In Istanbul, raki and a bottomless pit of gluttony

The joys of raki, an aniseed-flavoured alcohol, derive from its role as a catalyst for sharing delicious food and endless hours of conversation.

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.

Soon will come the mezes – trays of them. The server will bring them out 15 or so at a time, stacked on top of each other, and you and your tablemates will select those which look most appealing. Many of the salads are flavoured with pomegranate, quince or cherry glaze and sumac, and have a spicy, sour, long-lasting flavour (as opposed to Greek mezes, which are more vinegary). Make sure to sip your raki slowly and steadily, because the flavour of aniseed will keep your taste buds balanced.

You will probably be eating several dishes that involve yogurt (“which, I can guarantee you was invented by the Turks, not the Greeks,” your neighbour will likely say). I hope you like yogurt – with eggplant, with herbs, with cheese. And bread. You will be eating a lot of both.

“You are full?” someone will ask mockingly.

You will respond with the wry grin of a person ready for this simple challenge.

“Good! We will sit here long hours. We still have more cold mezes. Then, we move to hot mezes.”

“Great. Bring on the food.”

“Then we will have fish.”

“Excellent! Who wouldn’t need fish after all this bread and yogurt and cheese and all manner of things deep fried in oil or soaked in butter?”

“And of course, we will always have more raki.”

The fried calamari is the first hot dish to come out, followed by shrimp swimming in a delicious pool of garlic and butter. You will look over at the heaping basket of bread that has just been refilled, and your confidence will begin to wane, but you will carry on, because the food is amazing and your head is starting to buzz with alcohol and good conversation.

“This calamari is the best I’ve ever had!” you will exclaim, because even if it’s not the best, the raki has you speaking in superlatives. The hot food and the raki compliment each other perfectly – the endless servings help soak up the booze while the raki dissipates the shame you might otherwise be feeling about the fact you are dipping the final piece of bread from a once overflowing basket into that glorious, now shrimp-free, pool of butter and garlic.

And you will rejoice and console and tell stories that stretch deep into the night, and talk about life and loss and love, because the Turks love nothing if not great conversation.

When the night finally comes to an end, you will be so satiated, mentally and physically, that you may consider, if only for a moment, cancelling your plane ticket home and letting Istanbul hold you captive just a little while longer.