The Laz, an ethnic minority in the northeast of Turkey, live in the verdant Kaçkar Mountains that seem to crash right down into the Black Sea. “Masmavi, yemyeşil,” is how that part of the country is often described – bluest blue, greenest green.
There is not much in the way of farmland, but the Black Sea is blessed with particularly tasty anchovies, or hamsi, that appear in a wide variety if dishes throughout the winter harvest.
What follows is one of our favorite forms of hamsi, hamsili pilav, a savory rice cake cloaked in thin hamsi filets. At Klemuri , a terrific Black Sea restaurant near Taksim, the hamsili pilav, with its currants and pine nuts, is a little dressed up compared with some of the village versions we’ve had, but it is the real deal. This recipe comes straight out of the Laz heartland, courtesy of Sevim Hanım, the mother of Klemuri’s owner.
1 kg of fresh, whole anchovies
1.5 cups of white rice
1 large onion, finely chopped
1/3 cup currants
¼ cup pine nuts
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
½ cup chopped dill
Sautée the pine nuts in the vegetable oil at medium heat, add the finely chopped onions and keep cooking until the onions turn golden but still soft. Add the rice and continue cooking for a few minutes. Add the currants, dill, black pepper and salt. Mix well and add enough water to cover mixture. Cook over low heat until the water has cooked off. The mixture is ready when the rice is still a bit “underdone” or “yarım pişmiş” (“half cooked”), as Sevim Hanım explains.
Debone the anchovies and remove their guts, patting them flat to create mini filets (or, better yet, ask your fish seller to do the deboning for you). Cover the bottom and sides of a well-oiled oven tray or casserole dish with the anchovies. Spread half of the pilaf over the anchovies. Add another layer of anchovies on top of the stuffing and then spread the remaining pilaf on top of the fish, as if layering a cake. Finally, add one more layer of anchovies. Add enough water to cover the top layer of anchovies. Drizzle a bit of vegetable oil on the surface and bake at 200 degrees Celsius until the water has been completely absorbed by the rice, or about 30 minutes.
To serve, use a sharp knife to score the pilaf’s top into square portions and then use a spatula to take the squares out of the tray.
(photo by Ansel Mullins)