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Since You Asked: Istanbul’s Fish Scene?

I am just back home from a cruise to Turkey, which included a short stay in Istanbul. I was pleasantly surprised to find such a strong seafood culture there. Shame on me for expecting lamb, lamb and more lamb! I indulged and managed to identify some of the fish I ate, but I didn’t catch the name and preparation of so many more. Can you help me fill in some of the question marks I have in my trip notes?

Thanks in advance,
Berlin, N.H.

Dear Fishermom,

You are not alone. We’ve received many such notes from readers surprised by the seafood bounty in Istanbul. So we put together a light crash course in what swims through here. Follow the links to reviews of some of our favorite places to eat these fish.

Levrek – Sea bass is one of the most popular fish in Turkey, prized for its delicate, almost sweet taste and firm white meat. Levrek is usually charcoal grilled whole and served with a drizzle of oil and a squeeze of lemon. In another delicious version, a whole levrek is encased in sea salt and baked in the oven. One of our favorite preparations is kagitta [2] [2]levrek [2], in which sea bass filets are wrapped in a paper bundle with onion, tomato and lemon and baked. Many restaurants serve the cheaper and smaller farmed variety of the fish. Wild levrek is known as deniz levregi. Both are available all year.

Hamsi – Size isn’t everything: the finger-length anchovy is often referred to in Turkey as the “little prince” of fishes. In the Black Sea area, where hamsi are caught, the little fish are used in numerous dishes and form an important part of the local economy. The most popular way hamsi [3] are served is fried in a light coating of corn meal but we’ve even found them skewered and grilled. Another popular recipe is hamsi pilav – a rice and anchovy dish infused with an aromatic mix of herbs and spices. The hamsi season is in the fall and winter.

Cipura – Gilthead bream is the most popular fish caught in the Aegean area. Like levrek, it is a mild tasting fish with white, flaky meat, usually grilled whole and served unadorned. Fish farms now supply much of the Cipura served in restaurants, but the wild variety, known as deniz cipurasi [4] is also available.

Barbunya – Tasty small red mullets are another popular fish. As the name implies, the barbunya’s skin is speckled with glistening reddish spots. The mild-tasting fish, usually only a few inches long, are typically pan-fried whole and an order of them can easily be shared. Barbunya [5]’s [5] prime season is from spring through early summer and the fish is not farmed.

Palamut – Bonito, related to tuna, is a fish that appears in Turkey’s waters in fall through winter. Unlike levrek and cipura, it is a strong-tasting, oily fish, similar to mackerel. Palamut fillets are often grilled [6], but another popular – and perhaps tastier – way they are prepared is baked in the oven in an onion and tomato sauce. Palamut is not farmed.

(photo by Jonathan Lewis)

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