Until a recent trip to Istanbul, I naïvely would not have instantly thought of Turkey as having one of the most thriving tea cultures in the world. I was familiar with Turkish-style tea after trying it a few times at Turkish bakeries in London, but I just assumed coffee was king. What I found during my city break last week in Istanbul was a dream for a tea lover.
Tea the Turkish way
Written as çay and pronounced as ‘chai’, Turkish tea is copiously drunk almost everywhere. Perhaps the most interesting and well known place to have a cup of çay is a Turkish tea garden. Taking çay at a tea garden is a cultural experience that no one should miss. Tea gardens are places that mainly local men go to and flip through the newspaper while sipping cups of çay all whilst socialising and smoking a nargile/waterpipe (although smoking cigarettes is strictly forbidden!). One great place to have çay is at Erenler Çay Bahçesi, a cosy tea garden near the Grand Bazaar with nicely cushioned seats and outdoor heating.
In addition to traditional tea gardens, ‘American style’ coffeehouses, with menus full of coffee drinks, are also a chilled out place to get a çay or a herbal tea. Karafirin in the Sultanahmet area of the city is a modern coffeehouse with a full food menu and numerous teas and coffees (definitely try a Turkish coffee here). Practically every restaurant and sit-down kebap shop also serves çay, and they probably won’t let you leave until you’ve had a cup ‘on the house’. Even if you’re not offered a free çay, having a cup is a cheap luxury that typically costs between 1.5 and 3 Lira (40 to 80 pence) a cup. Turkish coffee is usually priced between 5 and 10 Lira (£1.35 to £2.70).
Aside from the tea gardens, cafés, and restaurants, I was fascinated to watch tea service at the Grand Bazaar. Small kiosks are scattered throughout the Grand Bazaar, and it is possible to stand around as a shopper and have a quick çay.
But what really keeps these kiosks going are tea servers/runners who are constantly going to them and filling up large metal trays with cups of çay. They then go from market stall to market stall in the Grand Bazaar to pick up empty cups and sell hot çay to shop employees who stand in front of their shops sipping away and chatting with friends. I saw the same service at the Spice Market near the Galata Bridge. You will also see other runners with trays delivering food to shop owners who have ordered meals.
Like other thriving tea cultures around the world, the Turkish tradition has distinct teaware, both for preparing çay and drinking it. Tea has traditionally been made in a çaydanlık, a samovar-style set up that has two tea pots stacked on each other.
The top teapot is full of a strong tea concentrate, and the bottom is full of hot water. For convenience reasons, modern technology is replacing the çaydanlık as most cafés and restaurants now have tea contraptions with heating elements for the large pots of tea concentrate and a hot water dispenser next to it. Department stores also sell electric çaydanlıks for home use.
For me, the most iconic symbol of Turkish tea service is the tulip-shaped cups that çay is almost always served in. The small cups are about 125ml/4.5oz and are typically put on colourful small plates (see my first picture above). Your tea will be delivered to you with a small spoon in it, and probably with a few cubes of sugar on the small plate.
Turkish tea production and consumption
Although figures vary from source to source, Turkey is either the fifth or sixth largest producer of tea in the world, with around 200,000 tons produced each year. Very little of this tea, however, is exported (under 4%). Tea is grown in the Rize region of the country, an area along the east coast of the Black Sea where the climate is shaped by its proximity to the Black Sea and the Kaçkar Mountains.
Like production figures, consumption figures also wildly vary. A new Twitter buddy recently sent me a few reports about global consumption figures. They suggest Turkish per capita tea consumption is around three kilos a year, which is in the top three of world annual per capita consumption, and nearly double that of the UK.
There are a few brands of tea that are common in Turkish supermarkets and newsagents. Çaykur Rize Tea seems to be the most common brand, followed by Lipton and Doğadan. Markets also sell tea by the weight, and you can buy various qualities of tea (anything from large leaf orange pekoe to highly broken orange pekoe). Whilst it is easy to find boxes of tea bags, the majority of the tea is sold in loose leaf form and in large bags that range in size from 500 grams to two kilos.
Government regulation protects the Turkish tea market by imposing heavy import tax on all non-Turkish tea. According to Emin Akyuz (@meminakyuz), whose family has tea gardens in the Rize region, importing tea into Turkey carries around a 145% tax. This tax has resulted in tea smuggling becoming common practice.
Bitter, strong but addictive
I love the vibrant tea culture in Istanbul, which I’m assuming is similar in the rest of the country. The tea you receive around the city is not an exact science: the process of making it is not overly fussy with precise measurements or water temperature control. How much çay concentrate put in a cup always varied from place to place, and I wondered how long tea infused before it was served. The tea, however, was consistently strong and served with plenty of sugar, although I only took it with sugar on a couple of occasions.
As a tea lover, I was happy to get good tea everywhere I went. But I do value variety, something that is not always easy to come by. Tourists are often offered an apple tea, and on rare occasions you will be offered a wedge of lemon to add to your çay. After the first couple of days of being in Istanbul I was wanting a cup of milky Assam with my breakfast, but a few days later I was in the full swing of things and was craving the bitter, strong flavour of Turkish çay throughout the day.