In Istanbul, a Drink for Skeptics


Photo by intangiblearts/Flickr CC

What are the chances that I would find moonshine made by some owner of a small fish house that really was the drink of the gods, the ambrosia Homer described?

Zero. I hate hard liquor and have never found a pleasant liqueur because it's too syrupy and the alcohol burns my throat.

But then there was Cibalikapi Balikcisi in Istanbul.

It is one of those restaurants you would never find on your own. Following the recommendations of the guidebook writers would not help either--certainly not in a city like Istanbul, with thousands of restaurants not to mention kebab, coffee, and pastry shops. Only a native of the city would know about Cibalikapi Balikcisi, a small meyhane (taverna) on the Golden Horn about 5 to 10 minutes' drive from Sultanahmet, the Aya Sophia and Blue Mosque area.

No alcohol taste, just the fresh, sweet taste of some kind of an orangey citrus.

As you approach the restaurant, you see a small crowd of people resting their arms and bodies over high tables in the chilly night air. It looks like they are waiting for a table inside, but soon you realize that this is the smoking section. Even the Turks have learned the blessings of banning smoking in restaurants. Inside you climb stairs and look out over the water, boats and lights bobbing in the lanes of the estuary that is the Golden Horn. The sparse wooden tables, the pictures of boats hanging askew on the wall, and the shells and nets hanging from the ceiling make you think this could be one of those modest waterfront restaurants in New England where the fisherman and other connoisseurs of fresh fish come for the best of the day's catch.

The waiter brings a huge tray filled with small rectangular plates and you just point. Olives stuffed with walnuts, some kind of sea grass with thick leaves in vinegar, four different kinds of sautéed greens whose names no one seems able to translate, a feta-walnut paste, some roasted eggplant dish, pieces of sea bass grilled in some kind of orangey herb sauce, a huge slice of melon, and on and on. Everything is delicious. The pervasiveness of nuts--walnuts, pistachios, hazelnuts, pine nuts, almonds, and more, whole, ground, sprinkled on salad, mixed with cheese, stuffed into any manner of food--strikes you. Then there is salad.

When the waiter returns, you expect to order the entrée. But the waiter is listing hot appetizers of fried calamari, a whole grilled octopus, a few other dishes with calamari, some kind of prawn dish, and assorted other shellfish dishes. Fortunately, I was spared the shellfish, because he then came back with a blackboard listing eight or so fresh fish dishes for entrees.

We had grilled bluefish and mackerel, and small red mullets fried whole. It does not get any fresher. The bluefish from the Sea of Marmara or the Bosphorous has none of the oily, fishy taste of the Atlantic variety. It is even delicate.

But the best was for last and it didn't come from the sea. As the dessert plate of fruit was circulating, the waiter brought smaller, curvaceous Turkish tea-style glasses filled with a slightly cloudy, off-white liquid. No hint as to what it was. One sip and it was heavenly. The nondescript liquid was sweet with a slight citrusy but not sour flavor--the perfect fruit made liquid.

All the supposed exquisitely subtle tastes of single malt scotch or fruit drinks are spoiled for me by the high alcohol content that burns my throat. Not this. It was completely different. I could detect no alcohol taste at all--just a sweet but not syrupy tang.

What was this divine potion? Green mandarin orange moonshine that the restaurant's owner painstakingly made himself. The waiter told us that the mandarins come from the owner's home village on the Bodrum peninsula along the Aegean coast; they are harvested very early and unripe, little balls the size of large grapes, well before they ripen and turn orange. The mandarins are cut--not an easy task, as they are still very hard--and the few drops of juice squeezed out. The precious juice is mixed with pure alcohol and sugar and allowed to ferment. Presto: the most wonderful after-dinner drink.

Because I was vocal about my view of the drink, we received a second round. Still no alcohol taste, just the fresh, sweet taste of some kind of an orangey citrus. On our way out, the Istanbulite who took us to Cibalikapi Balikcisi told the owner how much we liked the green mandarin liqueur and asked if he would make her some if she brought in the green mandarins from the tree in her yard. He only makes 100 liters per year, he said, because it takes a lot of mandarins and there is so much labor cutting and squeezing the hard fruit. Consequently, he doesn't sell the ambrosia, but only offers it in his tavern after dinner. After a few more words in Turkish, one of the kitchen hands rummaged through a drawer and produced an old plastic liter water bottle with the label torn; the owner filled it with the precious, cloudy liquid for me to take back to the United States and enjoy with friends.

Have some yourself! Visit Cibalikapi Balikcisi and enjoy the fresh fish and the moonshine.