Isa E. Hafalir
Some sources mention that Turks traded and consumed tea as early as 400 BC, but tea only became commonplace in Turkey after 1900. Turkey is currently among the world’s top five tea-growing countries, producing about 6 percent of the world’s tea. Most of this is consumed domestically. In Turkey, tea is consumed all day long, starting with breakfast and continuing right on thorough bedtime. Tea is a must for common breakfasts, accompanying black olives, cheeses, bread and sometimes “simit” (Turkish version of bagels).
As opposed to the belief that Turks would have Turkish coffee after meals, enjoying tea after meals is more common. One can find at least one kahvehane (translated as coffee house) in every single shopping neighborhood within Turkish cities. The main purpose of these kahvehanes is to provide hot and cold drinks to shoppers and guests. Despite the name, a vast majority of the sales will be hot Turkish tea. Taking a wild guess, I’d say tea accounts for almost 75% of a kahvehane’s sales.
Preparing Turkish tea requires a two-pot structure called a “caydanlik,” with a smaller pot sitting on top of the big one. There are some variations of “brewing tea,” but one common way is as follows: first put cold water in the big pot and wash the tea leaves in the small pot. Then, put the pots on the stove, and let the water below boil for at least 3-4 minutes to slowly warm up the washed tea leaves at the top. Lastly, pour the hot water from the lower pot to the upper pot (this action is called “demleme”), add some more water to the lower pot, and let the tea brew for 5 or 10 minutes. After the tea is ready, it is served by pouring a little bit of dark tea from the upper part (called the “dem”) and then filling the rest of the glass from the boiling water in the lower pot. Every person may prefer either dark or light tea, hence can request more or less “dem” to be poured into his or her cup.
According to many Turks, tea has to be drunk in glass cups; even nice porcelains are not acceptable. The traditional tea cup has a special shape: it is made of glass, it does not have any cup holders, and more interestingly, the middle part of the cup is narrower than the top and the bottom. First time Turkish tea drinkers should be cautious in their first tries holding this traditional tea cup. It has to be held from the top, where the glass is not as hot. Trying to hold it from the conveniently shaped middle part may result in mild burns.
It is almost impossible to find white, green, or red teas in Turkey. Only special kinds of black tea are drunk. In the central and western part of Turkey, the majority of people drink “karadeniz cay,” which is a black tea harvested from the Black Sea region. In Eastern Turkey, some people prefer “kacak cay,” which is used for tea that has been imported by rather “unconventional” ways. This tea is stronger than Black Sea tea.
Turks have invented one other device other than the caydanlik to brew tea, and it is called a “semaver.” You would not find a semaver in every house (whereas you would find one or two caydanlik in every single house in Turkey,) but a semaver is very handy, especially when you have a big group of guests. It is much bigger than a caydanlik, but has the same basic structure. The very big pot below makes sure that you have hot water for everybody, and by making sure the tea in the upper part is very strong, you can serve a lot of guests.
A good quality tea can be recognized from its appearance and its smell. The color should be clear and vivid light red. And the smell should be like, well, good tea! Tea should be drunk within one-hour after brewing; after that, it becomes somewhat bitter and people refrain from drinking it, calling it “acimis.”
The only thing that is allowed to be mixed in Turkish tea is sugar; adding milk, or different spices, is unheard of. When people stir their tea in the glass cups to mix the sugar, you hear the familiar “clink, clink” sound, which is like music to the ears of tea lovers. In the east, especially the Erzurum region, some Turks prefer to drink their teas with special and dense sugar cubes in their mouth. This special style of tea drinking is called “kitlama.”
Turkish tea is always served hot; warm tea is not acceptable. People who prefer their teas not very hot take their time while drinking, allowing it to cool. A hot Turkish tea is especially nice on cold winter nights, but Turks enjoy their tea year round, even on hot summer days, saying that “Cay harareti alir” (tea quenches one’s thirst). Turkish tea is offered and enjoyed in all circumstances: in hot or cold weather, day or night, outside or inside, in luxurious places or in very modest places, together or alone.
Yet, Turkish tea should be shared. Drinking alone is not preferred. Tea drinking is really a social phenomenon. Offering tea and drinking tea together is a gesture of friendship. Offering a glass of tea to a newcomer or guest is customary and refusal is unheard of. In case you are the guest, keep the famous Turkish hospitality in mind: just like any other treat, the host will insist you have one more. To prevent this, you may put your tea spoon on top of your tea glass the minute you finish your tea. This means, “Honestly no – that’s enough. Thank you!”
Enjoying Turkish tea is relaxing, and people pause over it at different times of the day, in the middle of different activities. For many Turks, tea is enjoyed at least five times a day: at breakfast, before lunch, after lunch, before dinner, and after dinner. Comparing this with Turkish coffee, which is typically enjoyed once a day, one can see that tea has a place deeper than coffee in Turkish culture.
Turkish tea is accessible to all. Rich and poor may not have access to the same type of food, but they all have access to, and most of the time are addicted to, Turkish tea. Turks may come from different ethnic backgrounds, having various socio-economic statuses, religions, and world views; but Turkish citizens have many things in common, and love of Turkish tea is definitely an important one.
Yes, Turkish tea is flavorful, pleasing, relaxing, soothing, and peaceful. And many Turks enjoy it very frequently, feeling the way Rumi once did:
Come, let us get to know each other a bit in the time it takes for us to sip this tea together.
Come, let’s take the time from the busy business of our days and slow down a bit.
Come, let us share a glass of tea and perhaps we will be both warm not only by it but by a new friendship made.
Come, let us make life warm for ourselves.