The ra-ta-ta-ta music begins to play as you see the shiny black shells glistening under their maker's tray. Is there time? Your stomach opens up the VIP room, your taste buds await in anticipation and then you make the decision to accept the invitation for a turn on the flavor dance floor. It is time to do the midye tango.
Never would I have thought that you could be walking along and all of a sudden think, “Gee I sure could use a mussel right now,” but all that has changed here in İstanbul. The city is a street food paradise and one of the highlights is midye dolma (stuffed mussel), and it is no regular road noshing experience.
You strut over to the owner of your secret midye dolma happiness. Give your eyebrows a quick wiggle as you get set to do the midye tango. Instead of a rose in his mouth he has a lemon in his hand. He raises his eyebrows in a questioning welcome. You raise and lowers yours in return, confirming his welcome and returning a thanks.
He gets right to work as he skillfully slides off the top of the mussel and then uses it as a scoop to unleash what's within. And then the magic happens; liquid zesty sunshine drips over the sides as he hands you your first midye dolma. Salty, fresh sea meets fragrant rich earth in that little package of delicate mussel and rice and the lemon bath raises it to a whole new level of divine.
As you are chewing on the first, he has the second one ready, waiting in mid-air. You quickly swallow and grab the second, the morsel infinitely more delicious then the first for some reason. As you take in the flavor, your midyeci moves his eyebrows up and to the side, asking “Nasil?” (How is it?). You give him a mussel-shaped smile accompanied with the downward motion of your eyebrows showing your acceptance of his midye flair. The third arrives and you almost gulp it down because the fourth is waiting and then comes the fifth and sixth. Then the midye tango moves into an up tempo. He looks at you since by the sixth you have stopped racing in the midye Olympics and are now slowly chewing and savoring. His eyebrow moves up and down, questioning, asking are you ready for more? As that last little piece leaves your tongue and exits towards your stomach, you gesture back with a quick eyebrow saying yes of course.
Behind the scenes -- the life of a midyeci
At 4 a.m. there's a knock at the door. İzzet Usta crawls out of bed to open the door for the mussel delivery guy (yes, there is a mussel delivery guy). The mussels have just been trawled in from the Bosporus Strait and are delivered to midyecis and wholesalers around İstanbul before sunrise. İzzet sleeps for a few more hours and then quietly gets out of bed and tiptoes to the kitchen, trying not to disturb his wife and new baby. At around 9 a.m. İzzet gets to work preparing his secret rice concoction. He won't tell me more other than it involves a seven-spice mixture and onions. After that's done the laborious work begins. The midye master must fill a whopping 500 mussels every day, the whole process taking around four hours. At 3 p.m. Izzet heads to Mecidiyeköy to set up shop and his day is only just beginning.
Mussel sellers or midyecis dot the İstanbul landscape. Midye dolma have been around since the early Ottoman times and are a part of the city's rich food tapestry. The busier the location, the more midyecis you will find. Naturally, the gorgeous waterfronts are a popular place for mussel sales, but these delicacies are not just for those out for a stroll on a sunny day. Get off at the Bayrampaşa-Maltepe metrobüs stop, walk up the stairs to the sidewalk alongside the busy overpass and you'll find Mr. Midyeci fast at work. Hop off the tramvay in Cevizlibağ and mussels will be awaiting you there. Take a bus into Mecidiyeköy Meydanı and there you will find İzzet Usta hard at work.
İzzet is from Mardin and surprisingly enough so are many of the other midyecis whom I spoke to. The midyeci at the Cevizlibağ tramvay stop tells me it's because midye-making is not easy work and no one else wants to do it, so the duty of satiating İstanbul's midye appetite falls on the men of Mardin.
On average, you'll shell out about Kr 50 for a large midye and Kr 35 for smaller ones, except of course you encounter the Beyazıt hustler. He's located near the Beyazıt tramvay stop and will insist that his are the best quality and will cost you TL 1 each. Give him a pfft and walk away. I've often wondered how worthwhile it could really be to stand on a corner selling a few mussels. I am now considering it as a second option if this writing thing doesn't work out. Midye sellers can make as much as TL 4,000 to TL 6,000 per month depending on location. İzzet tells me he buys his midye for Kr 4 and sells them for Kr 35 to 50 and on average sells about 500 mussels per day.
It isn't free to sell street eats, however. İzzet says municipal workers come around once a week and collect TL 50 for his spot on the concrete. Be forewarned however that not all sellers are doing so legally. Our friend in Beyazıt went running with his tray mid-sentence when he saw a vehicle from the city. As I watched in fascination, wondering what was going on, he sauntered back and said, “I don't pay those guys.”
As a visitor or a street midye newbie, it may be intimidating to walk up to one of the midyecis, especially since, more often than not they are usually at least two to three men already partaking in an intense round of midye. However, the midyeci will make you feel right at home. Just walk on over and your fellow midye-goers will instantly move over, giving you a spot to tuck in and bringing you into the circle. And no questions asked, a midye dripping in lemon juice will appear right before you and then get ready for a dizzying round of mussels delight that will fill your stomach to epic proportions. It is an experience not to be missed.
Now back to the midye tango. How do you bring this dance to a close?
The flurry of opening and lemon-squeezing is exhilarating and it seems as though it will never stop; it shouldn't stop and it can't stop. But, alas it must stop. You're human after all and there's only so much space in the VIP room. So you give him a one eyebrow wave in a gesture of it is time for our strut to come to close. He will give you a knowing eyebrow and a mussel-shaped smile. Then he will ask for one final dip and select a special midye to present to you as a hediye (gift), and as you bring that succulent morsel to your mouth, you give an eyebrow bow, bringing to an end that fine flavor dance. That is the İstanbul midye tango.