In Istanbul, raki and a bottomless pit of gluttony
Istanbul will seduce you immediately. She is a sensual city, and it’s easy to fall captive to the beauty of her ancient buildings, the call to prayer coming from the grand mosques that dominate the skyline and the perfume of spices that sweep across the city on the salted wind from the Bosphorous.
It was the food that held me captive. Istanbul’s kitchens are filled with artists – chefs who can do things of unimaginable beauty with eggplant and lamb, sorcerers who can easily transform an ingredient as simple as buffalo milk into something as ethereal as kaymak (clotted cream, typically served with bread and honey).
But one the greatest of all Turkish temptations is raki, a clear aniseed-flavoured liquor. Like many things Turkish – baklava, mousakka, its share of the Mediterranean Sea, raki is pretty much like its Greek counterpart, ouzo. And like most things that the two cultures share, the Greeks and the Turks will both proudly claim they invented the grape- or raisin-based alcohol, and will debate whose version tastes better and which culture’s accompanying mezes (small, shared plates) are more delicious. But all of that is irrelevant, because the joys of raki have nothing to do with its taste or history. Raki’s pleasures derive from its role as a catalyst for sharing – delicious food and seemingly endless hours of conversation – and its tendency to turn your stomach into a bottomless pit of gluttony.
Turkey’s most popular spirit makes an appearance at homes, restaurants and bars throughout the country, but it is the main attraction at restaurants specializing in fish and mezes. It seems telling that in the common terms raki balik (fish) and raki sofrasi (dining table), it is the name of the alcohol that comes first.
Before my first foray into the rituals of the raki sofrasi, my childhood friend, Sevim Cerikci, gave me a brief piece of advice about my trip to her homeland: “You should definitely have a raki night. [But] be warned. You will be very drunk by the end of that night!”
For the good of anyone heading to Istanbul, I will now expand on that warning.
By the time you arrive at dinner there will be a large bottle of raki on the table, because you will probably be somewhere between 20 minutes and one hour late, as you are new to this sprawling mass of chaos, and the other side of the city is literally a continent away.
But don’t worry, no one will mind. They will already be drinking happily and eating kavun (melons) and bayaz peynir (white cheese) because Turks have come up with the ingenious solution of chasing away the burning sensation of alcohol with a mix of salty cheese and sweet fruit, making you wonder why your countrymen have failed to employ this technique.
Two tall, empty shot glasses will sit in front of you. The person next to you will drop an ice cube or two into one glass and fill half with raki and the rest with water, turning the clear alcohol milky white. Then he or she will fill the second glass with water. Every few minutes someone will shout “serefe” (cheers, literally “to honour”) and perhaps give a small toast – to life, to new friends, to nights to be remembered and forgotten – and the table will sip. “Be sure not to gulp,” you will be warned. “Because raki is very strong and you are not used to it.”
You might also be served a glass of salgam (pickled red carrot juice), which you will sip very slowly, partly to be polite and partly in an attempt to discover how the same people who came up with this brilliant cheese/melon/alcohol combination somehow made the egregious error of counteracting raki’s slightly bitter aftertaste with this sour, salty and sometimes spicy beverage that tastes like something served at a health food stand next to the wheat grass shots.