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Content accurate at time of publication

01 Apr 2012

“Cay icer misin?” Spend a few days strolling the streets of Istanbul and the sound of these three words, which mean “will you have some tea?”, will become as familiar to you as the throaty chorus of horns from the ferry boats plying the waters between the city’s Asian and European shores. By ROBYN ECKHARDT

Tea is an ineluctable part of Turkish daily life. Turks are among the world’s top five tea drinkers; according to one of Turkey’s national dailies, Today’s Zaman, 96 per cent imbibe at least once a day. Turks down tea with breakfast, to mark the end of dinner and at any and every hour of the day in between. They sip it in cay (pronounced ch-eye) evi (tea houses), kahve (coffee houses) and cay bahcesi (tea gardens), in pastane (sweet shops) and restaurants, on ferries and trains and long-distance buses, at work and at school. Both a caffeine vehicle and social lubricant, tea helps smoothen business transactions and complements conversation and gossip. The tea-proffering Turkish carpet seller isn’t just a tourist cliche, for no Turkish shopkeeper or businessperson would attempt a major sale – just as no host would welcome a visitor to his or her home – without offering a glass of tea.

Surprisingly, the Turks’ love affair with tea has a relatively short history. It was coffee, in fact, which reached Turkey first – in the early 16th century from Ethiopia via Yemen – and tea didn’t really begin to gain favour till the early 1900s. Today the country is not only one of the world’s greatest tea consumers but also a notable producer. It’s locally-grown Turkish leaves, with their characteristic tinge of bitterness, that end up in most local teapots.

Preparing tea

No matter the leaf, Turks brew their tea strong and dilute it to taste with hot water. This was traditionally done using a Russian or Persian-style samovar, a large spouted water boiler capped with a ring-shaped attachment to support a teapot. Nowadays the national beverage is prepared in a caydanlik, purpose-built double boilers consisting of two stacked kettles, the lower for boiling water and the upper for making tea and keeping it warm. Tulip-shaped glasses are the drinkware of choice. Glass allows the drinker to gauge the skill of the tea maker; a well-made brew should be mahogany brown, crystal clear and free of stray leaves.

Turks from Erzurum Province, in north-eastern Anatolia, are one of the country’s most enthusiastic tea drinkers. Here, sugar isn’t added directly to the tea but held under the tongue to dissolve as the tea is drunk. Further east in Van Province, near the border with Iran, locals may tuck a sugar cube in their lower lip like chewing tobacco or hold it between their front teeth and let the hot beverage wash over it as they drink.

Even if you’re not a tea drinker, try to get in the habit in Turkey; it’s a great excuse to recharge while sightseeing and an easy way to mingle with Turks. Otherwise most traditional tea houses also usually serve Turkish coffee, a strong, sludgy brew ordered sekerli (sweet), orta (medium sweet) or sekersiz (without sugar) and some offer sicak sut or hot milk with sugar. And if you’re avoiding caffeine you needn’t abstain: Turkey has a long tradition of herbal infusions – ada cayi (sage leaf tea), zahter cayi (thyme leaf tea) and kusburnu (rose hip infusion) are the most common.