Turkish tea and coffee are two of the country’s most famous beverages: although Turkish coffee is well known internationally, often unfairly, as a muddy slurry at the bottom of an espresso cup, visitors to Istanbul might be surprised to see the sheer amount of tea being drunk. But a common theme of both drinks is that each has a specific history, method of preparation, and culture surrounding it. To familiarise yourself with each drink and its place in Turkish culture, here are a few things you should know.
The most commonly consumed hot beverage in Istanbul, tea is a relatively recent development in modern Turkish culture. Although, of course, tea itself is ancient, it was not a particularly popular drink among the Turkish people until the twentieth century. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, coffee became an extremely expensive import. Tea, meanwhile, could actually be grown domestically, along the coast of the Black Sea. A kind of black tea, Turkish çay is also brewed in a specific manner that is unlike traditional western-style or eastern-style brewing.
Perhaps the most distinctive item in the preparation method is the double kettle called a çaydanlık. It is essentially two small kettles stacked on top of each other: the bottom kettle is filled with water and boiled, and a little of that boiled water is then mixed with a small amount of tea leaves in the upper kettle. What is produced is a very strong brew of tea in the top kettle, and hot water in the bottom kettle. Because the strength of the tea is customised to a person’s taste, the water from the bottom kettle is used to dilute the stronger brew to the drinker’s preference.
Turkish çay is always served in a clear tulip-shaped glass alongside a few sugar cubes and, like coffee, it is not meant to be drunk with milk. As to when it’s appropriate to drink tea, a more reasonable question might be: when is it not? Çay holds an incredibly important place in Turkish culture: you will be offered a glass as a sign of welcome or hospitality, and you’ll be expected to proffer one in return whenever you have visitors in your home, whether they be family, friends, or handymen. Although most visitors to Istanbul find it most pleasant to have a hot glass during the colder months of the year, tea will be present for much of the blazing hot summer as well: locals believe that the high temperature of the tea helps cool the body down.
Historians are a little fuzzy about the exact date that coffee beans were introduced, but they generally agree that the event took place in the sixteenth century, and that the drinking of coffee began only as a privilege among the Ottoman elite who could afford such luxuries. As it spread from the aristocracy to the general public, coffeehouses — and coffeemakers — became important institutions of Ottoman culture. Similar to many other societies, coffeehouses were a place where people could meet for the exchange of ideas, relaxation, and socialisation. The importance of coffee did not, of course, stay solely within Turkey: merchants began bringing it to Europe, and from there the coffee craze spread and stayed.
What distinguishes Turkish coffee from Western-style coffee, however, is its method of preparation. Unlike what many believe, there is no special bean: the uniqueness of Turkish coffee is all in the making of it. The coffee beans are first ground to an extremely fine powder; this eventually allows the grinds to sink, as you’ll see, they’re never removed from the coffee, not even when it’s served.
First, the coffee grinds are added with cold water to a pot called a cezve; sugar is also added at this point, to taste. The pot is heated up slowly until it boils. At boiling point, it is immediately removed from the heat and the mixture, grounds and all, are poured into tiny cups called fincan, not dissimilar to espresso cups. Often, a skilled coffeemaker will pour the liquid down the sides of the cup to preserve the froth produced when the coffee was boiled. When brewed correctly and poured skilfully, Turkish coffee is a thick, aromatic, and slightly sweet brew.
As to how to drink it, Turkish coffee is served as is and with no milk and sugar. Aside from the fact that sugar is added to the mixture when it is brewing, the grounds that settle at the bottom of the cup prevent any stirring. Just remember to stop sipping when you notice your coffee becoming thick, or you’ll drink the grinds at the bottom of the cup! Turkish coffee is never drunk before a meal or first thing in the morning. Rather, linger over a meal by ordering a cup after you eat.
The most important thing about Turkish tea and coffee, however, is to remember that they are meant to be savoured and enjoyed over conversation and relaxation. Although both beverages have a hefty caffeine content and too much of one or the other might leave you a little jittery, neither are meant to be drunk hastily as a way to start the day. In fact, it’s a common sight to see friends drinking cup after cup as they chat for hours, and many of Istanbul’s surfaces are quite literally covered with empty tulip glasses. Enjoy!