Fifty days & ways with ‘Hamsi’

Fifty days & ways with ‘Hamsi’

Fifty days & ways with ‘Hamsi’

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“Hamsi” is a way of life for Black Sea people. Known as the European anchovy, Engraulis encrasicolus to be precise, it is the staple protein during winter months for all of the people living near the shores of the Black Sea coast in Turkey. Never raised in fish farms, it is foraged fish; a daily routine for fishermen, going out to the open sea, as long as the weather permits, and bringing back boat-loads of it every early morning, with cats and some early bird people waiting on the jetty to receive their share. The bounty of the sea is shared by the few waiting to hail the fishermen at the crack of the day, free of charge. This free give-away bucketful to the needy is called “göz hakkı,” translated as eye-share, a wonderful tradition of generosity, still maintained in this world of greediness. 

They say the best hamsi appear only after the snowfall. The often-repeated saying is that there must be some snow-water that has got into the ear of the hamsi. A strange way to express it, but it is true that the water has to be icy cold for the hamsi to get fat and flavorful, as more fat translates as more flavor. There must be 50 ways to cook hamsi, some have even tried to make baklava with it. That avant-garde attempt fortunately remained an odd try, but signature dishes of Black Sea cookery include many other innovative dishes; fried, grilled, steamed, broiled, pickled, salted, cured; each worth exploring. “Hamsili pilav” is a delicately spiced pilaf, baked or rather pan fried, with a lining of finger-sized fillets of hamsi arranged in a fan-shaped pattern at the bottom of the pan, providing a crisp fishy crust to the aromatic oniony rice pilaf, a delightful feast on its own. Many would die for “hamsi kuşu,” strangely named “hamsi birds” in English, may be because the butterflied-split open fish pieces, sandwiched together, dipped in egg-batter and deep-fried, looks like little birds.

Hamsi is a very seasonal fish, as the old people would say, best eaten during the last 50 days of winter. Actually, the word comes from the Arabic word “hamsin,” meaning 50, referring to the final segment of winter months. The reason that the fish is tasty during this period is because the previous 40 days, called the days of Erbain, which are the coldest days of winter, enabling the hamsi to develop its true flavor. The 40 days of Erbain, starting with the winter equinox (we are just in the midst of that period now), are also called “Zemheri”, another word that was synonymous with deadly freezing cold. The hamsin days are between the end of January and the spring equinox. That is supposedly the last day a decent Black Sea folk would make a hamsi feast (if there is any left at the sea) and wave farewell to the beloved winter taste, till the next snowfall. While the cold days last, enjoy your share of hamsi, getting its name from the number 50, best for 50 days, cooked in 50 ways!

Bite of the week

Recipe of the Week: Black Sea folks claim to make 40 dishes with hamsi, if not 50 or more. This is an unusual recipe, one that I learned from a cook in Rize, back in 1985, at a union’s locale, where he would serve huge piles of it every night to be washed down with copious amounts of rakı. It is simply two butterflied anchovies glued to each other with a spread of garlic and parsley. Split open each hamsi and remove the bones and innards, head and tail. Wash and pick only the leaves of a bunch of parsley and chop very, very finely. Crush eight-10 cloves of peeled garlic (or use simply a head of garlic) with a teaspoon of salt and work into a paste with the chopped parsley. You can add a dab of softened butter if you wish. Add half a teaspoon or a generous amount of black pepper. Spread the inside of a fish with this paste and stick another one to it, inside down. Grill the pairs of hamsi briefly on each side or dry fry them on a non-stick pan with a tiny bit of oil. When golden on each side, serve forth immediately.

Fork of the Week: January will be like a hamsi feast in Osmanı in Park İstenye mall, a restaurant that dedicates each month to a different region. Black Sea region dishes are this month’s theme, the menu includes pilaf with hamsi, “hamsi tava” corn-meal coated pan-fried hamsi, “hamsikuşu” (deep-fried hamsi in crunchy batter) along with many others and lots of corn bread. The place serves 100 regional dishes every single day and you do not need to try them all, you can take home or even order by phone. (212 345 56 00)

Cork of the Week: Lots of fish should be accompanied with lots of rakı. It helps to digest and compliments the flavor. One new brand, launched last April, still remains less-known. We’re talking about numbers again: Tekirdağ No: 10, is a high end, sophisticated rakı, made with 100% fresh grapes, a truly refined spirit fit for a king. Its name comes from a single copper kettle in which it is distilled, once built by French distillers in the days of the alcohol monopoly by Tekel, with the kettle bearing the number 10. So it is not inspired by the infamous gin Tanqueray No: 10, but rather by Ketel One vodka; pretty much the same concept, a premium rakı distilled with the best ingredients in a single hand crafted copper kettle. Hamsi is most often referred to as the poor man’s feast; now with the newest, exquisite pour, it will be definitely not be a poor table, especially if you have a variety of 50 hamsi tastes.