For fish lovers in Turkey, late autumn means one thing: hamsi, or anchovies. Sometime between mid- and late October the forefinger-length black and silver Engranlis encrasicolus (one of a dozen or so anchovy varieties found worldwide) begin appearing in Istanbul’s fish markets. Mounded on platters, spilling from bins, frequently refreshed by vigilant fish sellers with vigorous splashes of ice-cold water, they’re abundant and cheap, less than $2 a pound in most cases. As hamsi season settles in, restaurants specializing in all things piscine add hamsili (literally, anchovy-ey) dishes to their menus and Istanbullu begin debating which establishment serves the best versions of anchovy, tava (dusted with wheat or corn flour and pan-fried), pilav (baked with seasoned rice) and grilled.
The country’s anchovy fix is almost entirely pulled from the frigid waters of the Black Sea, so it’s no surprise that hamsi worship reaches unparalleled heights along Turkey’s northern coast. In season, restaurants in fishing towns like Amasra and Sinop serve little else besides the “little prince” of fishes, as hamsi are described by Turks; even the delectable barbunya, tiny red mullet, comes in a distant second. In Samsun, Trabzon and further east along the coast to the Georgian border, cooks branch out beyond grill and fry pan, incorporating anchovies into bread, omelettes and lemony onion-rich casseroles, mixing them with corn meal, shaping them into balls and deep-frying for a dish called “hamsi birds,” even baking them into desserts.
Like most Black Sea residents, Mert Kanal, a 36-year-old fish seller in Sinop, a city at about the northern coast’s mid-point, is crazy for the oily, flinty fish. In season, he says, “I’ll eat them everyday, even for breakfast.”
On a recent visit to Istanbul, my husband and I got hamsi religion and, in search of further enlightenment, flew to Ankara, rented a car and drove to the Black Sea. Sinop was our last stop. It was there, at a portable card table in the back of the Kanal family fish shop more than a half century old, that we reached our anchovy apex. As Mert’s uncle picked through an endless heap of hamsi (headless, broken and too-tiny specimens jettisoned), we worked our way through at least 2 kilos which had been cleaned, beheaded, tossed in flour and fried brown and crispy by Mert himself in a single skillet balanced on a small gas canister.
After we’d finished eating, one of Mert’s colleagues took over, feeding Mert, his family, shop staff, neighboring merchants and passers-by. All the while, boats pulled into Sinop’s harbor less than a block away and fisherman marched into the shop carrying anchovy-filled Styrofoam coolers.
Are Black Sea anchovies overfished?
In early January in a Black Sea town like Sinop, the supply of hamsi seems bottomless. It’s not, says Mert, who believes that the Black Sea’s cold weather treasure is being overfished. “One day last December, I watched 100 trucks leave this harbor loaded with anchovies. That’s a ton of anchovies a truck, and in just our one small fishing town.”
“The Black Sea is more a lake than an ocean. We can’t keep doing this way.”
In fact the anchovies that Mert cooked for us came not from waters off Sinop, but from Samsun, about 75 miles away. “There’s not enough fish here this year to fill demand,” Mert explained. Every year Turkish fleets move eastward as the season wears on, chasing hamsi. This year the eastward march began earlier than last, Mert says. A little over halfway through the season, some boats were already in Georgian waters another 200 miles away.
Overfishing is a touchy topic in a country like Turkey, where fishing is an important industry. Environmentalists and food advocates believe that the lufer (bluefish) stock in the Bosphorus Straits has been devasted by overfishing and catching younger fish. Most fishing companies blame pollution and sport fishing. Last year Slow Food Istanbul initiated a campaign (“Don’t Let the Lufer Go Extinct”) to convince Istanbullu to forgo eating their beloved lufer long enough to allow stocks to recover.
The answer as to whether or not the Black Sea’s anchovy stocks are declining – and whether or not overfishing is to blame — “is long and complicated,” says Oktay Kiris, head of Kiris Marine Products. Kiris is one of Turkey’s larger marine products companies, with a processing facility in Izmir and one of the few licenses to export Turkish seafood. He points out that reliable long-term figures on fish stocks in Turkish waters are all but nonexistent.
In 2007 a study jointly published by the European Commission and Turkey’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs noted extremely low anchovy catches in 2005 compared to the previous year. But the same report also noted a dip in 1990, raising the possibility that natural population cycles in the species might also be to blame for smaller hauls.
For fishermen and fish sellers like Mert, all that matters is what the eye sees. “It’s not like it used to be,” he says. “We’re not getting the hamsi we used to get. I know it, we all of us in Sinop know it.”
A Laz specialty: anchovy pilaf
Back in Istanbul and, like Mert, far from fed up with hamsi, we prevailed upon Turkish journalist and food magazine contributor Ayfer Unsal, who has authored four books on Turkish cuisine, to share a recipe for a dish we’d hoped to find in Sinop but didn’t: anchovy pilaf. “It’s a dish of the Laz [an ethnic group indigenous to Turkey's two most eastern Black Sea provinces],” Ayfer noted as we leaned over her sink, pulling heads and entrails from 750 grams of anchovies. “I don’t usually make it at home.” By the time we finished cleaning the hamsi I understood why.
