An Amalgam of Centuries of Influences
“Caysiz sohbet, aysiz gok yuzu gibidir.”
Conversations without tea are like a night sky without the moon.
Folk saying in Sivas, Turkey.
Hybrid is the keyword in describing çay (pronounced chai) in Turkey as its history incorporates many traditions of Russia, China, and the Middle East, yet the country’s approach to tea and tea foods remains distinctly its own.
Like nearly every country, Turkey first embraced tea via Chinese traders in the 1500s from tea traders traveled the Silk Road. In the late 19th century, the country recognized the beverage for its health benefits, thanks in 1878 to then-governor Mehmet Izzet of Adana whose seminal writings, (Cay Risalesi or the Tea Pamphlet,) extolled tea’s benefits.
Tea production wasn’t always easy or successful. When Turkey first attempted tea growing in the late 1800s it failed, but the tea growers then experimented in the province of Rize by the Eastern Black Sea in 1917. Progress was interrupted by the Turkish War for Independence followed by government restrictions. It was not until the late 1930s that large scale cultivation began in earnest with 20 tons of seeds brought from the Georgian Republic and planted in a greenhouse. By 1965, production had grown so much that domestic demand was satisfied and Turkey began its successful exportation of tea.
Domestic demand, however, has not slowed, and it averages an estimated 1,000 cups per person per year! More than 400 million Turkish style tea glasses are sold per year, about six per person, (probably not counting those purchased by tea loving tourists or those broken.)
A typical tea-making vessel, the çaydanlik, a double-stacked teapot similar to a Russian samovar but much smaller, is used for brewing tea. The bottom kettle is used to boil the water and the smaller top kettle is used for creating and storing a tea concentrate made with loose tea leaves.
A small quantity of the tea concentrate is poured into the tea for a very strong tea (koyu or demli) serving or less for a lighter brew (acik). Then, your host adds water to fill up the glass but never to the top to avoid spilling or burning one’s fingers. Because the cups are made of glass and have no handles, one holds the glass from the top using thumb and index finger.
Turks love their tea sweet to reduce the astringency of the concentrate to a mellow, aromatic beverage. While most Turks put a cube or two of sugar into the glass and stir it with a small spoon, others follow the Russian tradition and place the cube between tongue and cheek and drink their tea that way (kitlama.) And, no, Turks never add milk and only occasionally use lemon.
The Turkish serving glasses differ from other glass ones used in Morocco or Russia in that the glasses are always clear, the better to observe the rich red color of the tea. The glass is indented in the center and has a wide brim at the top. The glass is set in a high-rimmed saucer with any requested sugar cubes dropped into the saucer. A small spoon is placed in the glass to stir the sugar until it dissolves in the tea.
You’ll find yourself offered tea in shops, offices, homes, and hear the cry, “Cay!” from street vendors everywhere. In both the park-like tea gardens and indoor tea shops (çay saari), you will not find any of the reserve of European or British tea service. Instead, the venues are lively gatherings of all ages where conversations (and debates) reign; board games, especially backgammon, are in constant play, and yes, people smoke cigarettes or use a hookah.
Since tea is endlessly made wherever you go, and replenished continuously, to signal you’ve had enough, put the tea spoon on top of the glass to let your host know.
While Turkish tea is imported into the U.S. in micro quantities, classic black teas from Sri Lanka and India are perfect for creating the very strong concentrates typical for this country’s tea service. We suggest these Adagio Tea selections as you can brew them into a concentrate and serve them light or strong “Turkish style:” Irish Breakfast, Assam Harmony, and Ceylon Waltz
GO-WITH FOODS FOR TURKISH-STYLE TEA
In addition to the sugar used in the tea, typical Turkish tea sweets might include kaymakli kayisi tatlisi (cream-stuffed apricots;) Greek-influenced baklava, a pastry of papery thin dough stuffed with honey and pistachios, or qurabiya, an almond cookie which you are strongly encouraged to dip into your glass of tea.
The following pastry recipes would be perfect with traditional Turkish Tea or the above suggested substitutes.
Soak the apricots in cold water overnight then drain.
To prepare, add sugar and the 3 cups of fresh water together in a large saucepan and heat over medium heat for 10 minutes. When the sugar is dissolved, add the soaked and drained apricots, and cook until the fruit is very tender and the liquid is a syrupy consistency. Add the lemon juice, stir, and cook only for one more minute, then remove from the heat.
With a perforated spoon, transfer the apricots to a plate and allow to cool. Reserve the syrup in the pan and allow to cool and thicken.
When ready to serve, slice open the apricots either on the edge or across the width. Carefully spoon the cream into each one. Arrange them side-by-side on a platter and slowly pour the syrup over them. Garnish with the nuts. Yields 12 servings.
Recipe adapted from “Turkish Cooking” by Gülseren Ramazanoglu
NOTE: Unsulphured, organic apricots are brown, rather than the vivid orange of those with added sulphur, but the flavor is exceptionally mild, sweet, and they achieve a silkiness when stewed. Seek them out at your local Trader Joe’s or organic markets.
Qurabiya (aka Ghorabiye)
This is a macaroon-style cookie ubiquitous in the Middle East that probably originated in ancient Iran (Persia) then traveled to Turkey during the Ottoman Empire era. It’s simple to make and both delicate and distinctly flavorful. Culinary-grade rosewater can be found in baking sections of your grocery store or in any Middle Eastern food shop. The cardamom is optional but adds a lovely edge of flavor.
In a medium-sized bowl, beat together the egg whites with the salt until soft peaks are formed. In a separate bowl, mix together the ground almonds, sugar, and cardamom, if using. Fold this almond mixture, and the rosewater, gently into the eggs whites and a light dough will form.
Shape the dough into balls, about 1” in diameter, and place on a silicone sheet or greased baking sheet. Bake at 350°F. for 15-20 minutes or until golden. They will be crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside.
VARIATION: Flatten the balls before baking for a more cookie-like shape. Texture will be the same.
Yields 24 small cookies.
Adapted from a recipe by Tomas de Courcy