If we said the word ‘anchovies’ to you, what is the image that immediately springs to mind? For most people, it will likely be a jar of strong tasting, super salty fish fillets in olive oil. You love them (we do) or you hate them. These are the type of anchovies for pizza, for tapenade, for sauces.
But this article is not about that jar of delicate anchovy fish fillets lurking somewhere at the back of your kitchen cupboard. This article is about fresh anchovies. Fresh Turkish Black Sea anchovies, known to those of us that love them as ‘hamsi.’
When we think of Turkish seasonal produce, it’s often images of fungi, fruits and vegetables. But the world of seafood also has its seasonal treats. And in Turkey, fresh anchovies from the Black Sea are most definitely a seasonal treat.
Between the months of November and February, hamsi season is upon us…
Hamsi Season – Turkish Anchovy Recipes & Street Food Indulgence
A member of the herring family, fresh anchovies are part of the fabric of society in the Black Sea area. There are so many anchovy recipes from this region; from stews to simple grills to bakes. Hamsi is even used to make bread!
As the winter temperatures drop and the number of anchovies increases, so the price drops and the stalls of the fish markets around Turkey display the piles of shimmering silver fish.
For us, we’re usually in Istanbul mid-November, right at the beginning of hamsi season. Our first stop is always Karaköy fish market where the fresh anchovies are piled high. And where the food stalls have their vats of hot oil ready to go.
Doused in corn flour, the anchovies are plunged into the oil. And, within minutes, we have ourselves a hamsi-packed balık ekmek (fish sandwich). Just what you need after a long bus journey from Fethiye!
I’m not going to deny that we don’t have pangs for the old Karaköy fish market. So atmospheric. And a real feature of Istanbul for us.
Commuters rushing to ferries, fishmongers sloshing buckets of ice cold water over the fish whilst shouting the current prices. Shoppers splashing through the water as it streamed along the walkway towards waiting drains.
Steam and smoke rising into the cool air giving off the unmistakable and tempting aroma of freshly cooked oily fish – your choice of griddled mackerel fillet or deep-fried hamsi. Diners perched by the shores of the Golden Horn overlooking the magnificent Süleymaniye Mosque and the Galata Bridge.
These days, we eat our deep-fried anchovy sandwich in the more uniform covered eating area of the market. Istanbul is constantly changing but the hamsi is no less delicious.
Turkish Anchovy Recipes
Wherever you are in Turkey, if you see hamsi for sale at the fishmongers or in the markets, it is likely to be Black Sea anchovies (Karadeniz hamsi).
If we’re entertaining friends, we love to make hamsili pilav; a famous Black Sea anchovy recipe.
But, with our first purchase of fresh anchovies to kick off the season, we just have to keep things really simple and recreate what we love to eat in Istanbul.
(Fırında) Hamsi Tava Recipe – Fried Fresh Anchovies (Oven Baked)
This is a little bit of a trick so that you avoid your kitchen – and possibly your house – smelling of cooked anchovies for days on end.
Hamsi tava (fried anchovies) is arguably the most popular of Turkish anchovy recipes. The fresh anchovies are cleaned and doused in corn flour before being fried. This is how we love to eat them, either with a simple garnish or on bread.
Anchovies may be small. But they are very flavoursome. And, as with any fish, they leave behind a strong aroma after cooking. This is especially the case if you are deep frying them and are left with the remaining oil.
This is where the oven comes in. Because anchovies are an oily fish, you can still create the ‘tava’ (fried) effect by baking them in a hot oven.
Oven baking them also means you don’t need to negotiate turning your anchovies over. We’re making life easier.
Simply brush your oven tray with sunflower oil, lay your floured anchovies onto the tray and then lightly drizzle oil over the top.
Preheat your oven to 220 degrees and bake for around 20 minutes.
Fırında Hamsi Tava – Ingredients & Method
Let’s experience the joy of Black Sea anchovies!
Baked Fresh Anchovies (Fırında Hamsi Tava)
- 500 g fresh anchovies gutted
- 3 tbsp corn flour
- 2 tbsp sunflower oil
For The Salad
- 1 handful rocket leaves washed
- 1 onion peeled & sliced into half moons
- pickled red cabbage optional
- 2 lemons cut into wedges
- 1 drizzle of pomegranate molasses
- Preheat your oven to 220 degrees Celsius.
- Brush your oven tray with sunflower oil and arrange your floured anchovies onto the tray.
- Now lightly drizzle oil over the top of your anchovies.
- Place in the middle of your oven and bake for around 20 minutes until sizzling.
- Meanwhile, mix your salad ingredients and arrange onto a plate (or prepare your bread bun if serving in bread).
- Remove your sizzling anchovies from the oven and serve immediately.
- If you are serving your fresh anchovies with a side salad, 500g will serve 2-3 people.
If you are serving them in bread, you can serve 4 people.
- Ask your fishmonger to clean and gut your anchovies. There is no need to fillet them as you can eat the bones. They're very soft.
- We added pickled red cabbage as an ingredient because it goes well with hamsi and they are often served together.
- Calories per serving are approximate and are based on a 500g serving with sunflower oil.
Now all you need to do is decide whether you want to serve your fırında hamsi tava on a plate with a side salad or whether you want to go the street food route and serve it as a balık ekmek.
For our first portion of fresh anchovies of the season, we serve them on a plate. It’s all about enjoying the Black Sea hamsi at its best and keeping everything very simple. Just a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and maybe a drizzle of nar ekşisi – pomegranate molasses – over the salad.
We always buy extra anchovies for that first purchase of hamsi season. So, day 2 – the day after we’ve served them on a plate, it’s time to recreate our Istanbul favourite and serve them on fresh, crusty bread. Divine!
Black Sea Fresh Anchovies – Afternotes
- In Turkey, hamsi – Black Sea anchovies – season is November to February. If you see it for sale at other times of year, it will usually be frozen.
- Hamsi is usually priced by the kilo. The more plentiful it is, the cheaper the price. As you get further away from the Black Sea, you will pay more for your anchovies because of travel costs.
- Like whitebait, fresh anchovies can be eaten whole. No need to fillet them if you are eating them as in the recipe above.
- Whilst you’re enjoying hamsi season, you’re also benefiting your health. Oily fish = lots of omega 3.
- Sadly, Black Sea anchovies are not as prevalent as they were in the late 20th Century. The Black Sea’s ecosystem has faced extreme changes including the accidental introduction of an organism that aggressively feeds on the same plankton as the anchovies.
- In Fethiye, your fishmonger will clean and gut your anchovies for you to save you the trouble.