When I lean out on my balcony and listen to the sounds of Izmir, they are abundant.
I hear the stray dogs in the park outside my apartment barking, chasing cars. I hear the call to prayer, echoing across the valley, the melodies bouncing between the mountains. I hear the breeze off the sea, rustling leaves. I hear the sound of children playing, of car horns, of stray cats screeching.
Above it all, a light tinkling sound, like a windchime. Like the uncontrollable laughter of fairies, or the ringing of a distant silver bell comes the sound I’ve come to love the most: the sound of çay [pronounced the same as “chai”] spoons clinking against the glass as people stir the sugar into their tea. It is the school bell for life lessons, the gong for heated debates, the signal that work has paused, and the doorbell for the gateway to new relationships to be opened.
Çay and Hospitality Culture in Turkey
Hoş geldiniz! In Turkish, that’s “You have arrived pleasantly” or simply, “Welcome!” As a westerner living in Turkey, the most impactful difference in culture for me has been the idea of hospitality, which can start with this simple phrase. In the States, someone is hospitable if they invite you over and offer you something to eat or drink, or if they bring you a meal when you are going through a rough time.
The idea of hospitality runs much deeper in Turkey. It is an attitude about time that is driven from a heart bent toward hospitality. Hospitality doesn’t have to be something meticulously planned out (although it certainly can be!). Rather, a posture of hospitality is one open to connecting with people in meaningful ways, allowing one’s schedule to be interrupted for the sake of the person in front of you.
Few things exemplify this as much as çay zamanı, or tea time, in Turkey.
Tea is quite possibly the easiest thing to find in Turkey. Here in Izmir, as you walk along the seaside, tea sellers call out loudly, letting you know you can stop them and get a hot cup. Every restaurant, every café has it. It is a must-have when picnicking or grilling out with friends and family. Everyone drinks a few glasses at breakfast, and it’s almost as important as a smoke break during work. It is a staple in the home. In fact, Turks drink more tea per capita than any other country in the world. Yes, an average Turk drinks more tea than the Chinese, British, or Irish by far.
On average one person will drink the tea from nearly 7 pounds of tea leaves each year! I have heard from several people here: “Oh, yes. I drink up to 20 cups of çay each day.” Of course, not everyone drinks twenty glasses each day, but it is such a plentiful drink here, it is easy to see how one could easily do so.
Çay is one of the drinks of hospitality in Turkey. If you are invited to someone’s home, expect to be offered çay. If you finish your meal at a restaurant, a complimentary glass of çay will be brought to everyone at your table so that your conversation can continue. If you stop by a shop and start up a conversation with the shopkeeper, he will offer you to sit wherever may be possible in the cramped space, and bring you an hourglass-shaped cup of çay on an ornate saucer with a tiny spoon and one or two sugar cubes alongside it. In fact, I haven’t entered a rug shop where I was not offered a glass of the deep red drink as the owner pulled out rug after rug of various designs, reading my eyes to narrow down his display to designs I gravitated towards.
This is how Turkish society runs: fueled by tea. Even though it is highly caffeinated, the calming effects of tea make this drink, and the culture it inhabits, a “slow down, have a sip, stay a while” atmosphere. When you are offered a cup of çay, you are invited to slow your busyness and truly be with those around you.
Over a strong and flavorful glassful, you may find yourself sharing stories from your childhood before you’ve exchanged names with your fellow drinker. There is something beautiful and deeply human about sharing a moment in which a stranger becomes an acquaintance – or even a friend. Most of the experiences I’ve had like that in Turkey have been over a glass of çay. It’s actually the most-drunk beverage in the country, besides water. And though this is a common experience today, this wasn’t always the case.
History of Tea in Turkey
Of course, as Turkey has been the connector between east and west for most of history, located in the most crucial area of the silk road, tea has been moving through Turkey for over two millennia. Surprisingly, however, tea did not become a part of everyday Turkish life until the early twentieth century when the government made efforts to grow the crop in northern Turkey where tea production now booms.
Rize, one of the three major tea-producing cities of Turkey that borders the Black Sea, is home to 60% of tea production in the country, which supplies about 260,000 tons of that lovely leaf per year. Due to the demand for tea domestically, very little is exported, despite Turkey being the fifth largest producer of tea world-wide. So, if you are looking for some of that famous Rize çay, it may be hard to find outside of the country.
If you do find some, however, you’ll want to brew it right.
How Turkish Tea is Brewed:
One of the most unique things about Turkish tea compared to its counterpart in other countries is the way it is brewed. Firstly, it is brewed in a double-boiler kettle called a çaydamlık. The bottom kettle is filled with water, and the smaller, top kettle is filled with the dry black tea leaves. As the water in the bottom kettle boils, it slowly roasts the tea leaves, and you can smell the rich flavor. Once the water has boiled, water from the bottom kettle is added to the tea leaves to steep while the bottom kettle continues to boil. This creates a dark tea concentrate in the top kettle.
When my Turkish tutor taught me how to correctly brew tea, I got the sense that she deemed this one of the more important cultural lessons she would give me. Indeed, it has become a useful skill to have. I have found that there is never a wrong time or season to make a çaydamlık full of çay and be ready to invite someone to have several glasses with you.
The çay is then served in an hourglass-shaped cup that is reminiscent of the Ottoman tulip. Traditionally the çay concentrate is poured to the top of the “hips” of the glass, or even to the middle of the “waist” of the glass (depending on how strong you want your tea). The rest of the glass is filled with boiling water. Even diluted by the water, the tea is pretty strong. As these traditional glasses have no handle, one of the skills that must be acquired quickly by the Westerner in Turkey is the ability to hold a
There is a variety of ways to take one’s çay: light-colored, medium, or very dark (also called rabbit’s blood for the dark red color), with or without sugar (stirred into your tea with those dainty spoons, or, like some older folks like to do, stuck between your front teeth or in your cheek), even sometimes with lemon, but never with milk.
However you take your çay, remember to take the moment to slow down, enjoy someone else’s company, and have a few glasses. For, as the Turkish adage goes, “conversations without tea are like a night sky without the moon.”