Nia McRay TastesLikeTurkey Peanut Butter Cookies

CULTURE: Afiyet Olsun + Neighbors + Super Easy Peanut Butter Cookies

The Easiest Plate-Filling Peanut Butter Cookies

Knock Knock knock echoes from my apartment door. As a single woman who was raised in the States, I’m cautious of this sound. In the first week of coronavirus entering Turkey, I’m particularly so.  I’m not expecting any deliveries or visitors, but I look through the peephole.

The lady who lives in the apartment across the hallway from me stands at the door, looking right at the peephole – like she sees me. In her hand a plate of chicken and bulgur pilaf. I smile and open the door. Everyone in my building is keeping social distancing pretty seriously, and she pushes the plate into the door while simultaneously turning her face away as she isn’t wearing a mask and mumbles, “Afiyet olsun” (the Turkish equivalent of “Bon Appetit”). 

No, this wasn’t a special occasion. Recently I went to visit a friend who was injured and unable to walk (let alone cook for her family) for a while. Her Turkish neighbors kept a steady flow of home-cooked food coming, especially those first few days, without being asked or setting up a meal train.

While that circumstance was indeed a special occasion, I wonder if what made the action so organic is that bringing food to one another is already a commonplace occurrence.  Neighbors bring one another plates of food without ceremony with the expectation that you will return the dish with some homemade treat of your own to share. 

Once, the same neighbor from across the hall stopped me and my roommate as we walked down the hallway, on our way to dinner out at one of our favorite restaurants. “Wait, wait!” she waved us down. She proceeded to fill a bowl with popcorn as an appetizer and waved us back into our apartment to wait for the rest of the dinner she was cooking. Bit by bit she brought dishes to our door as they were prepared: salad, pilaf, beans. We grazed the whole evening as the plates and bowls began to collect on our table.

I felt cared for (even if my plans for the evening had been canceled in the process) especially as a single woman living in a foreign country. I knew that my neighbors care enough for me to make sure I’m at least well-fed. 

But another thought also began to come to mind as the plates piled up. I had already been made aware of the expectation to fill a plate once it was brought. This can certainly feel overwhelming for the ex-pat who has not yet mastered Turkish cuisine or knows what of the foods they do know how to cook would be palpable for a Turkish palate. 

Thankfully, I have found that the following recipe has been a hit among my Turkish friends and neighbors. It is also incredibly easy and quick. So easy that my neighbors and friends don’t believe me when I share the recipe. So quick that I can whip up a batch and return a plateful of hot cookies to my neighbors within 15 minutes of receiving a plate. 

The Easiest Plate-Filling Peanut Butter Cookies

Ingredients:

  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup peanut butter
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • ¼ cup of chocolate chips of our choice

Instructions:

  • Preheat oven to 175 C (350 F).  
  • Mix egg, peanut butter, and sugar until fully incorporated. 
Nia McRay TastesLikeTurkey Peanut Butter Cookies
Nia McRay TastesLikeTurkey Peanut Butter Cookies
  • Fold in chocolate chips. 
  • Scoop onto a prepared cookie sheet and bake for 10 minutes. 
Nia McRay TastesLikeTurkey Peanut Butter Cookies
Nia McRay TastesLikeTurkey Peanut Butter Cookies
  • Let cool for 2 minutes before transferring to a borrowed plate and bringing to neighbors. 
Nia McRay TastesLikeTurkey Peanut Butter Cookies
Nia McRay TastesLikeTurkey Peanut Butter Cookies

Note: The trick to these cookies is finding a good peanut butter to use. While JIF brand peanut butter is now available in Turkey (and is my personal favorite), it is often quite expensive when you can find it. The only brand that I’ve tasted that is similar to the peanut butter in the States is the Tuğba brand which advertises having no added sugar. It comes in crunchy and smooth (either of which can be used for this recipe) for a reasonable price. 

I hope you find these as yummy and easy and I do! Let me know if you try them!

What is your go-to food for sharing with neighbors?

Afiyet olsun!

TasteslikeTurkey NiaMcRay Izmir Turkey Çay Tea Time

CULTURE: Tea Time in Turkey

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.

TasteslikeTurkey NiaMcRay Izmir Turkey Çay Tea Time

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.

TasteslikeTurkey NiaMcRay Izmir Turkey Çay Tea Time

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.

TasteslikeTurkey NiaMcRay Izmir Turkey Çay Tea Time

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 hot glass filled with freshly steeped tea by the rim and sip from it.

TasteslikeTurkey NiaMcRay Izmir Turkey Çay Tea Time

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.”