Snapshots from Turkey: Istanbul Tea Culture
Ferry boats, pomegranates, Bosphorus views, steep hills, stunning skylines—all among my favorite things about Istanbul. Also up there? Turkish tea culture. As in: you're drinking tea. Everywhere. All the time. The guy shining your shoes on a street corner has a glass cup of tea, like the one above, sitting next to him. No takeout cups here. The girl selling eggplants at the market, too. Businessmen taking a cigarette break on the corner—they're drinking tea while they smoke. You're on a 15-minute ferry across the Bosphorus and someone's selling you tea. And every square inch of the city has a tea guy.
When I first walked through Istanbul, I was struck by how, whether I was in a winding-streeted hill neighborhood or an office building-lined city block, there would be men (and they would, generally, be men) sat hunched on tiny stools, smoking cigarettes and drinking tea. Sometimes you'd see a shop they seemed associated with—a little tea stall with a waiter and, you know, a street address. But sometimes you wouldn't; you'd just see a tea guy. Where did they come from, I wondered?
Often, from tiny stalls tucked almost out of sight. Here's one typical stall. This guy works in Karaköy, near the waters of the Golden Horn. He'll bring tea to the nearby workers—this is a metal workers' neighborhood, as it has been for centuries—bringing a tray of little teacups.
The tea itself? It's brewed in two-tier pots. Looseleaf black tea is lightly toasted, dry in the bottom of the pot, then brewed into a super-strong elixir. On top of that, a pot of boiling water; when they pour each cup of tea, they're combined to dilute the tea down to a drinkable strength. It's served with sugar, and most people use a lot of it.
"There was a guy at my old office who would, no joke, drink 20 cups of tea a day," said Megan Clark, our tour guide on an awesome Istanbul Eats food crawl. "If your office doesn't have a tea guy, that's considered unsuitable working conditions."
"I was sort of shocked at the amount of caffeine he'd drink. But then I told him that on my way to work when I lived in Chicago, I'd drink two big cups of coffee before I'd get into work. And he was shocked by that."
When you're drinking that much, you end up pretty particular about your tea. In my week in Turkey, I saw several people reject cups that, frankly, tasted just fine to me. "It's a little burnt." "Much too floral for me." "Not as hot as it should be."
Transactions get streamlined when you're putting back that many cups a day. "If you're the shoe shine guy and you're drinking tea all day, you might just give the tea guy a few hundred lira. He'll give you a few hundred chips back, and he'll just take a chip every time he brings you tea."
I love any culture where there's always time to take a tea break. But I love the idea of the tea guy even more—one person who, in some ways, anchors a neighborhood. "The tea guy always knows the best gossip," Clark said. Even in the busiest parts of the city, there's one person weaving between the fast-food stands, the shoe-shiners, and the market vendors. Who'll bring you tea if you're eating borek on the street.
At the end of our Istanbul Eats day of food-crawling, we ended up at a huge tea garden in the neighborhood Moda, just an expanse of plastic tables and chairs, a guy bringing around tea—and an absolutely killer view of the Bosphorus, of the historic old city, and of the waters and ferryboats of Istanbul. All there for the viewing, and in Istanbul, a totally normal scene. Anywhere you go, any pleasant spot, any vista, there's someone to hand you tea. And I love that.