Try this free-association exercise: If I say “Turkey” (as in the country, not the bird), what comes to mind? For most of you, I suspect the answer is “coffee”, as in Turkish coffee, that highly concentrated, highly caffeinated brew with a molasses-like consistency. That would have been my answer too, nearly 30 years ago. But periodic trips to Turkey with my husband, who hails from the Aegean seaport city of Izmir, have taught me that when you think “Turkey”, you should think “tea”!
In Turkey, as in most of the world, tea (cay—pronounced “chi” with a long “i”—in Turkish) is ubiquitous. For most Turks, tea means loose-leaf CTC (cut-tear-curl) black tea steeped for a good, long time and served with sugar in elegant, shapely glasses. Surprisingly (to most people), Turkey is the fifth largest tea-producing country in the world. However, most of the tea produced in Turkey is consumed there.
As elsewhere in the world, tea is offered in homes and businesses as a token of friendship and hospitality. When you visit the Kemeralty Bazaar in the center of Izmir, the third-largest city in Turkey, you can be sure of two things: you will get lost and you will be offered a glass of tea. The Bazaar is a maze of shops and fast-food eateries, where, despite the hustle and bustle of the huge crowds, purchases can’t be rushed. In the market for a 22-karat gold necklace or an authentic Turkish kilim? Not so fast. First you must decide whether you are in the mood for black tea or apple tea, a delicious tisane that tastes a lot like hot cider. Once you decide, a courier is dispatched to retrieve the tea of your choice. Turkish merchants are masters of small talk. The goal, of course, is to do everything possible to ensure a sale. Once your tea is in your hands, it’s time to talk business. One item after another is paraded before you until a match is found and negotiations (that is, the bargaining process) can begin. Should your tea run out before a deal is struck, a fresh glass of tea quickly materializes.
In the home, black tea is an integral part of breakfast, along with freshly baked Turkish bread (a bit like sourdough), simit (like Jerusalem bagels), olives, feta cheese, jam, and butter. My mouth waters just thinking of my breakfasts in Turkey. Although not usually served at lunch or dinner, tea often reappears in the afternoon and evening. Turks, like many others around the world, also turn to tea to cope with illness. A favorite for medicinal purposes is linden tea (“Ihlamur” in Turkish); it is especially good for stomachaches. But black tea, too, is touted for its health benefits.
One of the nicest things about visiting Turkey is that whether you are trekking through ancient Greek and Roman ruins, sunbathing on the warm beaches of Cesme, or nightclub hopping in Istanbul, you are never far from a glass of tea.