Fish and Istanbul

Fish and the Bosphorus... It sounds like a slogan, but this duo, the first thing that pops to mind at the mention of Istanbul, is a valuable legacy of nature, taste and culinary skill.

Once so plentiful that it was consumed like bread, fish has been part and parcel of Istanbul life since the earliest times. For, thanks to its geographical situation, the city and its environs are an ideal place for fish to breed, grow and be caught. Fish that feed in the Black Sea are caught in weirs along the Bosphorus’s undulating coastline and then processed, especially along the Golden Horn, by techniques such as salting, pickling, drying, smoking and curing in brine before being put on the market. Fish has consequently been an inseparable part of Istanbul life for centuries as the many coins stamped with dolphins and bonito in the city’s history bear witness.
Although fish is not nearly as plentiful as it once was, Istanbul people still like their fish. But only if it’s been caught in the Marmara or the Black Sea. Fish caught in other waters is not highly esteemed by Istanbul natives. Even though there are delicious, traditional fish dishes made with fish caught on the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts, Istanbul people find them lacking somehow. The main reason for this is that fish caught in the Marmara and the Black Sea are more flavorful than the other fish of the world.
The chief Marmara and Black Sea fish, such as turbot, bonito, blue fish, mackerel, bass and large and small red mullet in particular, appeal to the Istanbul palate. So much so that foreigners who come to the city are often slightly taken back by Istanbul people’s fanatic interest in fish. Once they taste it however they are quick to realize what sets Istanbul fish apart from its counterparts elsewhere.

The fishing season isn’t over yet, and fishermen all over Turkey are casting anchor to try their luck. Leaving the Mediterranean, the Aegean and the Marmara at the start of summer for the cooler, more nutrient-rich waters of the Black Sea, the fish, like their counterparts on land, literally head for the highlands, where they feed all summer long. Later they start their passage back south, sweeping down the Bosphorus in schools. Or so they hoped! For fishermen with giant sonar devices lie in wait at the Black Sea mouth of the Bosphorus, ready to catch them before they even enter the strait and preventing the natural migration that has been going on for millennia.
Karekin Deveciyan, an employee in the Chief Inspectorate of Fishing in the Istanbul Central Department of Fish Markets, wrote the first comprehensive book on fish and fishing in Turkey’s history. In his book, entitled ‘Fish and Fishing’, Deveciyan Efendi describes how Black Sea fish, unable to descend to its deep dark waters for feeding with the onset of the severe Black Sea winter, would begin to abandon the region. The first to depart would be the bonito, their rate of departure depending on the severity of the weather. The bonitos’ passage through the Bosphorus would take a month. Following the bonito would come the larger, so-called Atlantic bonito. (These fish, a major source of income in the Byzantine period, were salted at processing plants on the Golden Horn and sold in Europe for high prices.) As soon as the larger bonito entered the Bosphorus, the Atlantic mackerel would line up at the entrance of the strait to wait their turn. These were the mackerel that had escaped the bonito massacre. Only after the large and small bonito had left Istanbul’s waters would these fish venture into the strait, to spend the entire winter in the waters of the Marmara until spring. When the large bonito born near Sicily started returning to the Black Sea in spring to grow, the Atlantic mackerel would go in advance. And so the process continued for centuries. Today however it is impossible to speak of a such a natural process any longer.

Fish has been the most abundantly consumed product in Istanbul cuisine in every period of the city’s history. A number of important methods of preserving and cooking fish were developed, many of which have been forgotten over time. But Istanbul gastronomy, forever reinventing itself, is now bringing these methods back into currency. Testament to this is a book by Alan Davidson, the world’s foremost researcher and authority on eating and drinking, in which he says: “Turkey is surrounded by a remarkably interesting and varied collection of waters... These varied waters yield rich crops of fish, and the Turks, whose cuisine is ranked by many among the finest in the world, do justice to it.”
Our chefs and gourmets who are interested in fish and fish dishes will enjoy the book (recently re-released by Aras Yayınları) of the eminent Karekin Deveciyan, who provides in-depth knowledge on the subject, as well as Balık ve Olta (Fish and Line) by the late Ali Pasiner with his delightful style (from Remzi Kitabevi).

