Here we are in Turkey, and it's hamsi (anchovy) season.
So we had this idea: eat our fill of the slim, silvery fishes in Istanbul. Then head to the Black Sea coast to sample them at the source. We flew to Ankara, picked up a car, and drove north to what we hoped would be our hamsi heaven.
Why the hamsi fixation? Neither Dave nor I grew up eating much in the way of seafood. Our first brush with strong-flavored oily fresh fish came only in 2003, when I purchased mackerel at a Saigon wet market, took it home, and grilled it Goan-style with a slathering of vinegary tomato and chili paste. Then that winter we vacationed in northern Italy, and I fell in love with acciughe in salsa verde -- Piemontese anchovies in green parsley sauce. We ate cured anchovies with bread and butter and snacked on fruity green olives stuffed with anchovy fillets. We carried a gigantic can of salted anchovies back to Asia in our luggage and never looked back.
But this trip marks our first prolonged exposure to the fresh specimens. And we've been hamsi hunting with gusto.
Two days after arriving we found ourselves in the kitchen of a Turkish food journalist, learning how to make the eastern Black Sea specialty hamsi pilavi (anchovy rice pilaf -- more on that to come). Upon the recommendation of a knowledgable food blogger (and fellow hamsi obsessive), we tried hamsi tava (fresh hamsi dipped in cornmeal and pan-fried) at Klemuri, Laz restaurant near Taksim Square, and followed that (on the same day, I think) with grilled anchovies at friendly Çukur Meyhanesi. On New Year's Day we ate hamsi ekmek (anchovy bread) at another Laz spot -- even leftover from the previous night, it was great. And then we packed up and took off for the Black Sea.
We had only six days, so we narrowed our hamsi quest to two western Black Sea hamsi nodes: Amasra and Sinop. In the former, a friendly town of just under 6,500, we feasted on fabulous hamsi izgara (grilled hamsi). At an old-fashioned white-tablecloth restaurant on the water, we ordered three portions to share. The hamsi arrived, lightly charred and fused into a single thin layer, on a platter twice the size of my laptop. It was a little embarassing really, but we soldiered through every last little fish, eating them whole -- and returned the next night for more. I think the waiters appreciated our obsession.
Then it was on to Sinop. Nine hours on a winding two-lane coastal road characterized by steep drop-offs and a severe lack of guard rails. It drizzled, and then it poured. We were tired, and sore from sitting.
We arrived in the dark and woke up to our first true blue-sky day of the trip. We bundled up, strolled the harbor, drank tea with fishermen, checked out the castle, and then went looking for a meal to match our grilled hamsi in Amasra.
We found it by accident, thanks to a fish seller named Mert.
Mert sells fish in the harborside fish shop opened by his grandfather. He works there with his father, his uncles, and various assorted other colleagues. Born in Sinop, Mert attended university in Istanbul. He earned a degree in chemical engineering and could have stayed on, but he chose to return to his home. "If you have money you can live like a king in Istanbul," he says. "But here in Sinop is a good life. I have a job, I have family, I have everything I need."
Mert loves fish -- that much is apparent the minute he begins talking about how to cook it. "I like to boil fish in just a little water. Nothing else. No onions, no tomatoes, just a little salt. That's the best way -- then you can really taste it."
It was 10 in the morning, and the sun glinted off the silver and black skins of the hamsi mounded in a bin at Mert's shop. When he asked why we were in Sinop in the middle of winter -- "You should come in the summer. Sinop is paradise in July." -- we replied: "Hamsi." Ahhhh .... Mert nodded in understanding. Then he invited us to lunch.
We returned at 1pm to find Mert behind the fish counter, gently tossing beheaded whole hamsi in flour as a skillet filled with a single layer of hamsi arranged in a pretty pinwheel sputtered on top of a single gas canister. The clean, ocean-y smell of the freshest fish frying drifted around the shop and out into the street, luring passers-by and customers in for a peek.
Mert placed a lid over the top of the hamsi and deftly flipped the pan over, then slid the half-browned anchovy'pancake' back into the skillet. After a couple more minutes he slid the fish into a metal bowl sitting on a low table next to the burner. He pulled a loaf of bread out of plastic bag hanging on a hook behind the fish display, opened a styrofoam containter to reveal the most gorgeous "take-out" salad we've ever seen, cut an onion into wedges, and sliced a lemon in half.
Friends, we found our hamsi heaven. Steaming hot, their flour coating barely detectable, the anchovies were all crunchy tail and light crispy browned bits clinging to firm and plump, meaty torsos with a sweetness found only in specimens plucked from the sea hours before eating. Mert told us to use our hands and we did, picking the fish up by their tails and dangling them over our mouths before devouring them whole and following with bites of salad and bread.
And the hamsi kept coming, skillet after skillet, Mert's colleagues taking over at the "stove" when he went back to selling fish.
And you know what? These guys who live and breathe fish love hamsi as much as we do.
After we've eaten our fill (an embarassing amount of anchovies) Mert guides us upstairs to show us the addition his family has recently added to their shop: several floors, to house a fish restaurant. Customers will choose their fish from the display downstairs and eat it cooked as they like in one of several dining rooms boasting what must be one of Sinop's most spectacular views.
Mert's relatives will be in the kitchen. And come finer weather the restaurant's rooftop tables will undoubtedly be the hottest in town.
We're back in Istanbul now, still chasing hamsi. But we don't expect to enjoy another anchovy meal of this caliber for a very long time. Until we return to Sinop that is -- when the hamsi are running.