Remember the days when you could jump on a plane and travel to foreign lands to eat and drink like a local? Nope, neither can we. What we can do, however, is show you how to (mentally) travel to a Turkish meyhane (tavern) for the princely sum of $60. Your ticket to ride? A bottle of rakı.
Wait, what is rakı?
It depends on who you ask. A Turk might describe it as rocket fuel that underscores every celebration, heartbreak and catch-up session with friends and family, but it's probably best to outline the drink from an official point of view.
Essentially, rakı — considered the national drink of Turkey — is a potent alcoholic beverage (it contains between 40 — 50 per cent alcohol) made of twice-distilled grapes and heavily flavoured with aniseed after a second or third distillation. The history of its production is a hazy one, but many believe it goes right back to the 14th century, even though the first factory production of the drink only kicked off in the mid-1940s.
"If you drink enough of the stuff, you'll start seeing lions everywhere before you hit the ground cold. Beware."
Popular in many other countries, particularly the Balkans and the Middle East where it's called rakia or arak, it's also colloquially known in Turkey as Lion's Milk (aslan sűtű). One reason for the nickname is because it's often diluted with water and/or ice, which gives the drink a milky white appearance, another is that aslan is a local metaphor for a strong and courageous person so that aslan sűtű means 'milk for the strong'.
Say what you like about those reasons. Speaking from personal experience, I will also tell you if you drink enough of the stuff, you'll start seeing lions everywhere before you hit the ground cold. Beware.
Sounds ace. How do I serve it?
If you're thinking about purchasing a bottle of Yeni Rakı, a popular yaki brand, and enjoying it alone with a side of Netflix and a bag of potato chips, we're going to stop you right there. The first thing you need to know about rakı is that it's never consumed alone; you must gather loved ones (yes, even if it's only on Zoom) to make it a social occasion — the kind where everyone increasingly shouts over the top of everyone else and gesticulates wildly until either something breaks, someone cries or someone gets injured. You need a room filled with enough smoke to put an 80s rock ballad to shame and a soundtrack that slowly strips you of the will to live as the hours pass.
As rakı is most commonly served in meyhanes (tavern) where fasil ekibi — heavily moustached musicians who play traditional instruments such as a saz or a kanun — perform as you eat your body weight in mezze, it's best to attempt to recreate a similar scenario around your dining table. Set the rakı sofrası (table), turn the lights down low and find a rakı or fasil playlist on Spotify filled with songs about lost love and misery.
Some drinkers fill the kadeh (highball glass) a third of the way, or if they're hardcore, closer to half and then dilute it with water and/or ice. Others drink it straight and have a glass of water on the side. Whichever way you swing, note that it's a drink that's to be enjoyed sip by sip, and only after you clink your fellow drinkers with the bottom of the glass — never the top. This is a sign that you consider everyone at the table your equals. Require a toast? It doesn't get much better than 'Şerefe' (to honour).
Food? What's wrong with chips?
Regardless of whether you're serving rakı for two or for a small community, it's essential to prepare the appropriate mezze before a single sip has been taken — even if you're only planning on eating your feelings. At a minimum, a plate of feta alongside sliced melon and rocket must be served, as taking small bites of these between sips helps overcome the burn - and potential discomfort — of the rakı, but dishes commonly served with rakı include bowls of nuts, cold seafood spreads, dips such as haydari and hummus and smoked eggplant salad. As the evening wears on, heavier meat dishes can be introduced.
Got three friends coming over? Remember the golden rule of Turkish hospitality and prepare enough food for 10 — minimum.
Great! I'm good to start drinking
Steady on, cowboy; we still have some essential ground to cover before you go buck wild. What you need to keep top of mind about rakı is that it loosens lips and unlocks emotions you thought you'd successfully repressed in childhood. In short, it's a drink to be consumed with those you love having deep and meaningful conversations with about love, loss and everything in between. This isn't a drink to enjoy with ex-partners, barely tolerable work colleagues or any person who harbours questionable beliefs. While we're here, it's also best to avoid discussing politics, religion and soccer at the table.
Resist the urge to follow a rakı drinking session with any other kind of alcohol (that said, it's a mistake you'll only ever make once) and follow up with water, Turkish tea or if you're feeling particularly adventurous, şalgam (a fermented beverage made of root vegetables such as turnips, purple carrots and chilli).
With the right set-up, you could very well transport yourself to Turkey for an evening and if you play your cards (or your rakı) right, you might even be able to return without a hint of jetlag. Good luck!
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