“…the oil lamp smokes and chars, a black icon; faces with large pores gleam in the night heat while time dissolves in ghostly speeches; through arak fumes you could cut with a knife the glow of a cheroot illuminates decayed teeth. They put down their cards, patiently poking at the past…”
-Nicholas Bouvier, The Scorpion-Fish
Inspired by Yashim, Jason Goodwin’s Ottoman detective, we headed out to Istanbul for a weekend. In addition to the food over there – Turkish cuisine is a feast – we discovered the local hooch, raki. Of course, we’d already come across the anise-based French pastis (Pernod to many) and Greek ouzo. In other middle eastern countries this anise-tasting firewater is commonly known as arak. ‘Arak’ means, alluringly, ‘sweat’ in Arabic… but you’ll be reassured to know that this is because of the way that the spirit drips from the still in the distilling process.
There may be various national versions, but the Turks consider raki to be their national drink, and they sometimes refer to it as ‘Lions’ milk’ – ie a drink for the strong and tough. Or at least that was the case until, in 2013, Erdogan announced that the national drink was now ayran — a yogurt-based, non-alcoholic drink.
The character, Fehmi, quoted at the bottom of this post is right. Raki goes particularly well with cold fish (especially oily fish such as mackerel and mullet) and seafood (see scallops with Pernod).
Melon and feta are also good, as are roasted chickpeas and salted almonds.
And it’s good later in the meal with meat kebabs.
History of raki
Originally made from grapes
Raki wasn’t always anise-flavoured. Originally it was served in meyhanes – a kind of drinking den in the Ottoman empire and Persia where meze were also served (meyhane is a Persian word – mey meaning ‘wine’; and khāneh meaning ‘house’). This type of bar spread into the Balkans where the word morphed into mehana – a word which in Bulgaria today still means a traditional bistro-type restaurant.
Then aniseed was introduced into the process
But I digress. As I explained, originally raki was made out of the pomace of the grapes (the solid remains: stems, seeds, skin etc) left over from the wine making process. But in the late nineteenth century there was often insufficient and it was supplemented by alcohol imported from Europe. Sometimes this alcohol was processed using anise.
Raisins, figs and mulberries were also used
During the First World War when grapes became scarcer, raisins, and dried figs, mulberries and plums were (and still are) used as the base for raki and aniseed continued to be used.
Then it became illegal
Then a legal ban was introduced. As water will always find its way, so too did the Turks who aptly demonstrated that necessity is the mother of invention. Meat mincers were used to grind up the dried fruit; huge basins used for washing laundry were transformed into fermenting vats for the grapes; old oil cans were adapted for use in the distillation process. Needless to say a lot of this hooch would come under the definition ‘harmful to health’ these days.
The inevitable state monopoly
When the Ottoman empire collapsed in the early 1920s and the new Turkish republic emerged, the state took control and formed a spirits monopoly called Tekel which produced, among other things, raki, distilled from sugar-beet molasses.
The situation today
Tekel was privatised in 2004. The two most popular brands sold in Turkey are Yeni Raki (made from raisins) and Tekirdağ Rakisi (made from grapes), but there an increasing number of others, all with slightly different ingredients or made with different techniques. Most are clear in the bottle, but Sari Zebek Rakisi is aged in oak casks, which turn the spirit golden. The fresh grape derived raki is considered to be higher quality.
Raki has 45-50% alcohol content.
How to drink raki
Some people drink raki straight (it’s then served with chilled water in a separate glass and referred to as sek); but most drink it mixed with chilled water in which case it turns cloudy. Often, especially if it’s hot, ice is also added.
If you clink glasses with fellow drinkers, clink with the bottom of your glass – if you use the top it tells your companion that you think you are superior to them.
If you knock the table lightly with your glass it indicates that there is someone you are thinking of who you wish was there – rather a nice tradition, that.
Try raki with:
- Sea urchins
- Smacked Mack
- Marcona almonds
- Vaguely Turkish kebabs
- Chickpeas with spinach – espinacas con garbanzos
- Spice Islands ham and melon
- If you like your raki strong, it goes particularly well with a Turkish sour green plum
- also good with fish – see quote below:
“Adem disappeared indoors and returned with a bottle of raki.
‘Thanks, boss’ said Fehmi. He turned to me and continued: ‘I don’t understand what people see in wine. Raki’s my poison. Especially with fish’”
-Mehmet Murat, The Prophet Murders
Raki winds like a thread all through Eric Ambler’s wonderful classic thriller, The Light of Day. Alfred Hitchcock wrote “Mr Ambler is phenomenal” – and I agree – he’s a fantastic storyteller, and reading this book will get you reaching for your own glass of restorative raki.