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Taste of Travel: Turkey

Hooked on Istanbul Seafood : Where Europe and Asia meet, fish provides the tie that binds

June 22, 1997|DALE M. BROWN | Brown is the author of three books in Time-Life Books' cooking series, "Foods of the World."

ISTANBUL, Turkey — My host craved fish, and nothing else would do. A Turk who works and lives in America, he was home on vacation, and his mouth was watering for one of Turkey's great treats. Though we were in Europe, he suggested we go to Asia for dinner. But this was simple in Istanbul, a city that straddles both continents, with the Bosporus Strait the easily crossed divider between the two.

We set out in a motor launch that had been sent by the restaurant to transport us to the Asian side of the city, to Anatolia, the part of Turkey that's in Asia.

As we sped across the dark Bosporus, I could see the illuminated palaces of Turkey's Ottoman past growing smaller and smaller on the European shore, their white reflections cut to ribbons by the choppy waves.

At Seaport, as the restaurant is called, the owner greeted us warmly and led us to a display of fish on an awninged cart in the garden. The silvery specimens--I counted half a dozen kinds--glittered on a bed of chipped ice. Under the glare of the cart's naked lightbulbs, no cloudy eye stared back at me as I inspected the lineup, nor did any sour odor rise to assault my nose. This fish was fresh. Indeed, in Istanbul, it is seldom otherwise.

With water surrounding three-fourths of the country, fish from the Black Sea to the north and the Aegean and Mediterranean to the south (to say nothing of the local Sea of Marmara and the Bosporus) arrives daily at Istanbul's markets, just hours after being caught. And it is only hours later that the catch appears in the city's fish restaurants, some specimens still alive, kept in glass tanks or pools, as at the giant Urcan restaurant, where customers can choose the exact ones they want for dinner. Depending on the season, restaurants offer everything from swordfish and bluefish to red mullet, turbot, sardines and anchovies. And for shellfish lovers, there are mussels, langoustines and jumbo shrimp.

Istanbul's seafood restaurants tend to be simple, homey places. Indeed, some are holes in the wall, serving such favorites as charcoal-grilled fish and deep-fried mussels. Others are upscale and refined, such as Korfez, which also lies on the Asian side and tempts with sole souffle and sea bass wrapped in lettuce leaves.

Location is often part of its draw. Most restaurants are on or near the Bosporus and the adjacent Sea of Marmara, and many offer spectacular views of the water and the city's minaret-punctuated skyline.

In this piscatorial paradise, it surprised me to learn that the Turks abjured fish when they swept into Anatolia on horseback in the 11th century and settled down. Not until the 1960s, when the boom in foreign tourism got started, did seafood grow truly popular. Away from Istanbul and the other large cities, I am told, there are Turks today who still turn up their noses at fish and consider shellfish an abomination.

At Seaport, once a rich man's mansion with spacious rooms and flower-painted ceilings, I was introduced to the ritual of a Turkish fish dinner. First came the mezes, or appetizers, to be nibbled with anise-flavored raki, the clear and powerful Turkish liquor that turns instantly milky mixed with water. (Not for nothing do the Turks call it lion's milk.)

The mezes arrived one after another on small oval plates: grape leaves stuffed with rice, currants and pine nuts; tart yogurt with dill, garlic and cucumber; a puree of charcoal-roasted eggplant, lemon juice and olive oil, with a subtle smoky taste; pressed, salt-cured palmut, or bonito, a type of small tuna; marinated octopus; mussels with rice pilaf; and--as a sign of Turkey's growing internationalism--Iranian caviar and Scandinavian gravlax. These were followed by a plate of piping hot borek, triangular pockets of flaky pastry filled with ground meat and sharp cheese. As my host had explained when the parade of mezes began, the point is to enjoy, not overindulge. Fine words, but not easy to follow, as I discovered.

The second course consisted of baked sea bass encased in salt. The hardened coat cracked open at the first blow of our waiter's hammer to reveal the steaming fish inside. Deftly stripping away the skin with two forks, he lifted portions of the delicate flesh onto our plates. The juices of the bass had mingled with those of the mushrooms and shrimp that filled the body cavity. The bass was moist and sweet, without a trace of the salt. And, as should be the case when fish is as fresh as this one, the accompaniments were modest: a salad of arugula, sliced onion and tomato with an olive oil and lemon juice dressing and a chilled bottle of Turkish dry white wine.

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