Given Turkey’s position on the border of eastern Europe and western Asia, it’s no wonder that tea is the country’s most beloved beverage. But did you know that Turkey is the top tea-drinking nation in the world? It’s been estimated that seven pounds of tea is consumed per person per year in the Middle Eastern country, so it’s safe to say that the preparation and enjoyment of this steeped staple is an integral part of Turkish culture and daily life.
If you’re headed to Istanbul and beyond, or if you’re simply a tea connoisseur, here’s what you should know about the loving relationship between Turks and tea.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF TURKISH TEA
Although tea originally passed through Turkey as part of the Silk Road trade in the 1500s, it didn’t become a part of daily life within the country until nearly four centuries later. Tea, or çay, culture officially arrived in Istanbul in 1856 when British and French soldiers came to the city as allies in the Crimean War. During this time, tea parties were held at the embassies and became popular among the city’s socialites. Once tea found its way into everyday homes, it became as common as coffee.
In 1878, Mehmet Izzet, the then-governor of Adana, published the Çay Risalesi (Tea Pamphlet), touting the beverage’s health benefits. Although coffee was still popular in the country during this period, tea consumption increased and continued to spread as tea houses opened in the Sultanahmet area of Istanbul.
In the aftermath of World War I, and upon the loss of southeastern territories after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the costs associated with importing coffee increased greatly. Thus, at the urging of the founder of the republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkish people turned to tea, as it was easily obtained by domestic sources. Since then, it’s maintained its standing as the most popular hot drink in the country.
TURKISH TEA TODAY
Today, Turks have one of the highest per capita consumption rates of tea, averaging about 1,000 cups per year. This high rate owes itself to social customs and traditions, the availability of places to consume tea, and domestic production along the Eastern Black Sea coast.
Daily “teatime” usually falls between three and five in the afternoon, when tea is served alongside delicious sweet and savory biscuits (called kurabiye) and cakes. But tea-drinking isn’t limited to these few short hours. In fact, Turks drink tea all day, every day. It’s firmly ingrained in the culture as both a social experience and a sign of personal connection and hospitality. In the simplest form, offering tea and drinking tea together is a gesture of friendship.
TYPES OF TEA
Along with its global tea-consumption ranking, Turkey is among the world’s top five tea-growing countries. It produces about six to 10 percent of the world’s tea, but most of that is consumed domestically. The nations tea-growing region stretches along its northern Black Sea coastline from the Georgian border through the city of Rize, which is home to the heart of Turkish tea production.
Fertile soil, frequent rainfall, an ideal climate, and mild temperatures combine perfectly to produce tea leaves that are carefully nurtured until they are ready for picking. From there, the leaves are sent to factories, where they are crushed, packaged, and shipped around the world.
While black tea is most popular within the country, green tea, apple tea, rose hip tea, sage tea, and linden flower tea are common as well.
While a lot of cultural significance is placed on tea-drinking in Turkey, tea rituals within the country are far less complicated than those in either Britain or Japan.
First and foremost, to make Turkish tea, you need a caydanlik — a sort of teapot with two stacked kettles, where water is placed in the bottom pot and the tea leaves are placed in the top pot. When the bottom pot has boiled, some of the water is poured in with the tea leaves in the top pot. After steeping, the tea is then poured into glasses through a strainer and topped off with the remaining water in the bottom pot.
Turks choose to serve tea in small tulip-shaped glasses so that the drinker can appreciate the beverage’s crimson color. (Fun fact: 400 million of these glasses are sold in Turkey each year — that’s nearly six per person.) Though the origins of this cup’s shape are unknown, the tea glass is now so ingrained in Turkish life that it’s used as a common measurement in recipes.
The fragrant liquid is not traditionally drunk with milk or lemon, but is instead served with two small sugar cubes. In Erzurum and other towns in eastern Turkey, tea is taken in the kitlama style, where the tea-drinker places a lump of sugar between their tongue and cheek while sipping their steaming beverage.
WHERE TO ENJOY TURKISH TEA
Regardless of where you travel within Turkey, a pot of tea will always be brewing and ready in every home, shop, and workplace you visit. That said, if you’re not in the country to work, you don’t find yourself in a small shop with a hospitable owner, or you aren’t staying with a local host, you can find a tea house or tea garden just about anywhere in the country. Note, however, that while tea houses in larger cities and touristy regions are open to anyone, those in smaller towns and rural areas are typically reserved for community members and seen as the preferred news and gossip hubs. Also, bear in mind that Turkish tea gardens are vastly different than those of Japanese origin — while the latter are quiet and serene, the former are social environments filled with children, music, backgammon tournaments, and lively conversation.
Wherever you choose to indulge in this caffeinated beverage, be sure to always have more than one glass — it’s just how things are done.