It’s an old, all-purpose, prescription-free medicine for healing the heart and soothing the mind.
Nonetheless, you’re unlikely to find it in a pharmacy.
Meet raki – otherwise known as Lion’s Milk – the Turkish national drink made of twice-distilled grapes and aniseed.
Raki is serious business in Turkey. It’s the go-to spirit for celebrating a promotion or a birthday or for muting the pain of a job loss or the end of a relationship.
However, you can’t just drink Lion’s Milk anywhere, at any time, with anyone.
All these variables depend upon unspoken codes and are highly dependent upon one another.
Rules of the table
Different occasions call for different kinds of raki company.
If you’re celebrating, six to eight people might surround the raki table. For a really big event, such as a wedding or a birth, 25 people might gather round.
In this case, the venue might be somewhere such as Zarifi, an Istanbul tavern where the night starts with classical Turkish music and moves on to a belly dancing show.
Many such watering holes feature a fasil ekibi, a band of male musicians who play traditional tunes on instruments such as the ney (a reed flute), a saz or a kanun (both string instruments).
Traditional but not staid: a raki-fueled night often ends with people dancing on tables and chairs.
But if a raki table is gathered to help heal a broken heart, it’s a much more intimate scene: two to four close friends.
The venue might still be a tavern, but in this case somewhere such as Asmali Cavit or Yakup, where music plays only lightly in the background and conversation is the focus.
On such nights, the raki gathering becomes a kind of group therapy session in which a friend shares his or her troubles, you offer your own wisdom in return and everyone takes an occasional break from the intensity for a wider discussion on the meaning of life.
Such discussions explain why the raki table is often called cilingir sofrasi, which literally translates as locksmith’s table.
Raki, in other words, has a mysterious power to open up even the most reserved person.
Whether celebration or commiseration spurred the raki gathering, the conversation follows a typical trajectory.
It begins with the gentle subjects of work and daily life. A chilled highball glass or two of raki later, it moves on to matters of the heart.
An unspecified number of glasses after – but some time before the table-top dancing – talk almost inevitably turns to politics.
Raki, in fact, is the stuff of politics itself.
In line with restrictive laws on alcohol sales, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leader of the socially conservative Justice and Development Party, announced in 2013 that Turkey’s national drink isn’t raki but ayran – a yogurt-based refreshment.
In the blood
As much as Turks love their ayran (it goes well with kebabs), the drink isn’t known for sparking soulful discussions or joyful celebrations – let alone dancing on tables.
Nor does it tend to fuel political debate, which may well be to Erdogan’s advantage.
Ayran isn’t in the Turkish bloodstream the way raki is.
Raki is the common denominator of Turkish culture, enjoyed by Turks almost no matter what gender, age or social class (and notwithstanding that most Turks are at least nominally Muslim).
A raki table typically gathers around 7 p.m. and disperses sometimes long after midnight, with diners eating all the while.
The food serves in part to dampen the effect of the strong spirit – raki is about 45% alcohol.
Meze, tapas-like Turkish appetizers, are raki’s perfect culinary companions — you can graze on them all night.
And so you should: getting drunk at the raki table, wobbling out of the tavern at the end of the night, is frowned upon.
Although main dishes of meat and fish may follow, the first mezes to appear at the table are feta cheese (beyaz beynir) and melons.
After these courses appear, a waiter will ask if you want to open a bottle.
A group of first-timers should ask for a 35-centiliter bottle – one-third of a liter – and tell the waiter you each want a tek (4cl), about one shot.
Seasoned raki drinkers often have a double (8cl).
After pouring the raki in the kadeh (highball glass), the waiter will ask if you want water and ice.
Novices should answer yes to both.
Raki is always consumed with chilled water – although some raki drinkers say ice diminishes the flavor of the drink.
Have a bite of cheese and melon, then a sip of raki with a toast to everyone’s health.
When toasting, be sure to do so with the bottom of the glasses clinking.
Touching the top of someone’s glass means you think you’re better than him or her.
One of the loveliest raki traditions is to knock your glass lightly on the table after toasting in remembrance of someone you wish were present.
And now you sip. That mesmerizing aniseed smell might seem strange at first, but it soon becomes pleasurable.
Even if you don’t want to drink raki, order a glass and pretend.
Some people might take offense if you drink anything else at a raki gathering.
Soon a huge tray of cold mezes, a mix of fish and vegetable dishes, will arrive.
Must-tries include fava (mashed broad beans with dill), pilaki (beans in olive oil) and haydari (yogurt with garlic, mint, and spices).
Next the warm dishes (sicaklar) arrive, including borek (phyllo pastry parcels filled with cheese), arnavut cigeri (fried liver) and karides guvec (shrimp cooked with butter).
Like the healing wisdom, the good conversation and the raki itself, everything on the table is meant to be shared.