The Chanui chai cultural convoy keeps on chugging. We drive fast, running on cups of tea and pure, unfiltered culture. Beep beep.
This week we’re stopping at arguably the epicentre of global tea drinking. The place where the average person drinks 3.16kg of tea per year!
That’s four to seven cups per person per day. Time to buck up your ideas, New Zealand (you make up 98% of our subscribers) if you wan’t to rank on next year’s data.
Again, that is per capita so some people will be putting away incredible quantities.
That’s right, it’s Türkiye!
A rich but relatively short history
Tea of “çay” (pronounced ‘chai’) in Turkish, is a relatively recent addition to Turkish culture, only making a significant appearance in Türkiye throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries when they started cultivating it.
Until World War 1, Türkiye was much better known for drinking coffee when it was common and abundant. When the Ottoman Empire lost control of coffee drinking regions like the modern day Yemen in the Arabian Peninsula, The Levant and parts of North Africa, coffee became prohibitively expensive. Coffeehouses were prominent social centres in the empire as discussed in this excellent BBC podcast.
The northeastern region of Türkiye, specifically the province of Rize, had a climate suitable for tea cultivation, something Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s regime saw as an economic opportunity.
By cultivating domestic tea, Türkiye could create a domestic product that could replace or at least reduce the demand for imported coffee.
With the support of Atatürk's policies and government initiatives, tea cultivation flourished in the Black Sea region. Over time, tea became the staple in Turkish households that we see today.
The majority of tea consumed in Türkiye is domestically grown and the state owned company Çaykur the largest tea producing company.
Founding father of the Republic of Türkiye - Mustafa Kemal Atatürk
Colonialism and tea - Turkish edition!
Contrary to many of the countries we have looked at in this series, Türkiye’s tea culture developed largely independently of European colonial endeavours. The Ottoman Empire had its own history of expansion and influence across various territories, but its tea-drinking habit wasn't a direct result of these conquests.
Instead, the rise of tea in Türkiye can be attributed more to internal political and economic factors, particularly the desire to reduce dependence on imports and promote domestic agriculture as we looked at above.
What time is tea time?
As you might expect for a nation of fanatic tea drinkers, the answer to this is ‘all the time, put the kettle on immediately’. However, the two times of day when it seems to be non-negotiable is with breakfast and after dinner.
This video gives a lovely explanation of how to make tea in the Turkish style and includes a typical breakfast that can be prepared in the 20 minutes it takes to brew the tea.
It’s like a teapot, but double
Tea is often brewed using a special two-tiered teapot called a çaydanlık.
The bottom pot (demlik) is filled with water to boil, while you steep a concentrated form of tea in the top pot.
When serving, the strong tea from the upper pot is diluted with the hot water from the bottom pot to achieve the desired strength in each individual glass.
Not just any glass
Turkish tea is intrinsically linked to its iconic tulip-shaped glasses. The design helps the tea remain warmer for longer in its bulbous base, while the flared top lets the impending sip cool to the perfect drinking temperature.
Just remember the rhyme,
Bulbous base holds warmth so tight
While flared crest cools,
For temp just right
These glasses have become popular with whisky enthusiasts in recent years due to their shape being extremely similar to (much more expensive) tulip glasses made specifically for whisky.
One unscrupulous company even started selling tea glasses as whisky glasses before being rumbled by keen eyed tea drinkers.
How’d they take their tea?
Unlike the British or Indians, Turks do not add milk to their tea. It is served pretty strong though so it’s almost always served with the option of sugar to counteract any bitterness that comes from such a long brew.
One of those great phrases that don’t really have a direct translation but it literally means ‘health to your hands’. It is what you say to compliment someone on something they have made with their hands. Such as a lovely cup of tea.
So if someone paints a masterpiece, plays a lovely tune on their guitar or makes you a lovely cup of tea, you say Elinize Sağlık. You are showing gratitude to the hands that produced the thing in question.
The next time someone makes you ‘that’ cup that hits harder than most, join us in saying ‘health to your hands’.
What an excellent phrase.
Serve your elders first for goodness sake
Family values of respecting your elders are alive and well in Türkiye and it’s well demonstrated in their food and drink customs where it’s customary to serve the eldest at the table first.
The value of respecting elders is also rooted in Islamic principles with 99% of Turkish people identifying as Muslim.
It goes beyond serving too. Upon entering a room, it’s common to greet the eldest first.
It probably doesn’t really need mentioning but it’d be unfair to leave the Turks out.
If you're a guest in someone's home, a shop, office or anywhere else where the facilities are available, it is common to be offered tea.
Your glass will often be refilled without asking. If you feel like you’ve had your fill, you can pop your spoon on the top of the glass to indicate you don’t want any more.
It's okay not to drink this last bit
Some people might leave a small amount of tea at the bottom of their glass. This little remainder might have the most concentrated tannins and can taste very bitter.
People enjoy all manner of snacks with their tea which makes sense when you consider that many people drink seven or eight cups per day! Here are some of the more popular choices that you might find when taking tea in Türkiye.
Often dubbed the "Turkish bagel," simit is a circular bread, typically encrusted with sesame seeds and traditionally served with tea. It's slightly crispy on the outside and soft on the inside and makes a wonderful tea-time snack.
Probably the most famous Turkish dessert. It's a rich, sweet pastry made of layers of filo filled with chopped nuts, sweetened and held together with syrup or honey. So so good with a strong, well brewed black tea.
These biscuits come in various flavours and styles depending on where you find them which could be anywhere from Egypt to the Balkans. Some are crumbly and filled with ground nuts, while others might be soft and flavoured with vanilla or lemon.
It’s quite amazing that the centre of an empire that was largely responsible for another incredibly important caffeinated culture of coffeehouses has such a strong tea culture.
In researching this post, your writer went to a local Turkish market to see if they sold tulip shaped glasses. They asked why I was so interested and, as I was explaining that I was writing a blog post about Turkish tea, one of the owners disappeared off into a back room.
Before I had a chance to buy a double kettle and six glasses, I had a glass of tea and a piece of baklava in my hand.
All that is to say, if anyone of Turkish extraction offers you a cup of tea, you'd be wise to accept.