An evening at a cilingir sofrasi

Dal student reflects on the Turkish tradition of drinking raki

The sounds of distant voices fade away as the conversation at our table gets deeper. Sitting with my friends I momentarily look around, eyes gazing over empty glasses of raki, and see everyone else has left the restaurant. We’re the only table left. 

A Turkish tradition 

Raki is a traditional Turkish drink. Although it can be made using different fruits, the main ingredient is usually grapes and it’s generally flavoured with anise. Variations of raki can be found in different countries such as Greece and throughout the Middle East.  

For Turks, raki isn’t just an evening’s choice of alcohol. Drinking raki is an event. The proper way to consume it is at a cilingir sofrasi: a modestly arranged table with light meals and appetizers.  

In Turkish, cilingir means locksmith and sofrasi means table. Some say the term refers to how the more people drink, the more they tend to speak freely and in a less filtered fashion; mouths become unlocked just as a locksmith unlocks a door. Drinking at the table emphasizes both the importance of food in Turkish culture and the fact raki is a remarkably strong spirit with high alcohol content.  

No experience drinking raki or sitting at a cilingir sofrasi is ever the same. Who one sits with makes a large difference.  

If one drinks with their elders, the conversation likely drifts toward reminiscing about the old days when everything was better and yet so much worse at the same time. The night might end with someone knee-deep in life advice. A large number of unrelated stories are either completed or left unfinished as the storyteller shifts to start another one. Drinking with friends leads to vastly different conversations with just as many, if not more, unfinished stories.  

A toast to friendship, health and good things to come. (Photo by Gokce On)

The night begins   

Last summer, craving fewer life lessons and more weirdly interlaced conversations about random topics, I took my friends out for raki. 

As we enter the restaurant, the conversation about who’ll go and order the appetizers begins. This is an opportunity for people to show who’s going to call the shots that night, since other than the raki itself, this is the most essential element of the table.  

Once that’s settled, and the appetizers (a yogurt dip with mint and cucumber called haydari, Russian salad, hummus and various seafood) start arriving, the second topic of discussion is about who will serve the raki. Typically this task falls on the youngest person at the table, but people also want someone with a steady hand. (No one wants to get too drunk, too fast.) Then, the conversation shifts away from the table and back in time to the start of the summer.  

We talk about how things were and what happened in the last three months: what has happened in our little friend group, what’s been happening in our country and the world. All bases are covered, from whether we’ll be able to return to our universities due to COVID-19 to the financial crisis in Turkey. Every two or three sentences, someone stops to trail off into song. 

Fried calamari and other essential appetizers for a cilingir sofrasi. (Photo by Gokce On)

Considering every possibility  

Even though we’re outside, the atmosphere feels like home. With the constant accompaniment of pouring, clinking glasses and silverware, the more we drink, the deeper the conversation becomes.  

After a while, we hit a point where we completely forget about the past and the present. We start talking about our futures: what each of us will do for a job, whether or not we’ll be healthy, if we’ll become rich at some point. Not all these daydreams are positive though. We think about all the possibilities, even sickness and death.  

We start talking about the different cities we live in. At one point, the server joins the conversation and talks about how different Istanbul was when he was a student. He tells us about his life and the memories he made in the city. With such a mess of topics of conversation, we talk the night away.  

There really is no science on how to drink raki, but whichever way you do it, you shouldn’t leave the table until you feel truly loved by the people you’re sitting with.  

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