Let's Drink: Popular Beverages in Turkey
Discussing beverages to drink while you are in Turkey, is a conversation that could last for hours. In fact, anyone could easily dedicate a whole book to listing all the choices available.
It would however be sacrilege, to discuss any other beverage before Turkish tea.
Most people who have never visited Turkey before are often surprised to learn that Turks are not a nation running around high on caffeine. Indeed many people think Turkish coffee is the favoured beverage but it is tea and this is proven in the government-owned tea industry called Caykur that is one of the most profitable in the country. Mainly grown in the Northeast because of the fertile soil, a good estimation is that the average Turk drinks 8 glasses or more a day.
Served black in tulip shaped glasses, some Turks add copious amounts of sugar, but it is the social protocol about this drink that is more important. Across the country, tea houses are a male dominated environment. The click of tea glasses resonates along with the tapping of backgammon pieces or okey slabs, a hugely popular game that is slightly similar to rummy or Mahjong.
The no-woman environment would be enough to get any hard-core feminist worked up but society has also got around this rule by opening tea gardens, which do a roaring trade in the height of summer. Open to women and children, first-time visitors to Turkey, will enjoy these gardens for people-watching and an intense insight into Turkish family culture.
The next popular drink classed as the national favourite is Raki, a clear aniseed liquid similar to Perno or Greek Ouzo, but much stronger, often at 48% alcohol. Across the country, hundreds of bottles are sold daily of the two national brands; Tekirdag and Yeni Raki but its nickname appeals more to a strong blooded Turk. Typically consumed while eating fish or at a BBQ, tradition dictates that water is added resulting in a milky white liquid looking like lions milk. Many Turks will firmly state with a defiant smile that they do indeed feel like a lion after just one glass.
Still on the subject of alcoholic drinks, if Raki doesn’t sit well on your taste buds, the national brand of beer might. Efes Pilsen has won dozens of awards across the globe for its unique taste and this has led to spin-off versions including Efes Dark, Efes Light and Efes Ice, a slightly more subtle version.
The company, formed in 1969 did well across the country possibly due to its unique style of advertising by sponsoring shop billboards and beach umbrellas. This all changed in 2014 when advertising regulations for alcohol became much stricter but they are still the favoured brand of beer, followed closely by Tuburg.
To end the evening, many Turks enjoy a strong cup of Turkish coffee, albeit the taste is rather gritty and strong to most foreigners. The kick from the unfiltered coffee results not from the beans itself but from a unique process of brewing roasted and grounded coffee beans. Similar versions are found across the Middle East and the hot drink is also firmly engrained in old social customs.
The practise has mainly died out in the western parts of Turkey, but in the East, when a potential suitor visits the house of his desired bride; both will use the coffee-making process to gauge each other’s character. A bride is assessed on her ability to make good coffee, while others say she will fill the cup with salt instead of sugar to assess the temper of her future husband. It can also be argued that if she does this, she is rejecting the offer of marriage.
An ideal drink to try, especially if you visit Istanbul in winter, is Salep. Sold from street cart stands, this drink is the perfect warm up in cold weather. Made from the orchid genus flower, the starchy ingredients mixed with hot milk or water and served in a small plastic cup with steam oozing from the top, are a sweet and tasty alternative to Nescafe. In a stark contrast, the other popular item made from salep flour is ice-cream from the Kahramanmaras region of Turkey, therefore making salep a popular year round product.
A must try while in the country though is the widely consumed Ayran, a mixture of yogurt, salt and water, traditionally eaten at lunch time with kebabs. It is an acquired taste and not many foreigners like it, however some Turks swear it is the answer to hangovers, and stomach aches.
At the well-known fish boats of Galata Bridge in Istanbul, locals buy cheap fish sandwiches and if they don’t order Ayran, they will probably drink a glass of Salgam, which to foreigners is even more of a strange concoction. The fermented carrot and turnip juice mixed with salt and spices is another beverage said to be the perfect cure for a hangover. You should try it once although I strongly suspect, the acquired taste won’t become a favourite of yours.