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The fish of the Bosphorus


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Posted 23 February 2005 - 12:31

The people of Istanbul enjoy seafood so much they have a saying: "If I caught my father in the sea I'd eat him." For them, the fish of the Bosphorus have been a table favorite down the centuries.

One can't help thinking that the world was specially designed to perpetuate the human race. Almost everything needed for humankind to lead a healthy life and be nourished in a balanced fashion has been distributed evenly through nature. Of course apart from these blessings of nature one should not forget man's inexhaustible curiosity, creativity and constant desire to come up with something new. For thousands of years, human societies have managed to develop their own cuisines, based on the part of earth's surface they happened to occupy and on the bounty it offered. Our subject here, because it is just the season, is of course fish. The Bosphorus joins Asia to Europe, and it is safe to say that no society that has lived in this region since the dawn of history has been indifferent to its fish. How could they be?

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The denizens of Istanbul have an interest in the matchless flavors of the Bosphorus, augmented by methods of cooking that add still more delicious taste, dating back at one glance several thousand years.

THE INFLUENCE OF THE BLACK SEA
For the people of Istanbul, fish should be caught in the Bosphorus or the Black Sea, and so when they buy fish they always ask where it comes from. Because the Black Sea, high in minerals and low in salt, directly affects the taste of the Bosphorus fish. Fattening in the Black Sea, the fish take refuge in the coves and water canals of the Bosphorus to mature. In a folk expression, mature fish are said to be 'oily.' For the people of Istanbul another important point is the freshness of the fish, and they insist on seeing it before eating. That is why most of the seafood restaurants along the Bosphorus have counters at the entrance where the varieties of fish on offer that day can be inspected. That is, a fish display. And the customers choose their fish by looking at these displays.

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In those restaurants which do not have such a display, the waiters will bring to the table a tray on which various types of fish have been arranged, thus making it possible for the customer to both see that day's fish and choose which kind to eat. In the old days nearly all seafood restaurants had live fish swimming in pools, with a sign outside proclaiming 'live fish inside.' Now those signs have been replaced by those advertising 'fresh fish inside.' Of course the chief reason for this is that due to various problems there are fewer fish to be had.

THE MOST PRECIOUS GIFT
One factor which has made fish so important along the Bosphorus, placing it at the head of Istanbul's gastronomic culture, is the prominence of fish in dining in both the Eastern Roman and Ottoman Empires. In the Eastern Roman Empire, fish was the dietary staple for all the people living along the Bosphorus.

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The right to fish was acquired by paying a tax called the haleia, and those who fished without paying this tax had to give a fourth of their catch to the palace. Fishermen went out in boats called karabion, but also raised fish in hatcheries known as vivaria. In the time of the Eastern Roman Empire the centers of fishing in Istanbul were the villages of the Bosphorus, the Islands, Kadiköy, Tuzla and the shores of Yedikule.
When the bounty of the sea dwindled, those who depended on it turned for succor to St. Lucas, the patron saint of fishermen, merchants and priests. Of course after having appealed for help to the saint, fishermen had to give a tenth of their catch to charity. In those days fish were considered among the most precious gifts you could send to friends or relatives, showing the value people placed on this product of the sea.

A FISH POOL FOR EVERY YALI
During the time of the Ottoman Empire the great and powerful began living on the Bosphorus in fine shoreline houses known as yalis,

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and this practice led to the development of new habits connected with the sea. Since transportation was by caique, all these homes had a boathouse and right beside it a pool which contained live fish held in by mesh that allowed the sea water to wash in and out.
In those days the chief form of entertainment for residents in these fine yalis was to go out fishing, so in their homes they had every sort of gear and eq uipment necessary for this pursuit. In addition, each yali employed an expert fisherman and a chef who knew how to cook fish dishes. It will be obvious from all this that, for the elite of the Ottoman era, fish constituted a social way of life. Indeed, every week the owners of these shoreline houses would give a banquet at which fish alone was served, in various guises. Furthermore, when they caught fish it was a fine point of courtesy to send part of the catch to the neighboring yali. As an example, 'lüfer' (blue fish) would be sent to the neighbors in a basket spruced up with greens. And the best place to catch the blue fish was Kanlica.
In those days there was a greater variety of fish dishes than we have now, and much different ways of cooking them.

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There were the stuffed varieties known as dolma, stews cooked with olive oil, fish soups, smoked fish, pickled fish, fish cooked by covering them with ashes, shell fish, grilled liver of 'kalkan' (turbot)... These are just a few of the fish recipes we could mention. We leave you with some recipes for cooking fish, the few that space allows.

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TEXT: VEDAT BASARAN
PHOTO:ÖNDER DURMAZ



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