In the Mediterranean there is the art of mass eating …
… and I’m still learning. It’s something like this: you visit a restaurant with friends and everyone asks you for some dishes. Then, for a few hours, you eat quietly, tasting each dish as it comes out, taking a couple of well-earned digestive breaks in the middle, always ordering more food than any of you can sit on. .
One night in Istanbul, I was taken to a village for dinner tavern (a word derived from Persian wine, niri, and the house, khaneh). As the etymology suggests, it is a place where local people come to drink and eat, and white glasses of raki spirit based on anise are drunk along with small, cold dishes such as stuffed mussels, artichokes, grilled sardines and meat köfte. We asked for a selection of dishes and, when they started to come out, I piled them on my plate, dipping one dish at a time after another, picking up the food with my fingers and then licking my intimacy to clean it. Some time later, I noticed that my friend had barely touched the plate and I began to feel embarrassed. I don’t have to worry; as the night progressed, he ate much more than I did, but as he had a great pace to himself, he was able to fit more. The teaching reminded me of the Turkish saying, “If you go a long way, go slowly.” Being as good as this food, you wouldn’t be stupid.
This is one of the most popular mess dishes I make for friends at home, and it’s the perfect appetizer in my eyes: sweet, salty, crunchy, fried. The rectangular halloumi are sprinkled with semolina or corn flour until sautéed crispy, sprinkled with honey soaked in warm thyme and crunchy with pomegranate seeds. I was inspired by the dish I was returning to at a restaurant in Nicosia (Cyprus). The truth is, you can’t go wrong with fried cheese.
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10 1/2 ounce halloumi cheese
1 large egg
1/4 cup fine semolina or corn flour
3 tablespoons sunflower oil
2 tablespoons honey
1 teaspoon finely chopped
a handful of arugula leaves
4 to 5 fresh figs, quarters (optional)
3 tablespoons pomegranate seeds
Cut halloumi into 8 thick slices.
Pour the egg into a small bowl and spread the semolina or corn flour on a plate. Dip the halloumi slices in the beaten egg, and sprinkle with semolina or corn flour to make a crust.
Heat the oil in a non-stick pan until hot, then fry the halloumi pieces on each side for a few minutes until golden. Place on a paper towel to soak up excess oil.
Meanwhile, heat the honey in a small saucepan with the thyme.
Now assemble the dish. Place the rug in a serving dish and arrange on top of the halloumi, combining the figs if you use them. Pour a little hot honey into each slice of halloumi. Finish by sprinkling pomegranate seeds slightly and grind black pepper on top.
Yasmin Khan is a travel writer, human rights activist and author of a new cookbook, Fig figs: Recipes and stories from Turkey, Greece and Cyprus, plates and traditions to study cross-border migration through refugees from the eastern Mediterranean.
(This essay and recipe have been republished Mature figs. Published by WW Norton & Company. All rights reserved.)