Turkish Coffee Culture – A 500-year tradition

Rediscovering traditional culture

Rediscovering traditional culture

When I first came to Istanbul back in the dying years of the 20th century it wasn’t easy to find a decent cup of coffee. One of the reasons, I came to understand, was that there had been a time, not long before, when tea bags and instant coffee were restricted imports, and according to that invariable rule of economics, desirability had increased in proportion to scarcity on the market. Nescafe and tea were served everywhere in European-style cups, with the option of Turkish coffee of somewhat variable quality.

In fact, European- or American-style, or low quality imitations thereof, pervaded much of life in Istanbul in those days. Traditional features of Turkish culture had been more or less isolated in the tourist area of Sultanahmet, or relegated to the back streets of the poorer parts of town. High school graduation ceremonies were excruciatingly interminable extravaganzas of deafeningly over-amplified Elgar-esque pomp and circumstance with students regaled in gawdy pseudo-academic gowns and caps and teachers relegated to positions of lackeydom.

Well, times have changed, at least in the world outside private-sector education. Opening the country’s doors to globalisation brought the delights of McDonalds and Burger King, Starbucks and Gloria Jeans to a people starved of hamburgers and quality java. Interestingly, at the same time as international, multi-national and transnational fast-food franchises began to invade the streets of Istanbul, they seemed to trigger an offensive/defensive reaction from local entrepreneurs.

Ottoman coffeehouse

Ottoman coffeehouse

Almost overnight, Turks seemed to discover that their own home-grown culture was capable of competing with, perhaps even bettering the imported offerings. Tasteful chain eateries and up-market boutique restaurants began repackaging döner kebab, lahmacun, çiğ köfte and other local specialities. The last-named traditional delicacy, highly spiced raw minced lamb kneaded into edibility by muscular men from the southeast has been reinvented in vegetarian form. Muhallebeci cafes such as Saray, specialising in irresistible local desserts, have appeared all over town. Simit Sarayı and a host of imitators have not only added a touch of class to the incomparable and indescribable simit, but have begun a reciprocal invasion of their own, taking Turkish fast-food cuisine to Fifth Avenue and Oxford Street. The nargile or water-pipe, not many years ago seen mostly in seedy back-street hang-outs of elderly men, has become a ubiquitous feature of tea-gardens, bars and cafes frequented by the new generation youth.

However, it is coffee culture that has responded most enthusiastically to the threat of foreign invasion. Kahve Dünyası, Kahve Diyarı, Gönül Kahvesi and several other local chains have begun emulating and improving on the coffee and ambience provided by better-known international brands. Roasting and grinding their own brews, packaging them for the drink-at-home market, and adding side dishes of chocolates and lokum (Turkish delight), these post-modern coffee-houses are carrying the fight to Starbucks, and have succeeded in driving Gloria Jeans into the niche market of high-end shopping centres.

Coffee exhibition at Topkapı Palace

Coffee exhibition at Topkapı Palace

Whatever the link between the modern republic of Turkey and the defunct Ottoman Empire may be, and despite criticism of the AK Party government for its supposed neo-Ottoman aspirations, there is no doubt that Turkey’s people have begun to rediscover and appreciate their own traditional roots and cultures, at the same time as the outside world has begun showing greater interest. In 2013, UNESCO added Turkish coffee to the list it calls The Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Currently to be seen in the grounds of Topkapı Palace is an exhibition entitled A Drop of Pleasure – The 500-Year Story of Turkish Coffee.

I have sometimes wondered how primitive human beings first discovered certain gastronomic delights. OK, bananas are pretty straightforward. Pick it off the palm, peel it, eat it – a monkey could do it. Coconuts? A tad more difficult to get at, but once you’ve cracked it open, there it is, ready to eat, or drink, or whatever. But what about olives? Pretty unappetising in their natural state. Who figured out how to soak them and salt them etc to produce the tasty little green or black morsels we love today? Then there’s bread, leavened or unleavened, not to mention beer, wine and spirits. There must have been some disastrous offerings concocted before our ancestors hit on the best recipes. And take a look at a coffee bean straight off the tree. You pick it, roast it, grind it and boil it into something unrecognisable but euphoria-inducing. Who figured that out?

