The Sultan of Tea

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Turkey and her denizens are nationalist in a way that even Americans might find embarrassing. The Turkish flag waves large and tall over the hills along the Bosporus Strait in Istanbul–from apartment buildings, along the narrow streets, and in every public place. The red flag with its white crescent are everywhere, always reminding the people of their proud, national, secular country at the edge of the Muslim world. Ataturk (translated literally as “Father of the Turks”) is their George Washington and his statue is on every street corner it seems. As a general, Ataturk defeated the British as the Allies sought to carve up the old Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. Spared from the fate of Turkey’s Middle Eastern nations, Ataturk had won the Turks freedom from colonization, then Balkanization. He founded a republic based on the American idea, abolished the Sultan and Caliphate thus severing the tie between mosque and state. He converted the beleaguered Hagia Sophia–the once cathedral, then spoil of war, then mosque–into a secular museum. Ataturk banned headdress–fez for men and scarfs for women. He gave women equal rights under the law. He changed the Turkish language from its Arabic script to Roman letters. In short, the modern country of Turkey looked west for reform. Think of Texas pride without the swagger. Turks come first in Turkey.

However, some habits are hard to break. And just as Texas has its own toast, the tea in Turkey isn’t just tea, it is Turkish Tea.  The Turks are not going for the subtly of Chinese oolong teas or the ritual of Japanese green. They are purists first–no British adulteration of their topaz delight with cream or lemon. And since the Turks do nothing in moderation, it should come as no surprise that the Turks are among the greatest tea quaffers in the world, second only to India. They do add sugar to their tea, which to me seems less about taste and more about fortifying and amplifying the effects of the caffeine–a supercharged shot. While Turks are more libertine than their Arab neighbors and will drink alcohol, tea remains the beverage of convivial companionship and hospitality. And so, this tea is served continuously and caffeinated, strong and sweet.

Everything about this tea, from its preparation to its presentation is uniquely Turkish. This is nationalism in a cup, in the same way America has its Coke, the Turks have their tea.

Turkish tea is a black tea. It has been consumed since the times of the Sultan, and Ottoman Empire. It is rare to see a Turk in a cafe without the tea standing guard over his plate. The tea is prepared in a double boiler pot. The top pot has the loose tea, which is scalded with hot water, and left to sit all day. The bottom pot has boiling water on reserve. When pouring, the Turks draw off the “strong brew” off the top pot, and dilute the beverage to the taste of the customer with the bottom pot’s clear water. And, as a test of manliness or perhaps courage, the Turks drink their tea very strong and in very small, hot glasses without a handle.

First-time tourists to Turkey will have tea thrust upon them at every turn. Every cafe serves it all day long. Young boys make some extra money running tea from the local grocer down back alleys where Turks may be having as siesta (again, western looking), playing a pick-up game of backgammon. They’ll fetch the tea for you as well. However, most tourists will be served some instant variety, especially in the bazaars, where merchants will ply you with instant apple or herbal teas while they charm, encourage, and shame you into buying that extra rug or bric-a-brac for the house. No Turk would ever drink an instant apple tea–a hot Kool-aid lacking everything that the Turks seek in their high-octane beverage of choice.

The tea grows along the Black Sea. For the beginner and foreigner, the standard tea is Rize (REE-zay) Chai (they use the Indian word), from the Rize region. When I purchased my first pound of tea from the local grocer near my Istanbul holiday apartment, the owner had many varieties of tea behind the counter–Filiz, Cicigi, Altinbas, and so on. Wanting to drink what the locals drink, I ask what we should get.

“Merhaba!” (Hello!)

“Merhaba, Efendim! Hoshgeldiniz!” (Hello, Dear Sir! Glad you are here!”)

“Hoshbulduk!” (“Glad to be anywhere!”)

“Chai var muh, lutfen?” (Where’s the tea, please?)

“Chai? Filiz, Cicigi, Altinbas….”

At this point, the owner of the bokol (the tiny, locally-owned grocer) rambled beyond the scope of my Berlitz phrasebook. Time to turn it over to my travel buddy, who’s fluency in Turkish would carry me to my goal.

What about Rize? (Rize, again, being the tea with training wheels)

“I am from Rize, but I don’t drink Rize, I drink Filiz!”

” Chok Tessekur Ederim, Iyi Gunler!” (Thank you very much, have a good day!)

What is the difference? To a newbie, I couldn’t tell. However, as my tea palate has grown over the years, the Filiz offers a slightly smoother brew. In fact, the variations simply refer to tea growing regions within Rize. Perhaps the soil and air are just slightly different in Filiz. All Turkish tea offers a very slight floral flavor that rises above what might otherwise be politely called a “high-end Lipton.”

Making my own in the apartment, with the double-boiler, I find those little tea glasses. The tulip glass honors the Sultan Ahmed III, the “tulip” Sultan, who loved the flower so much that he adorned the city parks with it. Great mosques were bedecked in ceramic tiles painted with tulip themes during his reign. Since tulips do not have handles, neither do the glasses traditionally. (However, you can buy tulip cups with handles today). The Ottoman Turks were ahead of Riedel’s wine glasses and even brew masters with their pilsiners in crafting a fluted glass that would offer just the right amount of cooling with the right opening to amplify the bouquet of their favorite beverage.

Off to tourist locales, we stop in Ortakoy, where a large square sits right on the edge of the Bosporus Strait underneath the Rococo-styled Ortakoy mosque, another blend of east and west. A ubiquitous cafe with sea-side views offers a chance to relax in the morning sun.

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The glass arrives in a steep red and white saucer, with an ample bowl of sugar cubes, and a rather tiny silver spoon aside the glass.  I like mine chok sekerli (very sweet). In goes the cube, rapidly deteriorating in the piping hot crucible of tea. The spoon is for turning the tulip glass into a centrifuge, spinning the granules through the tea before the sip. The cup is raised with just the tips of the fingers–to much finger pad on the glass will leave a burn mark. The sip is slurped a bit–the air cooling the tea before it hits the tongue.

A blurted utterance, not an “Oww!” but an “Oooh.” I surprised myself.

Looking up from the tea, still spinning a little in the glass, the vista changes. And looking out over the Bosporus, with the minarets of Istanbul piercing the sky, the domes of innumerable mosques rounding out the horizon line, the chatter of seagulls interrupted by a thousand muezzins calling the faithful to prayer, you realize that you are as far from home as you can be, and yet, are comforted by a new, proud, and slightly hyperactive friend.

Turkish Tea Photo credit: Carlo Rainone / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Ortakoy Photo credit: Dietmar Giljohann / Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Post-Script: Any vacation will leave the traveler changed for the better.  New ways are learned while on vacation. And the traveler should take something back home from the experience and make it part of daily life. Those rituals can make for a mini-vacation right at home. For me, I can escape to Istanbul anytime, with Turkish tea at home. Of course the experience will not be identical to the trip, but I find a cup or two or five of the tea does change my mood, leaving me literally warmed over with nostalgia.

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Photo credit: iriskh / Foter.com / CC BY-ND

(NB–The Turkish is not the exact transliteration, I tried to add some Anglicized syllables to help the dear reader)

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4 thoughts on “The Sultan of Tea

    • Thanks for your comment! Judging from your blog, you know something about tea. I will say that it is not unorthodox to drink Turkish without sugar. As a big time oolong sipper, I know that adding anything to tea can be sacrilege. Turks seem ambivalent on this point.

    • Thank you for taking the time to read! Whether 1983 or 2013, some things have never changed in Istanbul. Despite modernity, some of the charm of Constantinople remains.

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