “a place where rakı is drunk,” the meyhanes of old smelled more of wine and mold than of anise. The term meyhane derives from the Persian words mey (wine) and hâne (house), literally, a “wine house.” Over time, however, the word mey broadened in meaning and is now used as a general term for any alcoholic beverage. When it came to be used especially for rakı, the word meyhane also adapted in turn. The culture surrounding rakı was born in the meyhanes, lauded by poets as the center of the world, and developed as the natural result of various historical, societal and cultural processes. The drink we call rakı is the quintessential product of the meyhane.
Those new to rakı, and especially westerners, often wonder why the Turks have adopted the custom of such a long “dinner,” and why they drink such a powerful drink along with the meal. Actually, these two questions answer each other, at least in part. Rakı is hard liquor, with an alcohol content usually around 43-47%, or even as high as 50% in some brands, and this is the main reason that it is drunk slowly. It resembles the aperitifs that westerners sometimes drink before dinner. But unlike in the west, Turks do not continue the meal with wine, they keep drinking rakı. In truth, it is not accurate to compare the rakı table to “dinner.” The focus of the rakı table is not the food, but the atmosphere of intimate conversation called muhabbet which,not coincidentally, is an Arabic word for affection, fondness and love. Rakı is a drink that has an entire cuisine devoted to it and as such, it is unlike any other drink in the world. Wine is chosen according to the food it will accompany, but in the case of rakı, the food is chosen to accompany the drink. This meal is also different from the western approach to dining. One doesn’t sit down at a rakı table to fill the stomach; the point is the sharing, the long relaxed conversation that revolves around the rakı. In essence, it is not a “meal” that is eaten with rakı, it is meze, and the mezes are chosen to complement the flavor and nature of rakı. Meaning “taste” in Persian, meze is the generic name for all foods served in small quantities, for “just a taste.” At an ideal rakı table, the mezes should be served gradually, in small portions, from the appetizers through to the departing cup of coffee; the different flavors flowing in succession, each appearing, then making way for the next.