Raki 2: Raki and Tavern Culture

Raki 2: Raki and Tavern Culture
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“Raki culture is deep because it carries within it a facsimile of life itself.”

BILGEHAN UCAK- In the first part of this series, we talked about raki and its role in Turkish culture. We talked to expert Ayca Budak, who explained the varieties of raki, its presence in a geography stretching from Beirut to the Balkans, and the distinctions between these and Turkish raki. What counts as raki, which ingredients are indispensable…

In this second part, we will be talking about raki’s most frequent companion, a unique dining etiquette. However, we thought it best to discuss this topic in two separate parts as well. How is a raki table set today in Turkey and abroad? Metin Solmaz from Turkey offers us a place at his table.

It should not go without mention; Metin Solmaz remembers the losses Turkey suffered as a result of September 6-7. September 6-7, 1955 is Turkey’s pogrom. The result of a disinformation operation designed entirely by the government, tens of thousands of non-Muslim homes were plundered, and people lost faith in their homeland. Consequently, many non-Muslims left Turkey for good. Everything started with an article in a newspaper alleging that Ataturk’s home in Selanik had been bombed. The provocateurs who had been intentionally brought there were ready, and with Taksim hit first, residential areas densely populated by non-Muslims began to be ransacked. Years later, the public learnt that the person who had bombed Ataturk’s home retired from public service as a governor…

Saving the world and Turkey at the table is raki’s glory. Another round. Cheers.

What is a tavern? What are its associated customs?

Etymologically, “meyhane” means wine-house. In Persian, “Mey” means “fermented drink, wine.” “Mead” in English comes from the same root. Previously, it was used to mean places in which alcohol generally was consumed. During the Republic era, the word quickly came to mean raki-centered drinking places. In other places where food and drink are served, you first decide on your food and then make a drink selection according to the dish. At a tavern, the drink is fixed while appropriate food is set out to suit it.

We might say that today’s tavern is a raki-oriented place set for service within the triangle of meze, music, and conversation. In the “meze, music, conversation” triangle, conversation is the hypotenuse. The volume of the music may be low, or there might be little variety in the mezes, but the conversation is what makes or breaks the experience. Even if you go yourself, you go for the conversation at the tavern. Guests on their own are always in conversation with others like themselves, the waiters, the barkeeper, or the place itself.

Since the tavern is a place of long tables, people gather around an implied contract. That contract promises a calm, slow, respectful, and balanced conversation. As there is much to talk about, it matters immensely who sits at the table with you. When drinking a beer, you can make an exit after two. At the tavern, where a sumptuous table is set, it is much harder to take your leave.

What is the etiquette of drinking raki?

Raki is a culture with a past of 500 years. It is a deep and interesting culture; deep, because it carries within a facsimile of life itself — a copy that is more refined, more conversational, more balanced, and also more facetious, more whimsical.

For it to be this way, a certain etiquette must have evolved. To be frank, much of raki manners emerged from ordinary rules of etiquette. Take, for example, going slow when drinking. Needless to say, there is a reason for this. If you drink fast, you will fall fast. The only way to keep up the conversation is to drink slowly. Not cutting off others as they speak, slowing down the fast drinkers, not interfering with those who may be slightly behind… not gorging yourself on the food, picking at it instead. Each has a reason.

Physics is involved as well. First raki, then water, then ice. Otherwise, the raki might crystallize.

Then, there are of course those who take the etiquette expectations too far, people who love to pontificate about what can and cannot be done. At the end of the day, the raki table is a conversation table, not a disciplinary committee. Conversation hates to be restrained; it needs freedom. In sum: everything is welcome so long as you do not bother anyone else.

Where are the places that still preserve tavern culture today?

Beginning with the incident of September 6-7, a series of events caused traditional taverns owned by non-Muslims to change hands. Forcing non-Muslims to flee from Turkey is one of the breaking points in tavern culture. Despite all the blows it took, the culture managed to preserve itself, but that is beside the point.

There are many places today that preserve this culture. Asmali Cavit, Cibalikapi Balikcisi… Go see Calikusu in Ankara, you will be left thinking that we are frozen in time. These are well known places, but there are also obscure spots. Anatolia is full of them; neighborhood restaurants by day, taverns by night.

It is as Vefa Zat said before us: “May God not let anyone find themselves in a country without a tavern.” But there is something else. Today, there is a brand-new tavern culture.

How has tavern etiquette changed over time, be it with regard to the people or the mezes?

You know that cliche of Turkish films in which the bad guys drink whiskey, and the good guys drink raki? I am not sure if that was our brightest moment.

Let me start by saying that the thing we call “tavern culture” was not entirely a good thing. Yes, there were excellent taverns. The image of the transistor radio carrying music through a place of delicious mezes, congenial evening drinkers, and wise barkeeps was an illusion. For one, it was almost exclusively a hang-out locale for men. The word “tavern” did not bring to mind pretty things. Cumhuriyet Tavern, a legendary tavern today, has always refrained from calling itself a tavern for this very reason. This hesitation is due to its image. We could not title a guidebook we published 12 years ago “A Guide to Istanbul’s Taverns” for the same reason, as many of the venues complained, saying, “we’re not a tavern.” As such, the name of the book was changed to “Istanbul Taverns and Seafood Restaurants.”

Yet today, each of those places proudly advertises itself as a tavern. This is because we now have a brand-new tavern culture — a diverse and colorful culture in which women are not simply for show but are at center stage. This new culture has shaken off its previous dogmas, it now has variety. The mezes, the music, all of it has diversified and given the tavern new life.

How should a foreigner in Turkey experience raki?

Raki is a tough drink for any foreigner. It is hard and sweet, but not too sweet. The aroma is overpowering. It is a difficult beverage to make sense of. I think they should either dip their toes in at a nicely made table with some local friends, or else they should fall in love with it through a cocktail made with raki, because there truly are some surprisingly good raki cocktails.

Otherwise, if they attempt to go set a table at a tavern by themselves, they might quickly find themselves disheartened.