The last time I was in Istanbul, I had made the assumption that Turkish coffee was consumed all the time and I had made a point to seek it out (check out my blog post on Turkish coffee). While it’s still definitely a thing here to drink Turkish coffee, with it being on the menu of every single cafe and some places like Mandabatmaz only serving that, I hadn’t realized beforehand how much more tea is consumed.
When I went out for breakfast my first morning on my current trip here in Istanbul, tea was automatically set in front of me right after I sat down. Throughout the meal, there was always someone walking around with cups of tea to replace any empty cup in front of a patron. It’s like back home when someone is always walking around with a thing of coffee to refill the mugs of breakfast patrons. While Turkish coffee was on the menu, it’s not really expected for anyone to order it with their breakfast. In fact, the word for breakfast, “kahvalti,” actually means “before coffee” so breakfast is what you eat before you even get to coffee.
On the food tour I was on the other day, my guide told me that coffee used to take much more precedence in Turkey, as there were a lot more roasters with a coffee distribution presence in Istanbul. The tea culture only really set in within the last hundred years. Because coffee isn’t locally grown while tea is, it’s actually economical to produce and sell tea instead of coffee and now it’s taken over the hold that Turkish coffee once had.
One thing I noticed last time was that in whatever market I happened to be in – whether it was an enclosed one like the Grand Bazaar or the open air Wednesday market in the Fatih district near the mosque – was that there was always someone walking around with a tray of tea to give to a shopkeeper/stall owner, taking back the empty cups from the person’s previous round.
I was curious about that process – who was making the tea? How did they know who wanted it? How did the payment work?
I asked my guide this as we were eating breakfast since we were eating near to what looked like a tea distribution kitchen, which it actually was. There were a couple of people making tea while there was someone else always walking around with a full tray of tea, to return later with empty cups. I found out that shopkeepers get their tea throughout the day, sometimes using the intercom system set up in the tiny kitchen to let the tea maker know they wanted some. As payment, shopkeepers give a token for each cup of tea they receive as money had already been exchanged for these tokens between the shopkeepers and the tea guy.
I surprised no one more than myself when I really took to the tea culture last time and this time around, I embraced it even further.
The day of the food tour, I had two cups with my breakfast, another cup later with some baklava, and then one after lunch. The funny thing is that as lunch was ending, I was getting antsy. I saw people in the restaurant around me drinking tea after their meals and I wanted a cup too! Barely a second after I had that thought, one was presented to me. It really is a great way to end a meal.
Many hours later after a late dinner of a plate of kabobs with vegetables and potatoes at a random place near my hotel, I was asked if I wanted some tea.
Further Reading: Check out my blog post on the food tour I was on when I was in Istanbul the last time. I did another one on this trip, this time one that focused on the Old City. I had some incredibly delicious food – kaymak during breakfast, freshly made pide, doner kabob that was a step above most doner kabobs in the city, and a pretty awesome, slow-roasted lamb. I did find out though that I’m not really a fan of intestines. But hey, at least I tried it!
If you are going to Istanbul and open to trying out different kinds of food, I highly recommend doing a food tour with the good folks at Culinary Backstreets. You get a history lesson while walking around a specific part of the city so it’s a great way to understand Istanbul as well.
NOTE: I found out that the apple tea I loved so much last time is mostly a thing just for tourists, haha. Also, I’ll add more pictures to this post once I get back and upload some tea-related pics from my camera.