Turkey’s Tea Culture
April 1, 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.
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.
Where to drink tea
In Turkey’s largest city Istanbul, one of the most famous tea spots is the Pierre Loti Cafe (Gumussuyu Karyagdi Sokak, Eyup, Tel: 90 212 581 2696), named eponymously after the French novelist. Set in a leafy garden at the top of a hill near Eyup Mosque, it offers unparalleled views over the Golden Horn river. Come sunset make your way to Ortakoy Mosque, located on the European side of the Bosphorus, and grab an outdoor table at one of the tea houses near the 19th century mosque. From there, you can take in the lights on the span of the Bosphorus bridge and watch as night falls over Asian Istanbul as you sip.
By far the most atmospheric tea service in all of Istanbul is found on board any one of its iconic Bosphorus commuter ferries. Used as public transport every day by hundreds of people in Istanbul, these partially open boats plying the waters between the city’s Asian and European sides are equipped with mini kitchens turning out tea and light snacks. Order a glass of tea as soon as you board or wait until a server passes with a tray. The most scenic rides can be had on boats departing Eminonu pier, on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, or those leaving Karakoy for Kadikoy. The Istanbul Deniz Otobusleri has fare and timetable information and online ticket booking, or you can pick up a printed timetable at any of the ferry docks.
- Order cay for medium-strength tea, koyu (pronounced koy-you) cay for an extra strong infusion and acik (pronounced ah-chuhk) cay if you prefer a weaker-than-usual brew. Sugar, which more often than not comes in cube form, is the usual accompaniment. Some tea houses serve lemon with tea on request, but Turks never add milk to their tea.
At some tea houses,an attendant circulates with a tray of glasses. Lift your hand to indicate you’d like another, lay your empty glass on its side in the saucer to indicate you’ve drunk enough.
As long as an establishment does not serve food, it’s considered acceptable to bring your own to accompany your tea.
Turkish hospitality is rightly renowned, and an offer of tea is a common gesture of hospitality. Accepting doesn’t obligate you to anything other than friendly conversation – even in a carpet shop, and offence won’t be taken if you refuse with a polite “Tessekur ederim, icmiyorum.” (Thank you, but no.)
Cay evi, kiraat hanesi (card houses) and kahve hanesi (coffee shops) are traditionally male domains. But perhaps with the exception of tea houses in Turkey’s most conservative regions, appropriately attired female tourists (shoulders, upper arms and knees should be covered) will generally be tolerated and even welcomed.