I was long looking forward to making this anchovy recipe of rice coated with anchovy fillets (hamsili pilav). For starters, I was waiting for the anchovy season to fully blossom. Piles of little silver-bellied fishes on the forefront of the fish stores at the Kadiköy market in Istanbul and dedicated fishmongers orchestrating the humming anchovy trade to the Istanbulites queuing for the 5-lira-a-kilo goodness.
Then I was waiting for Özgür to come from Sapanca so I can cook the anchovy rice for him. With my food walks in Istanbul and the guests on the countryside we stayed apart for a week. Years ago I would have been find with it. But now I hate being apart even for a few days as if feeling greedy about finding him after the decades of staying apart. When both season and Özgür were at place I adventured to make the anchovy rice, labor of love and determination.
Love is an important ingredient to cook good rice, or pilaf. Love is experience and understanding. Which you develop as you cook Turkish: you make pilaf as a garnish to nearly every dish and as a stuffing for dry eggplants, fresh green peppers, cured wine leaves, blanched fresh cabbage leaves, lamb ribs and what not. Özgür’s mom Zeliha Hanim told me, “You start learning to cook Turkish food with learning how to make good pilaf”.
You want your pilaf to be non-sticky and perfectly cooked. In particular when you prepare pilaf used for stuffing (içli pilav) you need to be cautious about the right degree of “doneness”: you first cook it until still sightly hard so that you will not end up with overcooked pilaf in the resulting stuffed dish.
Determination is essential when filleting anchovies. Those little fishes take some patience to fillet indeed. Most fishmongers would be reluctant to do it so you would be getting your own hands dirty. One tiny fish by another. Feeling rewarded as the pile of the little neat fillets you have prepared grows and the paper bags you brought from the fish market gets empty.
It had an acute sense of accomplishment when I had sent the pilaf wrapped in a coat of anchovy fillet into the oven. Perfectly done rice and such a high precision with anchovy! Özgür was already peeking behind the kitchen counter to estimate how many more hungry minutes are left for him.
Midway I took the glass baking dish with the pilaf out of the oven and put it on the stove top. The dish slid on the floor, broke into little pieces that immediately mixed with pilaf. I was inconsolable. Wasted anchovy, time, effort and no dinner – there are very few situations in the world more miserable than this.
Özgür hugged me and said, “Let’s make another one. I will peel anchovy and you will make pilaf“. I started cleaning the mess – still grieving yet feeling relieved and encouraged.
Few days later we headed out to Lviv, Ukraine – the city where I lived and worked for almost two years and where I was invited to speak about building my food tours and cooking class business at the tourism conference. As a Russian citizen I don’t need visa to go to Ukraine. We figured Özgür does not need one either. This was not the opinion of the Ataturk International Airport officials who were checking the documents of the boarding passengers after the passport and security control. 15 minutes before the plane departure they told Özgür, “Normally you can enter Ukraine with a tourist voucher (document issued by a hotel or a tour agency) but apparently Lviv has a different requirement and you need a visa to enter“.
We were left contemplating how a city can have its own entrance visa requirements different from that of the whole country. My contemplations (interrupted by occasional weeping) took place on the plane which I boarded to be on time for the conference. I could not believe the short vacation we both had been so looking forward to got so absurdly cancelled. Just like the dish with my half-done anchovy pilaf got broken.
When I landed in Lviv and got on phone I learned that my boyfriend is very positive thinking and determined not only when it comes to the remake of anchovy pilaf. He confirmed with the airport officials that he can travel to Kiev if he had a voucher. Being a tourism professional himself he arranged the voucher and tickets from Istanbul to Kiev and then to Lviv in no time. “So I am coming at about 9 pm”, – he said comfortingly. I did not know how to express my gratitude and love!
In the afternoon we learned that his plane was delayed by 12 hours. Lovely Ukrainian airline Aerosvit (please, remember the name and stay clear of the guys) brought the passengers to a hotel at Aksaray, one of the tackiest areas in Istanbul. A simple dinner with soup and pilaf (no anchovy, mind you) and sharing the hotel room with another lucky person taking the same lucky flight.
They were to fly at 8 am in the morning yet the phone at the hotel room rang at 2 am: “Please, get ready and board the bus within next 30 minutes”. This is how Özgür got to Kiev, got his visa stamped on the border, bought a ticket to Lviv and made it to the conference right for my speech and a two more days of my beloved Lviv.
“We wanted it so we gonna live it. This was my logic“, he said explaining why he did not give up about making it to Lviv. Just like with the anchovy rice: if you really crave for the most rewarding anchovy recipe – nothing can hold you back. Maybe only a few hours of effort which anyway will pass unnoticed with a bit of love and determination.
Most Rewarding Anchovy Recipe: Anchovy Rice (Hamsili Pilav)
With little love and dedication invested this anchovy rice will be the most rewarding anchovy recipe you have ever cooked
Prep Time: 50 Min
Cook Time: 50 Min
Total Time: 1 Hr 40 Min
- 500 gram anchovy
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil + additional for greasing the baking dish
- 1 cup rice soaked in hot water for 1 hour, washed and drained
- 1 medium size onion finely diced
- 1.5 tbsp pine nuts
- 1 tbsp currants washed (pick up tiny ones or coarsely chop larger ones)
- 2.5 tbsp dill coarsely chopped
- 1.5 cups boiling water
- 1 tsp salt
- pinch allspice freshly ground
- pinch black pepper freshly ground
- Trim anchovy: Hold an anchovy the silver side up. With your thumb rip up its belly: stick the the thumb in the belly at the middle of the fish and move your thumb up to remove anchovy intestines. Then work your way down to the tail and somewhere midway you will feel the anchovy spine: pull it out and with it you will be able to easily remove the anchovy tail and head. You will end up with anchovy fillets: pile then up, wash once done and put on a paper towel.
- Prepare rice: Preheat the oven to 200C. Grease a hot non-stick pan with the vegetable oil. Add the pine nuts and stir energetically as you let them golden. Add the onions and continue stirring: in a few minutes the onions will get translucent. After that stir in the rice and again stirring rather energetically: let it soak in oil and get translucent too. Stir in the currants, dill, half of the salt, allspice and black pepper and add boiling water. Cover with a lid lined with a clean kitchen towel so your lead is perfectly sealed and the towel can absorb excessive moisture. Cook covered for 7 minutes and set aside covered.
- Assemble pilaf: Take a heavy cast iron baking dish – round is best for presentation. For 4 servings dish with diameter of 24 cm will suffice. Grease with vegetable oil and line the bottom with anchovy fillets with the skins facing down. You want to arrange them in a pinwheel fashion; the fillets should be placed tight to each other – the whole idea is to create a coat of anchovy fillets so the rice will be steamed inside it. Then place anchovies tales up along the sides of the baking dish. Season the anchovy layer with salt. Transfer the rice on the anchovies and spread it evenly. Fold the tails to cover the rice and place the rest of the anchovy filets (skins facing up) as a pinwheel again to completely cover the rice. Season the dish with salt and some vegetable oil. Seal the dish with aluminum foil and send to the oven.
- Bake and serve: Bake for 30 min covered with aluminum foil, remove the foil and let the anchovy on top roast for 10 more minutes. Serve immediately with rocket salad.
- Important note: If you increase the number of servings you need to increase the preparation time by the same multiple. Say, if you are cooking for 6 then you will need about 750 g anchovy which will take about 45 min to trim. You may want to get extra hands for peeling anchovy: then sometime midway you can start working on the rice so it will be ready once the anchovy are trimmed.