Each time I talk with my non-Turkish friends about Turkish cuisine, they want to know which beverage is the most consumed in Turkey. Turkish Tea or Turkish coffee? Here is the answer: Despite being associated with the latter, we drink more tea than coffee. The truth is, coffee comes second. However, that does not mean that Turkish coffee is losing its grip on Turkish culinary culture. If tea –with ayran and raki- is our ‘national’ beverage, then Turkish coffee is our ‘traditional’ beverage. They are both important and indispensable to us.
Our daily habit of drinking tea is so well established that even the rise of globalized coffee chains such as Starbucks, Seattle Best or Gloria Jeans has not undermined the countrywide domination of tea in Turkey. It is hard to believe that the most popular drink of our daily life was not even known a hundred and fifty years ago. For centuries, Turkish coffee had been the main beverage in Ottoman palaces and households. Long a luxury import item, tea was first planted in Turkey in 1894; but it was not until 1930s that it became widely cultivated.
Today in Turkey, all classes, genders, and ages ubiquitously consume tea. We drink tea daily at breakfast, in the afternoon, and evening. For us, tea is more than an aromatic beverage, it is an essential social catalyst, keeping bonds with family and relatives strong. No significant negotiation starts without sipping on it. It is also a good excuse to prolong conversation with a friend or companion. For most of the time, it accompanies pastries such as simit or börek. On the other hand, for a foreigner stepping into country for the first time, Turkish tea is a welcome gift. Like the Hawaiian Lei, Turkish tea is presented upon arriving or leaving as a symbol of affection. While in Turkey, a foreigner will inevitably be offered a glass of tea, either at a friend’s house, on an intercity bus, or at a restaurant after the service. In short, Turkish tea is an ice-breaker.
Turkish tea is typically prepared using two stacked kettles, the çaydanlik. The smaller kettle is placed on the top of the larger kettle and filled with dry tea leaves. Water is brought to a boil in the larger lower kettle. Then, tea is steeped by infusion with boiling water. When ready, tea is served hot and strong in a tiny, tulip-shaped glass, which is called ince belli (slim-waisted). Two sugar cubes always accompany a glass of tea, to make it sweet. In Eastern Turkey, the kitlama seker, a harder sugar cube, is placed under the tongue before sipping the tea from the glass, rather than adding the sugar to the liquid. If you still find the tea you are offered strong, then you have to ask the tea be açik (weaker), or the ratio of water to steeped tea increased.
There is no single ‘best’ place that I can tell you to go and order a glass of Turkish tea. But without hesitation, I can tell you that you will be able to find very good çay evi (teahouse) and çay bahçesi (tea garden) in every corner of the country. Just go to one of them and order a glass of tea. The size of the glass or the taste of the tea is pretty standard. And when you sip your tea, do not get intimidated if you hear the çayci (tea-waiter) hawking “tavsankani” (blood of rabbit). It is just a humor to attract potential customers and indicate the quality, color, and steepness of the tea.