Eager to shake off the cold of an early spring evening, we literally fell through the doorway of Asmalı Cavit, a treasured wooden-fronted traditional meyhane (tavern) in the centre of Pera in Istanbul. Here, the raki flows like the waters of the glittering Bosphorus; never ending and always a sight to behold. Our friends are known to the owner, Cavit Bey who greets them warmly before leading us through the ground floor salon up to an animated and warmly illuminated dining room. We are faced with a sea of chattering Istanbulites – there is, after all, much to talk about; mostly politics and the constantly shifting sands of their ancient and revered culture. They sit on all sides of several long wooden tables covered with starched white linen cloths, pristine china plates and crystal clear raki glasses. The noise of their conversations and salutations is deafening as we weave our way to the table but we love it anyway. The walls are lined with photographic portraits of people from a more glamorous age alongside vintage posters promoting wine, long forgotten theatre productions and the seaside resorts that were popular with the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock each of whom made their way to this bejewelled city via Paris, Budapest, Sinaia in Bucharest and Bulgaria on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. In a glass-fronted cabinet, several shelves are lined with metal trays of cold mezzes including garlicky spring greens covered with yoghurt, a drizzle of jade-green olive oil and toasted slivered almonds; fava, a dish of mashed broad beans seasoned with dill; and ezme, a bewitching mixture of fresh chopped vegetables dressed with a complex sweet, spicy and acidic paste. It’s one of my favourite things to eat, especially alongside egg-based dishes such as the classic menemen.
1 large onion, roughly chopped
4 medium-sized ripe tomatoes, skinned, quartered and seeds removed
2 medium bell peppers, 1 green and 1 red, seeds and membranes removed and roughly chopped
1 clove of garlic, peeled
20g flat leaf parsley
20g of fresh mint leaves
For the dressing
1 tbsp of hot biber salçasi
1 tbsp tomato paste
2 tbsp pomegranate molasses
Juice of half a lemon
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
Half tsp of chilli flakes
Half tsp of sumac
Half tsp of dried mint
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to your taste
How I make it
Purists will tell you that the best way to prepare this salad is to chop the onion, tomatoes, peppers and garlic very finely, by hand. I agree with them but, when I’m short of time, I pile them into a food processor and pulse chop them on the lowest setting until I achieve the consistency that I’m looking for (see the image above). Add the herbs towards the end of the chopping process so that their individual flavours are retained. Pile the lot into a large mixing bowl.
Combine the dressing ingredients together into a paste, season to your taste and add to the chopped vegetables. Mix well and serve.
This keeps in the fridge for up to a week, nicely maturing as it goes so it’s worth making a batch of it.