The alcohol culture of Turkey is so vibrant and colorful but also bound by strict table rules which a “drinker” must obey. The traditional choice of alcohol for Turks is called Rakı which distilled from white grape alcohol and scented with aniseed similar to French Pernot and Greek Ouzo. Rakı poured into a thin long glass up to quarter full and topped with water and maybe ice which turns the rakı into cloudy white hence the name “lion milk”.
There are many mezes at a rakı table from fruit to meat, white cheese, cured meat and fish. There is never a main or desert. One of these mezes is a salt cured fish which is also regarded as the king of mezes.
As I am an expat living abroad, I miss these mezes especially the ones that are made by the masters at the fish market in Istanbul. I’ve heard that there are only 3 masters left and 2 new generation sons continuing the art of making salt cured fish. I hope this art continues and new generation can hold on to it.
This salt cured fish is called “lakerda” brought to Turkey by the Jewish settlers from Spain. In Spanish “La querida” roughly translates to “the dear” and there is a myth behind the name.
There was a Jewish fisherman Behmuaras who lived in the shores of Malaga in Spain. He had 3 kids and a wife and their only income source was the fish Behmuaras catching. His youngest child loved fish especially bonito. Bonito was a hard to catch fish and you need to sail far from the shore to find a school of bonito. Behmuaras especially made sure his youngest kid was eating bonito.
On 1356 at a holy Sabbath Saturday, despite his wife’s begging, Behmuaras sailed again to catch bonito for his youngest. God punished him as he is working on Sabbath and he couldn’t catch any fish. In fact he couldn’t catch any fish for the next 2 months.
He and his wife prayed night and day for the God’s mercy. On a Thursday he sailed again and hit a school of bonito catching about 30 of them. He came back home and decided that rather than selling these bonito, he would bury them in salt so that if God punishes him again, his family can have something to eat.
Behmuaras was calling his youngest kid as “La querida” and the name stuck to this salted bonito too.
Of course this myth is probably not true. The name “lakerda” also appears in Byzantine Greek as “lakerta” which in turn comes from Latin “lacerta” meaning mackerel or horse mackerel. Throughout the evolution of languages “lakerda” stayed as the name of salted bonito. Large tuna and mackerel fish also used for this recipe.
Winter is the best time to get some wild caught bonito which has substantial amount of fat. Fatty fish meat looks white whereas non-fatty fish would look red. So make sure that the fish you are buying is large and fatty.
The old fisherman’s of Istanbul say that 1 year old bonito migrating through Bosphorus is the most prized fish to make lakerda out of it.
In general any fish curing recipe calls for removing the organs, blood and marrow. Lakerda is no different. Discard the head, organs and the tail without cutting the belly. Once you cut the head, the organs will come out.
Cut the fish into 4 finger wide pieces
Clean the organ cavity with a clean tooth brush.
Remove the marrow from the spinal cord using a thin wire.
Wash the pieces under cold water.
Fill a plastic container with water and ice and submerge the fish pieces. You should keep the container in the fridge so that fish doesn’t spoil. Sprinkle some salt on top. This process removes the blood from fish. Replace the water 5 or 6 times depending on the amount of blood and flip the fish pieces.
After 2 days, drain the fish on a rack and roll them on dry salt, sprinkling some into the organ cavity. We are not using too much salt but just enough to cover the fish. Salt should be rock salt or a naturally sourced salt. Never use table salt as it has anti-caking agents and other additives which spoils the curing process.
Put them in a clean plastic container again and keep them in the fridge for 2 weeks. Remove the excess water oozing out of the fish regularly so that fish can stay relatively dry.
After 2 weeks of curing, rinse the fish pieces under cold water to get rid of the excess salt and put them on a rack to drain
Prepare an %8 brine and submerge the fish in it. Keep the container in the fridge. This is the final step and about 2 weeks in the brine is enough for the maturation.
Lakerda on rakı table is served with red Spanish onion and may be sumac and fresh parsley. Lemon juice should never be squeezed on it as it kills the aroma of cured bonito.
Lakerda cut into small pieces with a sharp knife to be eaten at once. Do not try to bite or cut with a fork’s side as this will spoil and crush the delicate bonito meat.