In the winding backstreets of Istanbul’s ancient Sultanahmet district, my husband and I once happened upon a tiny restaurant. Drawn by my nose, we peered in to see a smattering of candlelit tables, laughing families, and dozens of coloured lanterns hanging from gold chains in the ceiling. We had a lovely meal of home styled delights, grilled fish, roasted eggplant, and bean puree, with honeyed baklava to finish.
What remains vivid is the end of the meal. The owner, who smiled broadly as he brought our bill, first set down two narrow glasses one-third full of a clear liquid and a carafe of icy water for us. “Raki”, he said, “enjoy, it is very good for you. We call it the lion’s milk”.
I took a salubrious sip, and a pungent yet precise anise roar filled my mouth. Glancing up, my husband had that look, of not wanting any more than the first swallow. The owner, witnessing our hesitation, took the carafe of water and poured a small amount into each of our glasses. Miraculously, magically, the Raki changed before our eyes into an opaque milky white.
Further travel through Turkey allowed us to become healthily familiar with the small glasses of powerful spirit. Generous proprietors would often carry out a bottle for their customers at the end of a meal, or set out a complimentary glass with mezes.
Like its licorice flavoured cousins Absinthe, Ouzo and Pastis, Raki will louche when water is added. This alchemy happens when its aromatic oils, previously happy in their alcohol solution, react to the shock of cold water by forming tiny droplets.
A potent grape spirit infused with aniseed that can be somewhat hard to find, look for two popular brands Yeni Raki or Tekirdag Raki.
Remember to sip slowly, toast your companion’s health, and enjoy the magical louching effect.