For the pilaf, Ayfer made an anchovy “crust” in a thickly-buttered round cake pan by painstakingly arranging half the fillets in a single-layer pinwheel and then stacking them up the sides of the pan. She spooned in a “filling” of rice lightly sautéed with onions, pine nuts and currants and flavored with lemon juice, wheat grass (her own variation) and dill. “Don’t use too much dill,” she cautioned. “It should never overwhelm the flavor of the hamsi.”
Laying more fillets over the surface of the rice, Ayfer noted that it would normally be left bare. But “if they have a lot of butter they rub it on their face,” she said, citing a Turkish proverb that justifies making extravagant use of excess.
After 35 minutes in a hot oven, the hamsili pilavi emerged golden and fragrant, filling the kitchen with the appetizingly un-fishy scent that only the freshest fish can have. After releasing the cake-cum-pilaf from the pan by placing a plate on top and flipping it over, Ayfer sliced it into wedges, releasing a cloud of herbal steam. The fillets had shrunk a bit but were meaty and lightly crisp where they’d touched the pan, a suitable partner for the soft rice.
As I nostalgically recall our anchovy feasts in Mert’s shop and Ayfer’s kitchen, Turkey’s lucky hamsi lovers have at least six more weeks of gorging to look forward to. For now at least, the fish are still running thick off Turkey’s Black Sea coast.
Hamsili Pilav (Anchovy Pilaf) Adapted from Ayfer Unsal’s recipe
Admittedly labor-intensive (unless you can get someone else to fillet the fish for you), this dish is nonetheless worth the effort for those lucky enough to have access to fresh anchovies. Fresh sardines or even very thinly sliced mackerel fillets would make a decent substitute. Or make the rice and bake in a casserole with a good-quality, meaty canned anchovy fillets (oil rinsed off, patted dry) arranged in a seamless layer on top.
If, after baking, there is liquid in the bottom of the pan carefully drain it off and continue baking until dry. It’s not absolutely necessary to flip the “pie” out of the pan onto a plate, the crust of crisped anchovies makes for an attractive presentation.
At Ayfer Unsals, we ate the pilaf with a refreshing arugula, flat-leaf parsley, dill, mint leaf, and pomegranate salad dressed with olive oil, lemon juice, and nar eksisi (pomegranate molasses). And it served only 4.
1. Soak the rice in water to cover for one hour, then drain.
2. Preheat the oven to 400°F and place a rack in the bottom third. Very thickly butter the bottom and sides of a 12-inch round, heavy cake pan and set it aside.
3. Clean and fillet the anchovies (once you get the hang of this it goes pretty quickly): holding the fish upside down, use your thumb to pry open its belly, then gently work your thumb down its length This can be done with a knife, but it goes faster if you just use your hands. Remove the guts, then reach in about ⅔ to its tail and grasp the spine; gently pull it up and out. The head should come off with the spine; at the same time the fish will flatten into a nice fillet. Pull off the tail or leave it on, if you like.
4. Gently pat the fillets with a paper towel. Set aside.
5. Heat olive oil and buter in skillet or sauté pan over medium heat. Add the onion and reduce the heat to medium low. Saute the onion, stirring, until soft but not browned.
6. Add the drained rice and continue to stir and sauté for a minute or so. Then add 1½ cups hot water, ½ tsp salt and lemon juice. Stir, taste, and adjust for salt if necessary.
7. Add currants and give the rice a stir. Cover, reduce the heat to low, and cook for 8 minutes.
8. Add dill and wheat grass if using, stir once, and turn off the heat.
9. Assemble the pilaf: Starting at the edge of the pan, arrange the fillets with tails facing in, slightly overlapping, in a single-layer pinwheel. Continue until you’ve covered the bottom of the pan, then lay them horizontally against the sides of the pan, stacking them up in a single layer and pressing them gently into the butter. Spoon in the rice and smooth the top of it. Arrange remaining anchovies, again in a pinwheel but this time with gaps between the fillets so that some of the rice will be exposed to the oven’s heat.
10. Loosely cover the pilaf with foil and place in the oven for 20 minutes. Then remove the foil and bake for another 30 to 35 minutes, checking to see that the fish don’t burn (but if they crisp and brown that’s fine).
11. Pull the pilaf from the oven and check to make sure there’s no moisture at the bottom of the pan. If there’s a little, put the pilaf in for another 5 minutes or so (if the top is already brown recover it). If there’s a lot, carefully drain some from the pan and then put the pilaf back in for 5 minutes.
12. When the pilaf is ready to come out of the oven, place a plate larger in circumference than the pan upside down over it and flip plate and cake pan. Place the plate down and tap on the pan to make sure the pilaf has come away from it.
13. Cut into wedges and serve immediately with lemon for squeezing, if you like.
Photo: Hamsi, or anchovies. Credit: David Hagerman
Photo and slideshow credit: David Hagerman