The first friends I made in Turkey told me that if I really wanted to understand their country, I would have to drink a lot of raki. These were wise people, so I took their advice. Every year the annual level of raki consumption in Turkey rises by slightly more than one million liters. And my contribution to the increase has not been inconsiderable.

In the bottle raki is absolutely clear. But it is rarely consumed that way. Instead it is mixed with water, which turns it translucent. Drinking it has the same effect on one’s perception of Turkey. After a glass or two, what at first seemed clear becomes obscure. By the time the bottle is empty, everything appears murky and confused. Yet through this evocative haze, truths about Turkey may be most profoundly understood.

Many countries have national drinks, but raki is much more than because it embodies the very concept of turkey. The mere fact that a Muslim land would fall under the spell of a powerful distilled drink is enough to suggest this nation’s unexpected and tantalizing appeal. Do not speak to a Turk about ouzo or other anise-based drinks supposed to reflect the characters of other lands. The careful mix of natural ingredients in raki and the loving process by which it is distilled, they believe, make it gloriously unique.

History books say that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk died from the effects of overindulgence in raki. This is only partly true. In fact he died from an overdose of Turkey. His involvement with Turkey, like his involvement with raki, was so passionate and so intense that it ultimately consumed him.

The same almost happened to me. I had admired Turkey from afar, but it was only after long nights of drinking raki with friends that I came to understand the true audacity of the Turkish idea. Its grandeur and beauty filled me with awe. My excitement rose with each glass as I realized how much Turkey has to share with the world, to give the world, to teach the world.

I should have stopped there, but you never do with raki. That is its blessing and its curse. As months and years passed, raki began to work subtly on my mind. Slowly the delight I had found in discovering Turkey became mixed with other, more ambiguous emotions. No longer did my evenings end with the exhilarating sensation that I had found a jewel of a country poised on the brink of greatness. Raki led me to wonder why so much of its potential remains unrealized. Turkey is undoubtedly the country of the future, but will it always be? Can it ever become what it hopes to be, or is it condemned to remain an unfulfilled dream. An exquisite fantasy that contains within it the seeds of its own failure?

There are as yet no answers to those questions, and therein lies the Turkish conundrum. This nation is still very much a work in progress, a dazzling kaleidoscope of competing images and ideas. Born of trauma and upheaval, it remains deeply insecure, shrouded in old fears and uncertain which direction it should take.

This identity crisis led to a near-collapse of the raki tradition in the 1960s and 1970s. Turkey was opening itself to the world, and a class of educated and sophisticated Turks was emerging. These people considered raki anathema because it symbolized the primitive mentality of rural peasants. If illiterate hillbillies wanted to drink it in their broken-down shacks, that was one thing, but no modern Turk would do so; much better to sip wine, cognac or some other drink with a European pedigree.

Fortunately, those days are past. Turks no longer feel embarrassed to embrace their heritage and identity. Drinking raki is an ideal way to do so while at the same time enjoying sublime pleasure.

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 bare 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 round the meyhane, a sort of bistro created especially for raki drinking. The 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.

An evening at the meyhane is centered around raki, but raki never stands alone. It is only one component, albeit the essential one, of a highly stylized ritual. With raki always come meze, small plates of food that appear stealthily, a few at a time. Theoretically, meze are appetizers leading to a main course, but often the main course, like Turkey’s supposedly great destiny, never materializes. No one complains about that because eating meze while sipping raki is such a supreme pleasure in itself. The path is so blissful that the idea of a destination seems somehow sacrilegious.

Meze usually come in waves. The first will include salad, thick slabs of white cheese, smoked eggplant puree and honeydew melon. What comes next depends on the chef’s whim. There might be a selection of cooked, cooled vegetables in olive oil, each presented in its own miniature platter; or small dolma, which are peppers stuffed with rice, currants and pine nuts, and their close cousins, sarma, made from grape or cabbage leaves. After the next pause might come spicy red lentil balls, mussels on the half shell, mashed beans with lemon sauce, pureed fish roe, yogurt seasoned with garlic and dill, raw tuna fillets, poached mackerel with hazelnut paste or an explosively flavorful dish made of baby eggplants stuffed with garlic cloves, tomatoes, sliced onion and parsley. This last is called Imam Bayildi, meaning “The Imam Fainted.”

After these come piping-hot borek, delicate pastries filled with feta cheese and sometimes also spinach, diced chicken, ground lamb or veal, pistachios, walnuts or whatever else is lying around the kitchen. Some are layered, others triangular and still others cylindrical or crescent-shaped. Often they are served with squid rings fried in a light batter, which are to be dipped in a white sauce made from wine vinegar, olive oil and garlic.

Turkey’s ethnic vitality shines through has the evening proceeds. Kebabs and other meze made from meat recall the Central Asian steppes from which nomadic Turkic tribes migrated to Asia Minor, now called Anatolia, a thousand years ago. With them come hummus from Arabia, shredded chicken with walnuts from the Caucasus, diced liver from Albania and cooked cheese thickened with corn flour from coastal villages along the Black Sea. Then comes the crowning glory, the seafood, a gift from the Greeks, who for a millennia did all the cooking along what is now Turkey’s Aegean coast. Raki sharpens the taste of all food, but its magic works best with fish. An old proverb calls raki the pimp that brings fish and men together for acts of love.

The variety of fish in Turkey seems endless. It changes according to what body of water is nearest and also according to the season. Always the fish is very fresh, and always it is prepared very simply, grilled or pan-fried and served with no sauce, only a lemon wedge and perhaps a slice of onion or sprig of parsley.

Such a meal is a microcosm of Turkey. It is an astonishingly rich experience but yields its secrets slowly. Patrons at a meyhane, like all Turks, confront an ever-changing mosaic, endless variations on a theme. Each meze tastes different, has its own color, aroma, texture and character. The full effect is comparable to that of a symphony, complete with melodies, different rhythms, pacing and flashes of virtuosity, all contained within an overarching structure.

Meze makes a feast, but drinking raki with them raises the experience to a truly transcendent level. “All the senses are involve,” my friend Aydin Boysan, an architect and bon vivant who had been drinking raki for more than sixty years when I met him, told me during a long night we spent at a meyhane overlooking the Bosphorus. “First you watch the water being poured into the glass and mixing with the raki. Then you pick up the glass and inhale the aroma. When you drink it, you take a small sip, feel the pleasure of it flowing down your throat, take another small sip, then put the glass down.”

Aydin demonstrated this ritual to me, seeming to enjoy it every bit as much as he might have half a century earlier, and then closed his eyes for a moment. “The best part is feeling it go down your throat,” he said lovingly. “A giraffe – that’s an animal ideally made to appreciate raki.”

The meyhane culture tells a great deal about Turkey. Like the country, it offers almost infinite possibilities because it blends the heritage of so many different peoples. It encourages discourse and deepens friendship, but because the food is brought unbidden by a waiter instead of ordered from the menu, it does not require any action, any decision, any act of choice other than turning away dishes that do not strike one’s fancy. Raki can either evoke determination or resignation, a desire to rebel or an acceptance of the inevitability of submission.

At a meyhane, the world can either be invited in or shut out. Turks have not yet decided which is the wisest path. By the time they drain their final glasses and step out into the darkness, they have often concluded that their country is either the “golden nation” destined to shape world history or a hopeless mess certain to remain mired in wretched mediocrity.

Reference: Stephen Kinzer, “Crescent and Star: Turkey between two Worlds", Farrar, Strauss and Girous, 2001.

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