200 gr swordfish steak
2 bonitos (cut in thick slices)
1 cup olive oil
1/4 tsp saffron
2 cups vinegar
8 bay leaves
8 lemon leaves
4 cloves of garlic
5 cloves
2 cardomom pods
1 cinnamon stick
1 tbsp pine nuts
1 tsp red and green peppercorns

First cut and clean the fish. Then drain well. After salting the fish, heat the olive oil in a skillet. Sear the fish lightly on both sides and drain off the oil.
Arrange the bay leaf and lemon leaves in the pickling jar and layer the fish on top, sprinkling each layer with the cardomom, cloves, cinnamon, pine nuts, garlic and peppercorns. Soak the saffron in a little water. When the water is yellow, bring it to a boil with the vinegar. Cool and pour over the layers of fish in the jar. Let the jar stand 3 or 4 days in the refrigerator before serving.

2 fresh bonito, de-boned, 1 egg, 1/2 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp black pepper, 1/4 bunch flat-leaf parsley, chopped fine, 2 tbsp bread crumbs, 1 onion, grated, flour for dipping and olive for frying the fish balls

Clean and de-bone the bonito. Put through a meat grinder or chop finely with a sharp knife.
Place the fish in a mixing bowl. Add the egg, salt, pepper, grated onion, parsley and bread crumbs and knead well.  Form into balls of desired shape, dip in flour and fry in hot olive oil.  Serve with fresh rocket (arugula) leaves, red onion and lemon.

1 fresh blue fish, 2 sheets of ‘yufka’ (Turkish filo, sold in 20x20 cm leaves),, 50 gr butter, 1 bay leaf, 1/4 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp black pepper

Place the bay leaf inside the cleaned blue fish, sprinkle with salt and pepper and put aside. Open the filo leaves and spread with the melted butter using a pastry brush. Place the second sheet on top of the first and repeat the process. Place the blue fish on the filo leaves so that the head and tail are exposed and roll up. Bake in a pre-heated 175° C oven for 20 minutes.

8 fillets of sole, 2 medium-size prawns, 1 aubergine, grilled and skinned, 2 tbsp olive oil, 2 green onions,1 sweet pepper, grilled, 1/2 bunch flat-leaf parsley, 1/2 bunch fresh dill, 1/4 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp black pepper, 1/4 tsp butter (to grease the casserole)

Cube the prawns, aubergine, green onions and pepper and mix with the salt, black pepper, olive oil and chopped parsley. Divide the sole into 8 portions and roll up. Grease a clay casserole with the butter and arrange the fish rolls around the sides. Place the prawn and aubergine mixture in the center. Baked in a pre-heated 180° C. oven for 15 minutes. Reverse the casserole onto a serving platter and empty like a mold. Serve piping hot.

1 fresh bonito, cut in thick slices, 1/2 cup orange juice, 1/4 cup lemon juice, 1/4 cup wine vinegar, 2 bay leaves, 1 tsp red and green peppercorns, 1/4 tsp salt, 12 bunch fresh dill

Divide the cleaned bonito into eight portions. Mix the orange juice, lemon juice, vinegar, bay leaves and peppercorns in a pot. Place the bonito portions in the marinade and let sit for 6 hours. When well marinaded, garnish with the dill, drizzle with the olive oil and serve.

4 swordfish steaks (200 gr each), 2 bay leaves, 1 bunch of unripe green grapes, 2 tbsp cream, 1/2 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp ground white pepper, 3 green onions, chopped, 2 tbsp butter, 1/2 cup water, 1/2 cup olive oil

Melt the butter in a skillet and add the green onions. Saute for a minute or two, then add the cream, white pepper and water and let simmer over low heat.
In another skillet, fry the swordfish steaks in olive oil. Add the fish and the grapes to the simmering sauce and cook another eight minutes over low heat. Serve piping hot.

1 kg fresh sea bass, 2 bay leaves 5 whole cloves of garlic, peeled 1/4 cup olive oil, 2 kg rock salt 1 cup water

Arrange the bay leaves and garlic inside a cleaned sea bass. Drain the fish well. Mix the rock salt with the water in a separate bowl. Cover the fish completely with the salt and bake in a pre-heated 130° C oven for 30 minutes.  Arrange the baked fish on a serving platter. Break the salt layer using a hammer and a spatula and remove the fish.  Divide into portions and serve with the olive oil..