Çay var mı?

Tea in Turkey is not just a beverage – there’s a whole history and culture surrounding it, which as a tea-holic and an anthropologist, I was extremely excited to discover. This is made even more interesting by the fact that it’s a relatively recent development – tea consumption did not become widespread until the 1920s, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Turkish coffee (Türk kahvesi) for which the country is famous, had become an expensive import (Mocha, where the Ottomans had obtained coffee beans from the 15th to the 18th centuries, was no longer a part of Turkey), so tea-drinking was encouraged. In my experience, coffee is far less prevalent in daily life than tea.

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Çay for breakfast on the ferry to Büyükada

A quick language lesson: çay (pronounced “chai”) is Turkish for tea. Çay var mı? (is there tea/do you have tea) is one of the most useful sentences one can learn in Turkish, and a sentence I learned very quickly, but was generally not needed because there is always tea.

Çay is everywhere, all day, every day – at home, in cafés, in the market, and even on the ferry. You can drink tea from breakfast until bedtime (but, like in India, it doesn’t usually accompany a meal – either there is a small snack, or tea comes after the meal). In homes (and some workplaces) there is usually tea ready for newcomers – offering tea to guests is part of Turkish hospitality, and refusing it just isn’t done.

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Çay in the carpet store

Tea is prepared in a contraption called a çaydanlık, which looks like two kettles stacked on top of each other. The lower, larger kettle boils water, while the top kettle is used to brew a few spoonfuls of tea leaves with a bit of water, creating a very strong tea. To serve, the strong tea is combined with the hot water to create tea of the desired concentration. The result is a strong, rich black tea, served in tulip-shaped glasses with sugar cubes on the side (which are entirely optional, depending on how sweet you like your tea).

Herbal and fruit teas aren’t really “tea” in the traditional sense (they’re made with dried or powdered fruit rather than tea leaves), but they’re just as delicious. I tried elma (apple), nar (pomegranate), and kiraz (cherry) teas while in Istanbul – they somehow do manage to taste like tea, not just hot juice.

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Apple tea at the Grand Bazaar/how to hold a teacup so as to not burn your fingers

A common sight in Turkish markets (or around stores, or on the street, really) is the çaycı – the Turkish equivalent to the Indian chaiwallah (चायवाला). A çaycı is a man or boy who will carry trays full of teacups around the market and distribute them to shopkeepers. It’s common to be offered çay in shops – not as an incentive to buy something, just because it’s polite.

I wouldn’t say that when you go to Turkey you should try çay. I’d say that when you go to Turkey, you will probably drink lots of çay and it will be delicious.

This article was originally posted on Professional Foreigner, Pangaea Society Director Amandari Kanagaratnam’s blog.