Teatotallers: Tea culture in Turkey

I was really proud of that brown dress...

When I was a child I joined the Brownies – the junior, female, British version of the Scouts. I had a brown uniform with a yellow scarf held in place by a woggle, and, according to the Brownie handbook at least, I would venture into intrepid places and do good deeds (like rescue sheep with broken legs from cliff ledges using only my woggle) in order to earn Brownie badges that I would proudly sew onto the arms of my uniform and wear like medals of honour.

Unfortunately our Brownie pack leader, Brown Owl, was advanced in years and under her arthritic wing we never ventured anywhere more intrepid than our school hall. The only badge I earned was my tea-making badge, and (my mother having long realised that I was too clumsy to be let loose with hot water and teabags) I earned it by making milkshake with a packet of powder and a cold cup of milk.

These days I’ve pretty much mastered the art of combining hot water and teabag to end up with a nice cuppa rather than a terrible accident, so I feel I truly deserve that tea-making badge. But recently I’ve had to adapt my skills to a new technique as Turkish tea is a totally different kettle of fish leaves.

Lots has been written about the Turkish obsession with tea, most of it repeatedly, so I’m going to go with minimal repetition here. I just read Inspiring Travellers’ post about Discovering Turkish Tea and it reminded me of something my mum mentioned while we were travelling through the tea plantations of Rize: that Turkish tea is a recentish import, brought here as a crop in the mid-20th century to give the people of Rize an income. If tea was an illness it would wipe the floor with bird flu.

Our friend's tea field in Rize

Tea in Turkey is ubiquitous. It’s drunk at breakfast, after lunch and after dinner, as well as in between. Men hang out all day at teahouses to sip their glasses, smoke and play Okey or backgammon while their wives do all the hard work sit at home drinking tea and gossiping with their neighbours – especially with cake or pastries as part of the civilised beş çay (five o’clock tea) ritual, which they believe to be an ongoing part of English life and are always unbelieving when told that no-one in England under the age of 80 actually takes beş çay any more.

When it comes to buying and selling tea is an essential part of the bargaining process – serious negotiating takes place at length over glasses of steaming hot tea. Even children are initiated at an early age, given “paşa çayı” or “pasha’s tea” from the time they’re old enough to hold a glass themselves: a drop of tea, a lot of water and enough sugar to seal the deal for any sweet-toothed infant.

Apparently tea first became a domestic crop in Turkey some time between 1937 and 1947*. Today Turkey’s the 5th biggest tea producer in the world & the highest per capita consumer and it was a government-backed initiative, designating Rize as the tea-growing centre, that started it off.

Tea in Turkey is still grown in steppes on the hillsides of Rize, and harvested by women with shears and a basket to collect the leaves. We visited friends in the village of Askoroz in Rize who gave us cases of their home-grown, home-harvested tea leaves to take back to Didim. Mustafa’s wife is university educated but chose motherhood and tea-harvesting over a career in economics.

Two sugars for me please

Turkish tea is brewed in a double-potted tea kettle that sits on the stove throughout the making and drinking process, until there’s no tea left to serve. Plain simmering water goes in the bottom and tea leaves stewing in boiled water in the top. It takes about 10 minutes for the tea to brew. It’s served – first a bit of the tea, then topped up with the water – in those little tea glasses with teeny little spoons to stir in the sugar. Only diabetes sufferers and foreigners have theirs without sugar which might explain why there do seem to be an awful lot of diabetes sufferers here. Some prefer strong – which all the internet sources claim is koyu (dark) but I’ve only ever heard as demli (stewed) – and others favour açık (light). Only girls and foreigners have theirs açık. I shamelessly make use of my girlness and foreignness to get my tea as weak as possible so I can drink it without sugar. Others have it eye-wateringly strong with enough sugar cubes to build a small house.

Not much need for warming milky tea when you fish in sunny Akbuk bay

Turkish tea’s a very economic drink, which I’m sure is part of its popularity. Unlike Turkish coffee, where a lot of grounds are used for each tiny cup, or nescafe or english tea which are served with milk, each Turkish tea glass only uses a little bit of tea with the rest topped up with water – and of course sugar, but that goes without saying. My husband claims he and his fellow fishermen used to drink tea with milk on the fishing boats in the Black Sea but I’ve never come across any other Turkish milky-tea drinker.

Tea runs in my veins. I’m Turkish by adoption, British by production with a bit of Russian influence in there too, by way of America. There my grandpa used to commit tea sacrilege by sticking a bag of Lipton in a cup of water and popping it in the microwave for 30 seconds, despite my protests that you need boiling water on the tea leaves for it to brew properly. To give him credit though, he made a lovely iced tea, which has nothing to do with what the supposedly tea-loving British and Turkish people drink out of cans with fruit flavouring, nor with the misleadingly-named cocktail I made in my bartending days from gin, vodka, coke, ice cubes and a slice of lemon. I bet if Baden-Powell had ever dropped in at Joe’s Bar and Grill I would have earnt an extra-special Brownie badge for that!

Old Rize lady in traditional dress in the tea fields

* In case you want to check my facts, Burak Sansal  in his excellent site All About Turkey agrees with my mum that 1947 was a key date, while Pelin Aylangan (who’s written a book on the subject, so I guess she should know) mentions imported tea in 1878 and Turkish-grown in 1937.

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About A Yabanci in Turkey

A London expat in Turkey. Moved in 2005, married in 2007, mother in 2009. Blogging as DIY therapy to process life's changing faces. For money I mainly do freelance writing and transcription work and we have a business running luxury motor yacht cruises for visitors to and residents of our local holiday resort, Altinkum.
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