At first, I really didn’t get it. It’s just a skinny little silver fish. Why this incredible Turkish obsession with anchovies (hamsi)? For eleven months of the year, Turkish eyes will shine brightly as they reminisce with reverence about last year’s feasts of fresh hamsi. Then comes winter and the feeding frenzy begins.
For a few weeks around November, fishing boats of all shapes and sizes trawl the Black Sea coastline in pursuit of the prized hamsi. The fishing window is small, lasting only 1-4 weeks, as the hamsi traverse the icy waters of the Black Sea coastline, migrating in an easterly direction towards Georgia and Russia. Local Black Sea myth used to be that the first snowfall marked the start of hamsi season.
During hamsi season, Turkey’s Black Seaside towns such as Zonguldak, Ereğli, Amasra, Sinop and Samsun come alive with fishermen and connoisseurs travelling far and wide to feast on fresh hamsi for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Local balık evler (fish houses) are bursting at the seams with hamsi fanatics and the air at seaside promenades is laced with mouth-watering aromas from open-air hamsi grills.
The traditional preparation of hamsi is simple and absolutely delicious. Dusted in cornmeal, pan-fried quickly in hot corn or sunflower oil, and served with salt and the juice of fresh lemons. Fresh hamsi will simply melt in your mouth. Its texture is often described as “buttery”.
In Turkey, during season, the fresh hamsi hauls are often served up as delicious seaside snacks of hamsi ekmeği – fresh fried hamsi with rocket, onion, lemon and salt in a crusty bread roll.
I guess, like me, most of the uninitiated Western world still thinks of anchovies as being canned, pickled, and served on pizzas. Eek! They cannot imagine what they are missing out on. Whilst “fresh” hamsi can be found on menus throughout the rest of the year, it’s going to be the frozen version. Unfortunately, I’ve not yet made it to the Black Sea during hamsi season. I will get there one day.
I will never forget my first, and best, fresh hamsi meal. It was in London of all places, prepared by the gifted hand of a Black Sea native. Ellerine sağlık. I understood immediately what all the fuss was about. Hamsi is so much more than just a fish – it’s part of Turkish culinary folklore, celebrated in songs, poems, and even traditional Black Sea folk dances such as the mesmerising Horon – the “hamsi dance”.
The anticipation, the preparation, the eating with loved ones – like so many other social and cultural rituals form this land, it’s part of the rich cultural fabric which binds Turks, communities and generations. And as I wolfed down my second and third servings with chunks of fresh, crusty ekmek (Turkish bread), I felt myself taking yet another tiny Turkish Step forward on this curious path of discovery.
Denizden babam bile çıksa yerim!