One of our reading assignments for class is Stephen Kinzer’s book, Crescent & Star. Mr. Kinzer is the former New York Times Istanbul bureau chief, and he ambitiously tries to capture the magic and mystery of Turkey. He writes, on page 29 (of 252 due this Wednesday, just more proof of what a good student I am):
Raki is the key to Turkey, not because of the drink itself but because of the circumstances in which one consumes it. This is not a drink like whiskey, useful for solitary reflection; not like beer, good for drinking in a noisy bar while munching on pretzels; and not like gin or vodka, lubricants for cocktail-party chatter. Bars and cocktail parties are, in fact, mortal enemies of the Turkish drinking tradition. Resistance to these pernicious influences is centered around the meyhane, a sort of bistro created especially for raki drinking. They meyhane is a temple of Turkish cuisine, but it is also a place where people meet, talk, debate, embrace and lament. Turkey’s diversity is most tangible at the meyhane because it is spread out on tables for all to see.
It’s a beautiful description, and one I don’t think I would have fully understood if it wasn’t for a field trip to Cafe Divan. A representative from the Istanbul Stock Exchange flew in to speak with us on Friday, and to present feedback on our preliminary project “game plans.” That night, he joined us for dinner at Cafe Divan, a Turkish restaurant in Georgetown.
Of course we all had to try raki, especially after reading Mr. Kinzer’s description. I only drank for educational reasons. (Ha! Never thought I’d actually get to use that line!) It’s a clear liquid presented in a tall shot glass, though you should always sip. The waiter brought a bucket of ice and cold water. The moment the water touches raki, the combination sets off a milky reaction. The drink turns white and foggy. It smells like licorice and when you taste it, it’s got a slight anise flavor and leaves a sweetness in the mouth. We couldn’t get enough.
Professor Akyuz then explained that it’s common to drink raki in warm weather and eat melon and feta cheese. But not just any kind of feta. No, the Turkish version is made from a richer sheep’s milk. He noted that this meant more fat and more calories, but you know what? Nothing bad ever came from eating more fat. No pain, no (weight) gain.