Photography by Asli Gozde
A Friday night on Istiklal Caddesi, in the heart of Istanbul’s party-central, Taksim, brings with it a number of cropped and edited versions of typical Turkish stereotypes. Deviations of classic saz-based music can be heard from balconies perched above 24 hour bars, kebab restaurants and bakkal (the Turkish corner shops that never close, selling tobacco and nuts), groups of youths tangled in impromptu dance sessions, old gentlemen sat on rickety, strategically placed stools in doorways facing a table of their night’s provisions. Watching the influx of younger generations mirroring the movements of their parents, grandparents and great grandparents before them. Turkey is budding and remodeling as it shifts along with the pace of the rest of the Western world, yet its loyalty to tradition is something that is, biased though I may be, truly rare.
What spurred on my desire to write this article for On Plate, and provide raki with some of the justified exposure that I feel it deserves, was chancing upon a recent campaign for the most popular brand of the alcoholic aniseed, Yeni Raki. The company has, extremely skilfully, created a patchwork of scenes from up and down Turkey, letting all viewers get a taste of what it is like to embark on an emotional journey between you and a small glass of quite an odd tasting tipple; to, essentially, be involved in a love affair with a drink.
Raki is distilled from grapes, though for a slightly altered version it can also be made from figs. The clear liquid is served in a small, thin glass in a diluted form, with an extra glass of water to weaken it even further with each sip, though inebriation still puzzlingly ensues. You should drink it slowly, you should savour every sip, you should never have more than one ice cube in your glass… just the raw beginning of the teachings of how to consume Turkey’s favourite drink.
Duos that are known to sit well with raki are a mottled list of dissimilar yet specific food choices; çekirdek (a mixture of seeds and nuts) for those looking to feel the emotional effects to their full height, fresh fish taken from the Bosphorus for an extended, hazy meal. Or my personal favourite, raki with meze, which is typically enjoyed at fasil, a classical Turkish night out. Whilst watching a live band playing Turkish goldies, meze typically comes to your table in small quantities continuously throughout the evening, with tables of 10 - 40 people dipping in and sharing. The spread classically consists of beyaz peynir (literally ‘white cheese’), kavun (huge slices of ripe melon), acili ezme (hot pepper paste), patlican salatasi (cold aubergine salad), kalamar (calamari or squid), enginar (artichokes), cacik (yoghurt with cucumber and garlic), pilaki (various foods cooked in a special sauce), dolma (rice-stuffed vine leaves), and köfte (meatballs). The attitude of everything-is-everyone’s and the absence of courses and individual plates makes for an extremely loving and jovial atmosphere, spinning the night into one of unhinged singing, aggressive hand-jostling to the Alaturka beats and, ultimately, dancing on tables scattered with remnants of the night’s cuisine.
What is about the taste of aniseed that stirs up the already overly emotional, romantic Turks? And why, for decades upon decades, do each new generation of drinkers take the drink of raki with all of its connotations, rules, respect and patriotism? I used to snuff my nose at Turkish traditions when I was younger. I would pretend to wretch when I sat next to my father whilst he was drinking that drink that smelt like medicine. And at 23, I am yet to find an alcoholic beverage I enjoy more. I would roll my eyes when someone tried to explain why my glass must clink from below when toasting with someone older than myself; now each clinking of my glass will be done meticulously and with ingrained consideration. I thought it lengthy and a waste of time to join glasses once at the tip for you, once at the bottom for me, the middle for us and a final, lovingly aggressive smash on the table for those not present; my night now feels alien if I don’t begin it with this ritual.
I never understood why people would insist on circling their heads with their glass before taking the first sip, and I still don’t. I’m not sure that anyone does. But we do it religiously, because it is these impractical yet deeply-rooted traditions that keep the aroma of raki very much alive in the air of modern Turkey.
by Ceyda Ozkan