Meyan Şerbeti: Licorice, but as a refreshing drink

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WHAT'S SPECIAL

Licorice is a matter of taste; it is said that you either love it or hate it. But the usually black candy has quite a history of its own and is not only eaten but also consumed as a drink - to this very day.

What is Meyan Şerbeti?

Meyan Şerbeti is a drink made out of sweet root, that is usually left to sit in water to get the flavor out and served cool as a refreshing drink, especially in the summer months.

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The origins

The use of licorice in its many forms can be traced back to the Sumerians and Hittites, the former being the earliest known civilization in the region. Tablets indicate that the root was used for mainly medicinal purposes. (1)

One other antique reference to licorice can be found on stone tablets from Baghdad that date back to around 650 BC. Again, for medicinal purposes the root was used for sore feet and as a diuretic. It is said that the spread of the root to Europe was done by the Romans. (2)

The combination of licorice with other ingredients for a drink for medicinal means persisted for centuries, as the Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook from the 13th century listed several tonics to relieve problems from the lungs, rather than enjoying the drink for its own taste. (3)

But somewhere along the line, and with the mixing of Arabian and Turkic cultures, and naturally their mix of cuisine, traces of drinks made for recreational purposes emerged. One such drink that is still consumed today and can be found in the southern province Adana and is made with a combination of spices, such as ginger, thyme and of course licorice as its main ingredient. The drink is cooled and is said to be pretty much the same as its Arabic cousin. (4)

Thanks to the accounts of Evliya Çelebi and his detailed Travelogue dating back to the 17th century we know that the Egyptians had thriving “boza houses” that had “especially fine” sherbets that were made out of licorice and lists other kinds, one example being tamarind, that is still popular to this day. There were even guilds in some cities specialized in the making of the drink. (5) (6)

The drink, be it with additions or without, gets claimed by many a province in Turkey to be their traditional, native drink. The example given above from Adana has a different name called “aşlama”, and for example Şırnak that has their own take on the licorice sherbet but have not yet applied to be trademarked by the Turkish authorities. A point that is seen as a shortcoming in the diversity of the region. (1)

One such example is the Diyarbakır way of making the sherbet and keeping it surprisingly simple with only the licorice root and water. This simple way of making the drink alludes to the ancient origins and is among some of the dishes in the province that have remained unchanged throughout the centuries.

Etymology

The term “Meyan Şerbeti” consists of meyan, a word stemming from the old Turkish buya, or buyan as listed in the Codex Cumanicus, a linguistic manual to communicate with the nomadic Turkic people, penned in the 14th century. The word “buyan” stayed the same as the name for the plant until around the 20th century when it transformed into the “meyan” version, according to Nişanyan’s etymology dictionary. Some other versions of this drink keep to the “b” version by referring to the drink as “biyanbalı” (biyan, refers to meyan as in licorice – balı, meaning “honey of” making this “honey of licorice”).

As for şerbet, it stems from the Arabic word “sariba” to drink, which was taken over by the Persians as “serbet”. Turkish took the word and made it “şerbet”. In the early 17th century the word made it into English as “sherbet”, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Meyan Şerbeti

While there are many ways of making this drink, sticking to the original Diyarbakır way is the safest bet. But as is the case with many ancient recipes there are no exact amounts listed. The only two things you’ll need are the sweet root and enough water to steep it in.
Servings 8
3 hrs

Ingredients

  • 100 gr licorice root
  • 3 litre water

Instructions

  • First off, you’ll want to wash the roots thoroughly.
  • Then with the help of a pestle, crush the roots as much as possible - you can skip this step by directly buying crushed roots.
  • Add water to the roots making sure that they are all covered, enlisting the help of a plate or something alike to keep the roots underwater.
  • Let the roots steep for 3-4 hours.
  • The water should change color by this point.
  • Run the water through a sieve lined with a cheese cloth to remove all wooden pieces.
  • As the sherbet is already sweetened by the root itself, additional sweeteners are not necessary.
  • Cool the drink with ice and serve cold.

Notes

Bibliography

(1) Mustafa Aksoy, Gülistan Sezgi, Gastronomy Tourism and Southeastern Anatolia Region Gastronomic Elements in “Journal of Tourism and Gastronomy Studies”, 2015
(2) Ian Crofton, A Curious History of Food and Drink, 2014
(3) “Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook-The Book of Cooking in Maghreb and Andalus in the era of Almohads”, contributed by Charles Perry, Candida Martinelli and David Friedman
(4) Yurdanur Yumuk, Seda Yetimoğlu, Evaluation of Turkish cuisine culture within the framework of “Translocalism” in 4. Uluslararası Gastronomi Turizmi Araştırmaları Kongresi Bildiri Kitabı, 2019
(5) “An Ottoman Traveller - Selections from the Book of Travels of Evliya Çelebi”, Translation and Commentary by Robert Dankoff, Sooyong Kim
(6) Paulina B. Lewicka, Food and Foodways of Medieval Cairemes, 2011
 
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