Berries on the Coffea plant

Berries on the Coffea plant

According to legend, it was an Ethiopian goatherd who first stumbled upon the magic properties of Coffea arabica. Apparently his goats had been unusually frolicsome of late, and he came to the conclusion that their high spirits came from munching on the berries of a particular tree growing on the hillsides. He tentatively sampled a few himself but was unimpressed, goats teeth and digestive systems being more sympathetic to rough fare such as gorse and blackberry bushes. Still curious, however, he took a handful home to his more enterprising wife who, after a few unproductive experiments, hit on a method of boiling the leaves and beans together to make a kind of tea.

At first the resulting brew was treated largely as medicinal, and a local doctor acquired quite a reputation for curing just about everything from heart disease to chronic depression. Soon, however, the populace, discovering that coffee beans, unlike money, actually grew on trees,  began bypassing the middleman. The craze spread from Ethiopia to Yemen in happier days before the Saudi Arabs started bombing the bejabers out of them, and the Yemenis are said to have been the first to roast, grind and boil something resembling our modern brew. The drink began finding its way into the Ottoman Empire in the latter half of the 15th century and before long coffeehouses were springing up Istanbul like mushrooms . . . or Starbucks franchises. Coffee drinking and the ritual surrounding its preparation and consumption are credited with exerting a civilising and socialising influence on Turkish culture with its traditional male focus on horses, camels and warfare.

The Topkapı exhibition contains around 800 pictures and artifacts illustrating different aspects of this 500-year story: from potted Caffea bushes to carved stone sarcophagi of Kayseri noblemen depicting the paraphernalia associated with their favourite beverage. Originally the roasted beans were ground to a fine powder with pestle and mortar. Even today, the old method of cooking the coffee on charcoal embers is experiencing a revival. Connoisseurs maintain that coffee needs to be slowly brought to the boil over a period of five minutes or so to bring out the best flavour.

Brewing slowly in a copper cezve

Brewing slowly in a copper cezve

The cezve (djezveh), a small specially designed pot in which coffee is cooked, was made from copper, tinned on the inside, narrowing towards the top with a spout for pouring – nowadays available in a left-handed version. Turkish coffee cups are espresso-sized in an infinite variety of designs and decorations. The older style china or porcelain handle-less cup fitted inside a sleeve of worked silver is also staging a comeback, in less-precious metals for general use.

The coffee is measured and prepared according to the number of guests – cold water, ground coffee and sugar (if desired) are mixed together and slowly brought to the boil, at which point froth forms on top. The presence of froth is indispensible, and disappears if the coffee is allowed to continue boiling. Your coffee should be served with a small glass of water and a cube of lokum. According to Turkish culture, drinking coffee is synonymous with friendship. A well known rhyme goes:

Gönül ne kahve ister, ne kahvehane;                       The heart wants neither coffee nor coffeehouse

Gönül ahbap ister, kahve bahane.                The heart wants friendship, coffee is the excuse.

Traditionally it was associated with tobacco-smoking, in nargile or long-stemmed pipes. Formerly public coffeehouses were a male domain, but a recent resurgence has seen the water-pipe culture cross the gender divide.

Telling your fortune in the coffee cup

Telling your fortune in the coffee cup

The joys of coffee do not end with the drinking. The cooking process results in a few millimetres of sludgy sediment in the bottom of the cup. For the novice drinker this can create a problem and turn some off the beverage. If you persist, however, you will learn when to take your last lees-free sip, thereafter turning your cup upside down on its saucer while intoning a kind of spell: Neyse halim, çıksın falım (Let the cup show what life will bring me). When the mixture cools, the resulting unique pattern of dregs in the cup can be interpreted by a falcı – usually a woman skilled in the arcane arts of fortune-telling. Which may help to explain why personal psychiatric analysts are less common in Turkish culture.

Afiyet olsun!

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2 thoughts on “Turkish Coffee Culture – A 500-year tradition

  1. I find the interconnectedness of fortune-telling, culture, and coffee in your post very entertaining.
    I know some people who place great importance on their coffee each day!
    And I have always found that a curious thing…

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