Raki (3): Raki culture abroad

Raki (3): Raki culture abroad
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Raki, for the Turkish national, is not just a drink but a lifestyle, a form of cultural awareness, and perhaps even a political position.

BILGEHAN UCAK- Why do the people of Turkey consume so much raki? Where does the saying “I know no bird other than the crow, and no drink other than raki” come from? In the first two parts of this series, we talked about what raki is and the table manners and etiquette of its consumption.

In this last piece, we will talk to Tan Morgul about how raki can be consumed abroad, how the mezes should be spread, and how the table should be set. If you are wondering how to partake in this experience in a country without raki culture, come take your seat at the table with Tan Morgul.

What does raki culture look like abroad?

It is necessary to answer this question from two separate perspectives: Turkish nationals who live abroad, and non-Turkish people who have already been living there.

Raki has for some time been the manifestation of a cultural and social relationship Turkish immigrants, especially those in Europe, formed with their homeland. So, raki was never “just raki.”

That people waited to open a bottle of raki after it had been brought from Turkey for the opportune time to set a delectable table with remarkable care not only with regard to the mezes but also with regard to the guests and the conversation, points to it being a noteworthy moment indeed. Later, these raki moments would be made more distinctive by the back-to-back phone calls (or even voices recorded on tapes) made to family, relatives, friends, or, in short, anyone who was missed back home. That is, raki was one of the distinct communication forms of those first waves of immigrants from the history books. To be sure, circumstantial difficulties gave such moments even more meaning. Raki was hard to come by abroad and typical public spaces were an inadequate substitute. Finding alcohol was certainly not the issue. The problem was that raki, the single most important drink crucial for the immigrant drink table, was not available in these public places. Beyond this, Turkish immigrants had trouble establishing equal relationships with those in their host society and culture and their integration issues ruled out the possibility of hanging out in mixed groups of men and women. As a result of these dynamics, “raki” came to signify for the Turkish immigrant the one thing the European man could not have even if he had everything, a “powerful and magical potion” that became a symbol of an alternative identity, much like music with Turkish lyrics.

This period of time and its relationship to raki is another topic of conversation entirely. Let us put this aside for the present moment and focus instead on understanding “raki culture” abroad today.

Especially in recent years and mainly in Europe, a new wave of mostly secularist Turkish immigrants migrating across the globe have contributed to raki’s perception as a universal drink that can easily be explained by the consumer. Raki becoming so recognizable can be attributed to several interrelated causes. Let me comment on this a little without generalizing too much. I would like to reserve myself the right to elaborate further on the issue later.

First and foremost, drinking raki is, again, for the Turkish national (in his own country and wherever Turkish is spoken) is not just drinking, but a lifestyle, cultural awareness, and perhaps even a political position. As such, while the raki table preserves its special status (what happens at the table stays at the table), “raki table poses” popularized on social media are not only pictures of an entertaining atmosphere (one that conservative surliness almost always greets with hatred) but are also a reaction to the forces that persistently attempts to other this environment through incessant taxing, price mark-ups, denigration, and slander. Now, wherever in the world raki is consumed, that conversation is no longer just limited to the table, it now wants to speak to the world.

On the other hand, this new type of immigrant who drinks raki abroad sometimes includes his or her friends (who do not speak Turkish) from the country where he or she lives to these raki tables and conversations. This is facilitated by their language skills and ease in cross cultural interactions. Of course, this is aided by "special homeland" mezes. And raki, with its “political pride” and cultural joy, describes tavern culture to the guests. Or the environments where he is with those friends, because these people hang out in the drinking places of the cities they live in, and they don't just drink raki.

Another important cause is that especially in the last 10 to 15 years, the increase in publications, articles, books, documentaries, and activities surrounding raki culture, have transformed the topic of raki from a “this is our way”-centered oral narrative of the past to a more universal and tangible point. As such, people who talk about raki culture now are well equipped to do so.

