Residents of the coastal cities are experts in preparing fish. However, the best of the day’s catch is immediately transported to Ankara, where some of the finest fish restaurants are located. Winter is the premium season for eating fish. That is the time when many species of fish migrate from the Black Sea to warmer waters and when most fish reach their mature size. So, the lack of summer vegetables is compensated by the abundance of fish at this time. Every month has its own preferred catch, along with certain vegetables which complement the taste. For example, the best bonito is eaten with garlic and red onions, blue fish with lettuce, and turbot with cos lettuce. Large bonito may be poached with celery root. Mackerel is stuffed with chopped onion before grilling, and summer fish, which are younger and drier, will be poached with tomatoes and green peppers or fried. Bay leaves always accompany both poached and grilled fish.
Grilling fish over charcoal, where the fish juices hit the embers and envelope the fish with the smoke, is perhaps the most delicious way of eating mature fish since this method brings out the delicate flavour. This is also why the grilled fish sold by vendors right on their boats is so tasty.
“Hamsi” is the prince of all fish known to Turks: the Black Sea people know forty-one ways of making hamsi including hamsi börek, hamsi pilaf and hamsi dessert!
Another common seafood is the mussel, eaten deep-fried, poached, or as mussel dolma and mussel pilaf. Along the Aegean, octopus and squid are added to the meze spread.
The places to taste fish are fish restaurants and taverns. Not all taverns are fish restaurants, but most fish restaurants are taverns and these are usually found on the harbours overlooking the sea. The Bosphorus is famous for its fisherman’s taverns, large and small, from Rumeli Kavağı to Kumkapı. The modest ones are small with wooden tables and rickety wooden chairs; nevertheless, they offer delicious grilled fish. Then there are the elaborate, fashionable ones in Tarabya and Bebek. Fish restaurants always have an open-air section right by the sea. The waiters run back and forth between the kitchen, perhaps located in the restaurant across the street, and the tables on the seaside. After being seated, it is customary to visit the kitchen or the display to pick your fish and discuss the way you want it to be prepared.
The price of the fish is also disclosed at this time. Then you swing by the meze display and order the ones you want. So the evening begins, sipping rakı in between samplings of meze, watching the sunset, and slowly setting the pace for conversation that will continue for hours into the night. Drinking is never a hurried, loud, boisterous, or lonely affair. It is a communal, gently festive and cultured way of entertainment. In these fish restaurants, a couple of families may spend an evening with their children running around the restaurant after they are fed, while the teenagers sit at the table patiently listening to the conversation and occasionally participating, when the topic is football or music.