Think you're rocking Feta & Watermelon Salad right? Try Turkish Raki.
For years I thought I was serving the perfect feta and watermelon salad. Cubed melon and feta. Chiffonade of mint or basil. Salt and pepper. Maybe a few oil-cured olives if I was feeling fancy. Then I tried feta and watermelon salad with raki and realized that I was doing it all wrong.
The night I met Raki.
The first summer night my then-boyfriend-now-husband and I hung out together he took me to the roof of his San Francisco apartment with a whole watermelon, feta, and raki. As we waited for the city lights to appear and I wondered where all the herbs and spices were that I normally used for the salad, Berk prepared the raki set-up. This, he told me, was the national Turkish drink. His parents in Turkey drank it nearly every night.
After placing two slim glasses in front of each of us, he filled the first one with ice water, then the second a-third full with raki. Matching the amount of raki, Berk then poured iced water into the raki glass. With just a splash of water the raki became milky and cloudy and released notes of fresh fennel.
Like the anise candy I was raised eating as a child, but with booze, raki is like pastis but slightly less herbal, like ouzo but not as sweet, and the candy and fennel seed mix you toss on your tongue to freshen your breathe at the door leaving an Indian restaurant. It is also STRONG (40-50% proof).
Next Berk handed me the sliced watermelon he covered with feta cubes and told me to place it on my tongue, then take a sip of raki. Within an instant I realized that, sure, raki was the national drink of Turkey, but it also clearly served a higher purpose.
One bite knocked caprese salad and prosecco out of the park. The ripe and crunchy watermelon sweetened the briney, lightly tart and fatty feta and the fennel-like raki offered a spark to the combo like a mint or basil. The alcohol cut and highlighted cheese’s richness at the same time. Skills.
A classic combo in Turkish summer houses, feta (beyaz peynir) and watermelon is served during the mezze hour before the main meal (feta is actually called “white cheese” in Turkey because of EU rules revolving Greece’s ownership claim to the cheese). The combo is almost always accompanied by bread (unless it is the rare occasion that raki is served before 5pm) and olives. Watermelon is often bought off street purveyors shouting “karpuz,” “ karpuz.” And raki? Well raki can be bought almost everywhere, and it never served without food.
raki serving & pairing notes:
If like me, you’re a lover of melon and cheese and anise or fennel, you’ll adore this combo. If you’re a little squeamish about licorice flavors, you might not. But try it anyway.
Raki is STRONG. When first trying it, start with 1.5 oz (a little less than the standard pour in Turkey). Then match it to equal amounts of iced water, as raki is traditionally served in Turkey.
Berk didn’t even salt or pepper our watermelon salad, he just served it crudo, but we’ve played around and both love the addition or fresh mint or basil.
Feta & Watermelon Salad with Raki
1 watermelon, about 2 pounds
Cube the watermelon flesh. Lightly chunk, not crumble, the feta (if you crumble the feta it won’t keep its briny flavor or rich texture). Right before serving, place the watermelon on a large plate or bowl in a thick layer. Sprinkle the feta, then mint over the fruit. Serve with raki.
1.5 ounces raki
A glass of iced water
Prepare one raki glass with 1.5 ounces raki. Fill the other glass with iced water.
When ready to drink, fill the raki glass with an equal amount of water to raki ratio, making sure to keep the ice in the glass. The raki will become cloudy. This is good. Enjoy with watermelon and feta.
Pair this salad with raki, a summer night, an Aegean sea or two, and friends or family.