By Darrel Bristow-Bovey.
“Can I get the manti as a takeaway?” I asked.
The waitress stared at me as though she hadn’t fully understood.
“A takeaway,” I said, miming someone wrapping a small parcel and then handing it to another person who nods and smiles and takes it from the first person and sniffs it appreciatively then tucks it under their arm and walks away with it. I am excellent at charades and I don’t know why more people don’t want me on their team. “I think I’m out of time so I’ll have to take it away with me.”
She stared at me some more, her eyes growing wider. This was strange: she seemed to understand basic English when I arrived. She looked around in panic and waved to another guy who came over and they consulted, talking in low, urgent Turkish, throwing me looks of alarm and befuddlement.
The guy turned to me. “Manti is better hot,” he said.
“Oh, I know,” I assured him. “It’s just that my flight leaves tonight and I still have to get to the airport.”
The manti was going to be bad news for whoever sat next to me on the flight, but I’d been looking forward to it all day. It’s a kind of Turkish tortelloni containing spicy, delicious lamb mince and garlic, lots and lots of garlic, served in a hot yoghurt sauce and a drizzle of spicy olive oil.
“It will be ready in two minutes,” he said. “You can eat it in five minutes. It’s better you have it here.”
“I can’t,” I said. “I’m already running late and I still have to go back to the apartment and pick up my suitcase. If you have a plastic fork, I’ll eat in the taxi to the airport.”
He turned to my waitress again and both their eyes were even wider. I don’t speak Turkish but somehow I understood that he was asking, “Do we even have plastic forks?”
She shook her head helplessly. They stared at each other some more. They wanted to make me happy, but how? How?!
Clearly something cataclysmic and unprecedented was happening here, some unanticipated crisis in their professional lives. And suddenly I realized: no one has ever asked them for a takeaway before.
I was in Istanbul last week, wandering through the boho streets of Cihangir, enjoying the early evening sun through the leaves and the buzz of Istanbulites smoking on sidewalk cafes and drinking raki and arguing about politics and movies. I didn’t have much time but I passed Demeti, a casually splendid meyhane where I’d never eaten before, and for a crazy moment I thought I get in and out in an hour.
Demeti is in an old 19th century townhouse. You climb the stairs and enter through what used to be the sitting room and edge past the kitchen to the former living room at the back with its drowning blue views of the Sea of Marmara, with Topkapi Palace and the minarets of the Blue Mosque and the calm blue Golden Horn away to your right and the long blue Bosphorus to the left, leading up to the Black Sea, crisscrossed by tankers and ferries and day cruisers, with white gulls wheeling in a softening sky.
Turks are generous, and Turks in meyhanes even more so, and there is something about a meyhane in a house that makes them treat you like you’re their favourite long-lost cousin just returned from a Greek prison camp. I tried to tell them I needed to be quick and they nodded and beamed and agreed and brought me raki and cold mezze – salty white cheese and slices of melon; aubergine in spicy yoghurt; purslane salad; a paste of tomato and chili and red peppers with crusty bread – and then more raki and then hot mezze – calamari in a crunchy batter; crispy, crumbling cigar-shaped börek; grilled fish with wedges of bright yellow lemon – and then more raki.
“No more raki, thank you,” I said, and she winked and poured me another from the house bottle.
It had been a difficult trip in some ways, and I was feeling lonely and breakable, and there was something about their warmth that made my throat suddenly constrict and there was a strange wet burning in my eyes.
The idea of a meyhane is you’re a beloved guest in their lives. You sit and eat and drink and stare at the view and think about life. You are there for hours and hours, writing letters home and doing your taxes and composing songs and taking a quick nap between courses if you feel like it. Times goes by on a tide. Suddenly I realised how late it was, and I hadn’t had my manti yet, and that’s when I called for it as a takeaway. I felt terrible as I watched their distress.
“It doesn’t matter,” I said truthfully, “I’ve had more than enough already.”
As I paid my bill I saw them rushing around in the kitchen area, scratching their heads, furrowing their brows. I felt guilty for causing so much dismay.
I walked down the stairs to the street and then I heard someone rushing down after me. It was the waitress, carrying one of their restaurant plates. Wrapped in tin foil, and a fistful of their cutlery – a knife and a fork, “and the spoon is for the sauce”, she said.
“I’m flying tonight,” I said. “I can’t bring the plate back.”
She shrugged and waved this away.
“But I haven’t paid for it,” I said. “It was taken off the bill.”
“You are our guest,” she said, and smiled and waved me away.
And then, standing there on the sidewalk with a dish in my hand, breathing the rich smell of manti and warm yoghurt, understanding maybe for the first time in my life something specific about food and something very simple about love, then I did start to cry.