A Taste of Turkey: çay and kahve

by Emily Ullmann

Turkish tea comes in hourglass-shaped cups. (Flickr Creative Commons)

The first word I learned here in Turkey was çay (pronounced chai), or tea. In Turkey, tea is more than just a beverage; tea also represents a common courtesy and means of social interaction. Shopkeepers, cafes, and even Turkish families all have similar hourglass-shaped cups to hold the rich, black çay. Turkish people generally serve tea on small coasters with accompanying cubes of sugar. Some find the tea too bitter and enjoy adding and stirring in sugar; I relish the rich, smooth flavor and find myself gulping down too much tea every time I have the chance.

At interviews and meetings, the appearance of tea cups signifies that the host feels ready for a real conversation, but in a comfortable environment, as if to say in a respectful, familiar way, “let’s get down to business.” In rug shops and the Grand Bazaar, store-owners bring out tea in a strategic attempt to woo a potential buyer. In homes, like the one several of my fellow reporters and I visited for dinner, the hosts bring out tea with dessert, prolonging the dining experience in a comfortable, calm environment.

Turkish coffee (Flickr Creative Commons)

Although not as common as çay, Türk Kahvesi, or Turkish coffee, has a special place in Turkish culture. Before I arriving, I knew that I wanted to try this legendary drink. I had heard Turkish coffee was very rich, but I drink coffee black, so I figured it would be similar to that. I was totally wrong.

Served kind of like a shot of espresso, Turkish coffee is thick and slightly sweet. A layer of sludge sits like mud on the bottom of the cup and tastes richer than any coffee I have ever tried before. In fact, coffee seems like a misnomer since it is so far removed from anything I would expect to find at a coffee shop. A few sips into the drink, I glanced over and say that some of my fellow reporters gulped down the entire cup, eyes gleaming as if ready for more. I, on the other hand, could not handle any more. So I have spent the rest of my time in Istanbul ordering çay.

Drinking çay and Turkish coffee present such special and uniquely Turkish experiences. Neither would seem quite the same served in an coffee shop in America or carried in a 12-ounce to-go cup. Although it would be impossible to understand the  complex culture and history of Turkey in only two weeks, to drink çay like a Turk provides a special glimpse of a uniquely Turkish experience. So as we continue to report from this incredible country, we will continue to drink çay, and gulp down as much Turkish culture as we can.

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