And of course, raki is now more accessible than ever before. The number of places that provide or sell raki is now quite high.

What is an alternative to going to the tavern and having a raki with mezes?

There are a couple of alternatives. Naturally, the first is to set a table at home, as it is quite hard to find a tavern abroad of the same caliber you would find back home. Grills or kebab restaurants are insufficient in this regard.

Even if they are inexperienced in the kitchen, no one leaves their friends without mezes after inviting them to their home — because everything can become a meze. Making a meze is not simply the ability to follow a recipe, it is also the ability to improvise. And since preparing the raki table with a glass of raki in one hand is a pleasure in and of itself, everyone willingly contributes to the meze-making process. So, even in a place without a tavern, setting a table at home is an activity whose value cannot be underestimated.

Yet another alternative, and often my choice when in London, is going to a place, turning it into a tavern for a night, and telling an Istanbul story accompanied by mezes and raki. What

I mean to say is, if we cannot go to a tavern, we can bring the tavern to us. However, this is relatively more difficult, as there are a lot of technical details to manage: from the tablecloth to the cutlery, from the mezes to the raki, a special effort is required. And when the barkeep gets involved, the workload multiplies. It is because of this that expats look forward to such activities being organized in their cities.

What is the difference between our taverns and the Greek taverns which are quite widespread in Europe?

What we call a Greek tavern is not a monolithic sort of place, but rather a concept based on a “touristic perception.” After all, "tavern" is a word of Latin origin. When we say tavern, we think of drinking ouzo, playing bouzouki, dancing, and eating seafood. This is a rather reductionist conceptualization of Greece, which has different food types and originally drank wine and raki (the sort without anise).

When it comes to places that serve alcohol, perhaps a geography-centered definition is necessary as opposed to a nation-centered one. Before here, we go first to the Mediterranean, then to Rome, and then to eastern Rome (i.e. Istanbul). And for hundreds of years, we have been going to places that we now call taverns, but at that time, from Byzantion to Constantinople and from there to Istanbul, were called “taverneia, pouskareia, kapeleia,” where people from different social classes mostly drank wine and ate a few mezes. Naturally, if we are talking about a “tavern” in the historical or traditional sense, we are talking about a male-dominated place that caters mostly to the lower classes and has very few mezes with drinks. But places serving alcohol have gained a completely different diversity and richness in the last 150 years as a result of the expansion and differentiation of cities after the industrial revolution, globalization, the communication revolution, the evolution of the entertainment industry in different directions, and the increased visibility of women in public spaces due to the women's movement. In all this, one of the most important changes has been the transformation of drinking places, whether they be a taverna or a Turkish tavern, into food-centered places rather than drink-centered ones.

To summarize, while the Greek tavern (especially abroad) tries to differentiate itself with its meze types and some cooking techniques, the Istanbul tavern also distinguishes itself with its raki and an extremely rich and diverse array of mezes and dishes.

How should the first raki experience be done?

When it is a matter of taste and having a good time, the issue can become quite individualized. But let us share a few words about the dining experience of a drink which has a high alcohol content relative to other beverages, has anise, and with its distinctive scent and color in the glass, makes itself known and exclaims, “I am here!” Mezes are a must; one should never have the drink on its own. Umami flavors, salted, processed, or dried seafoods no matter where they are from go rather well with raki. On the other hand, carbohydrates with heavy tastes such as pastries, stews, rice, or pasta do not complement raki. But olive oil-based foods, cheeses, herbs, vegetables, and yogurt-based mezes do the job well. Vegan or vegetarian foods are also complementary. Oh, and of course, the ratio of water to raki needs to be one to one. Adding ice is not recommended as it will alter the taste as it melts. Instead, it is preferable to cool the raki and the water beforehand. And lastly, it is best to drink slowly as the raki table is not a place to eat up and get drunk. It is necessary to take care to not kill the conversation, which is the most valuable of any meze.