Pairing in Spanish means “maridaje”, which can also be translated as “marriage”. So when we pair drinks with food we are metaphorically marrying a food with a beverage intended to enhance the pleasure of eating by contrast or complement.
It is important to note that sometimes people interpret food and drink pairing (or “maridaje”) as a purist and somehow snobbish concept. It is automatically assumed that you are required to go to an expensive restaurant or consume gourmet products in order to pair fancy foods with overpriced wines. I am here to say that’s not necessarily true. In Istanbul we are lucky enough to enjoy a broad variety of street food that deserves to be elevated with a pairing that enriches their amazing flavors. So from a wide range of candidates I selected five crowd favorites to perform this experiment. Lets explore the limits of pairings with these atypical proposals.
And remember, drink responsibly and eat a lot of Turkish street food.
1. Islak hamburger
These so-called “wet burgers” — meat patties served on fluffy buns — are sold 24 hours a day from, among other places, the shops in the southwest corner of Taksim Square at the beginning of Istiklal Street. They are, by definition, the after-party meal kings in Istanbul. These hamburgers are a symbol of everything that makes Istanbul nights great: straightforward, egalitarian, substantial, while also a bit trashy at times.
My suggested pairing is a nice, big red wine that can stand up to the meaty mystery that an islak hamburger delivers. This pairing would work with almost any fruity red of character but personally I’d go for a nice Öküzgözü or Boğazkere wine, grape varieties native of Elazığ province located on the Anatolian plateau at the north of the Taurus Mountains. So next time you are in Taksim head to your local bakkal before 10 PM to wash down your Friday night treat.
2. Döner Kebap
Probably the most famous Turkish street food sold in Turkey and elsewhere. In a world washed down by globalization, döner kebap is the real thing and a true sign that Turkey has already conquered the world. Served wrapped in a lavash (dürüm) or as a sandwich (ekmek döner), it would be an easy choice to pair it with a red wine. But I’m going to go crazy here –or am I? — and suggest a pairing with rakı, the Turkish national drink (or was it ayran?).
While not everyone likes its aniseed taste, believe it or not rakı has a nice way of pairing well with a large variety of foods. It provides a nice, clean palate on which to balance a firmly wrapped dürüm. Properly prepared rakı is cold, a little sweet, and bitter enough to stand up to some hearty flavors. And it is definitely better enjoyed with water and ice when it transforms into the amazing Aslan sütü, the ‘lion’s milk’.
I’ve tried pairing rakı with everything from the classic mezes (which should give you a hint of how well it pairs with different tastes) to homemade az pişmiş hamburgers, and I can’t stop being amazed at how well it works with the curve-balls I throw at it.
Usually berated as the “Turkish pizza” (due to poor fluffy imitations found outside Turkey), the lahmacun consists of a thin dough topped with minced meat, herbs and vegetables including onions, tomatoes and parsley all baked in a traditional oven. A good lahmacun laughs in the face of any calzone and how anyone could not love lahmacun is beyond me. The only explanation is that these people have never had a really good one. With this crusty heavenly food you’re going to want a nice white wine, preferably a Sauvignon Blanc. This will provide a needed glop of light and soft-grassy flavor.
An alternative pairing: if you are one of those who, like me, pours sumac – the country’s native pepper and black fruit-infused spice – into your crunchy snack then you will want to step up the pairings to red. A Cabernet Sauvignon that you can easily find at your local Migros or Carrefour should go well.
4. Midye dolma
These stuffed mussels with herbs and rice are another classic of Istanbul night life. Istiklal Caddesi wouldn’t be the same without the sellers populating almost every corner all night long. And I am not telling you anything new here with the revelation that mussels and beer were born to be together. Belgians have been doing it forever with their Moules à la bière. So grab some midye dolma from your favorite seller and pair it with this brewed beverage. Just try to avoid the extra sweet Efes and go for a Belgian beer, like a Leffe Blonde. This beer should give a spicy, citrus complexity to that stuffed mussels that we heart.
Kokoreç consists of lamb’s intestines wrapped around sweetbreads. This loaf-like product is grilled horizontally over the charcoal fire, chopped and served on a bread with diced tomato, spices, and dried herbs. While the description may sound unappealing the naked truth is that it is an exquisite late-night food. Hands down one of the best street foods of the world.
I’ll throw you a curve-ball here: pair your favorite kokoreç with çay. Yes, your classic beloved black tea in a tulip shaped glass. The robust flavors and aromas of black tea, as well as the most pronounced tannin, are well suited to pairing with full-flavored spicy dishes. This pairing serves to show the nuances and complexity that tea can have and contrast the flavor. I challenge those not so hot on kokoreç to resist oohing and ahhing once having tried this killer combo.
All illustrations by Çağıl Kayan Widegren.