If you like things sweet-and-sour, then it's hard to beat a Pickleback. But there are times when even the filthiest shot fiend feels they can't look at another dill pickle in the face. If that sounds like you, then it may be time you sampled Turkey's answer to Brooklyn's favourite whiskey/chaser: a glass of raki with a pickled red carrot juice on the side.
Hold on, you may be thinking: Isn't raki that aniseedy spirit I once ended up shooting at a party one time when it was 4 AM and we'd polished off everything else in the drinks cabinet? Well, yes, it probably was. In which case it got you into all kinds of trouble. But raki drunk the right way, mixed with a good dose of water, and accompanied by a glass of beetroot-red şalgam suyu, is an experience that will blow the mind of every one of your tiny little tastebuds. That combination of cool, sweet aniseed and earthy, savoury sourness really makes your palate pop, which is why you'll find it served with meze all over Istanbul, from old-school market-place meyhanes (the Turkish equivalent of taverns) to roof-top nightclubs where the crowd looks like they just hot-footed it from Williamsburg.
'In a raki table, the meze spread has to have contrasts,' explains leading Turkish food writer, Aylin Oney Tan, as we tuck into a spread of more than a dozen dishes. 'The sweet, like the melon, the salty and tangy, like the white cheese, beyaz peynir, and a selection of spicy, hot, fresh, even bland mezes, they all need to be represented. And you need textures too, soft, mushy, crunchy, crisp and so on. And when you have pickle juice, or just pickles, with raki, it contrasts with that aniseed sweetness in the same way.'
This is the same principle behind the Pickleback, except that şalgam suyu makes American pickle juice taste like Sunny Delight. Brewed from red carrot pickle juice, salt, spices, fermented turnip, and often served with a dab of fiery paprika relish, şalgam suyu is face-puckeringly sour and salty, with a fibrous, carrot-y flavour that leaves you pretty certain it's doing you good. Which it is, according to a lot of Turks, who believe that pickles play an important role in stimulating the digestion. Salgam suyu is particularly associated with the meat-grill and Adana kebab houses of the south, where it's meant to speed the passage of all that lamb fat.
And the Turks do love a pickle. At Özcan Tursulari, a pickle specialist in Istanbul's Kadikoy Bazaar that's been in business since 1935, jars of every kind of preserved vegetable imaginable tower above a row of demi-johns that dispense a whole range of pickle juices including green pepper and cabbage, carrot and beetroot, plus a cocktail of all three for 1.50 lira a throw. Two seats and a barrel serve as the dining area where you can sip your constitutional while admiring a wall full of family snaps while snacking on a plate of vinegared okra.
Pickle juice is also held to be a good hangover cure, too, which is why, especially in the summer months, you'll find pickle juice vendors cruising the streets and parks of Istanbul, selling restorative shots to revelers who might have over-indulged.
But traditionally, raki drinking isn't about getting smashed, it's about taking your time, says Sabiha Apaydin, sommelier at the high-end Mikla Restaurant. ""Let's have a raki tonight" means you sit down at 6 PM but you'll maybe sit at the table for more than five hours,' she says. 'And raki's strong, so you have to drink slowly, take your time, eat something, sip some şalgam suyu. This is what we mean by the "raki table."'
And if you thought raki was just generic firewater, think again. At the hip Duble Meze, they have nine rakis on the list while Mikla Restaurant offers more than a dozen ranging from single grape rakis (raki is distilled from raisins or grapes) and triple-distilled varieties to rakis aged in oak. If you're keeping things traditional, though, the brand you'll see on every street, awning, glass and table is Yeni Raki, a brand that's been fortifying the Turks for nearly 100 years.
The one thing you mustn't pair raki with is crappy friends, says Üryan Doğmuş, chef behind the dazzling Gile Restaurant, which specialises in traditional Turkish dishes with a contemporary twist. 'Basically,' says Üryan, 'people don't drink raki with people they don't like.' Or to put it another way, let the pickle juice give you an ulcer by all means. Just don't let it be the company.