Though only finger-sized, hamsi -- anchovies that come mostly from the Black Sea region -- loom large in the imagination of Turkish eaters. The little fish's arrival in late fall is greeted with great fanfare and some of the dishes that the humble hamsi is used in, such as a rice pilaf infused with spices and herbs, are treated with utter reverence.
Robyn Eckhardt, creator of the EatingAsia blog, has clearly caught the hamsi bug. In a wonderful piece that ran in yesterday's New York Times, Eckhardt describes a recent journey she made to Turkey's northern Black Sea coast in search of what turns out be an elusive catch. From her piece:
I was on a pilgrimage of sorts, inspired by an anchovy obsession, one shared by many Turks. For connoisseurs of hamsi, as anchovies are called in Turkish, the fat-padded specimens netted from the frigid Black Sea trump those taken from the Sea of Marmara, south of Istanbul and the Bosporus. The Black Sea season — which usually starts mid-autumn and runs through February — has been keenly anticipated for centuries. In the mid-1600s, the Ottoman traveler Evliya Celebi wrote that in the port of Trabzon, on the coast’s eastern half, “fishmongers at the wharf ... have special trumpets made of elder-tree wood. They only have to blow on these trumpets once and, by God’s dispensation, if people praying in the mosque hear it, they will immediately leave their prayer and come running for the hamsi.” Today, locals settle for feasting on the fish as often as the season will allow, often twice a day at its height, when hamsi are as cheap as 3 Turkish lira (about $1.70) per kilo.
Driven by that sort of passion, my plan was a hamsi-fueled road trip along a 300-mile stretch of Turkey’s central Black Sea coast, with stops en route to sample the best of the catch, which turned out to be delicately seasonal — available one day, then not the next.