There’s an art to eating mezze in the Mediterranean…
…and I’m still learning it. It goes something like this: You visit a restaurant with friends and all order a few dishes each. Then, over the course of a few hours, you leisurely eat, savoring each dish as it comes out, taking a couple of well-earned digestive rests in the middle, always ordering more food than any of you can expect to eat in one sitting.
One night in Istanbul, I was taken for dinner at a popular meyhane (a word derived from the Persian for wine, mey, and house, khaneh). As the etymology suggests, this is a place where locals come to drink and eat, and where milky-white glasses of the anise-based spirit raki are sipped alongside hot and cold small plates such as stuffed mussels, braised artichokes, grilled sardines, and meat köfte. We ordered a selection of dishes and, as they started coming out, I piled them on my plate, greedily downing one delicacy after another, relishing the intimacy of picking the food up with my fingers and licking them clean after. After a while, I noticed my companion had hardly touched her plate and I started to feel embarrassed. I need not have worried; as the night wore on, she ate far more than I did, but because she had paced herself, she was able to fit more in. It was a lesson that reminded me of the Turkish proverb, “If you are going a long way, go slowly.” With food as good as this, you’d be a fool not to.
This is one of the most popular mezze dishes I make for my friends at home, and is a perfect appetizer in my eyes: sweet, salty, crunchy, fried. Rectangles of halloumi are dusted in semolina or cornmeal, sautéed until crisp, drizzled with a warm, thyme-infused honey, and topped with crunchy pomegranate seeds. It was inspired by a dish I kept returning to at a restaurant in Nicosia, Cyprus. Let’s be honest, you can never go wrong with fried cheese.
Serves 4, as part of a mezze
10 1/2 ounces halloumi cheese
1 large egg
1/4 cup fine semolina or cornmeal
3 tablespoons sunflower oil
2 tablespoons honey
1 teaspoon finely chopped
couple of handfuls of arugula leaves
4 to 5 fresh figs, quartered (optional)
3 tablespoons pomegranate seeds
Cut the halloumi into 8 thick slices.
Beat the egg in a small bowl and spread the semolina or cornmeal out on a plate. Dip the halloumi slices in the beaten egg, then roll them in the semolina or cornmeal so they have a crust around them.
Heat the oil in a nonstick frying pan until it is hot, then fry the halloumi pieces for a few minutes on each side until they are golden brown. Place on some paper towel to soak up any excess oil.
Meanwhile, heat the honey in a small saucepan with the thyme.
Now assemble the dish. Place the arugula on a serving plate and arrange the halloumi on top, nestling the figs around, if using. Drizzle a little of the hot honey over each slice of halloumi. Finish with a smattering of pomegranate seeds and grind some black pepper over the top.
Yasmin Khan is a travel writer, human rights campaigner, and author of the new cookbook, Ripe Figs: Recipes and Stories from Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus, an exploration of how dishes and traditions have migrated across borders through refugees in the Eastern Mediterranean.
(This essay and recipe were reprinted from Ripe Figs. Published by W.W. Norton & Company. All rights reserved.)