Tea is to Turkey what fizzy, watery beer is to Milwaukee – consumed in copious amounts, a desired chemical reaction takes place, but its real value lies not in the taste but in the ritual of swilling. Without noticing it, tea has snuck its way into daily life for us. We never really enjoyed the flavor of standard Turkish tea, but it is part and parcel of the rich Turkish experience.
In Kars, memorably, we guzzled it from a pockmarked, coal-fired samovar stamped with a Russian crest as we sat in the shade beside a river. In the eastern Black Sea, it was the offer of a tea that brought us into a village çayhane, where we eavesdropped on the local men speaking their Pontic Greek dialect, as they warmed their feet around a stove. Tea unlocks doors.
Slowly we began to seek it out when we had some time to kill. We used it as an excuse to stop into an old smoky kıraathane, where playing cards are smacked down on green felt and dirty words are not uttered but bellowed. We followed çay jockeys with aluminum trays covered with poker chips (this is how tea payments are calculated among regulars) to magical, steamy nooks, the caffeinated nerve center of entire commercial strips. We soon discovered that çaycan be arranged in just about any conceivable situation or location, public or private, by barking “iki çay, lütfen!” loud enough. Wait a minute and someone with a tray will come rushing your way with tea for you and your newfound friend. Çay is everywhere, always, and there’s never a reason not to drink one. You never know what it might lead to.
See the slide show and the rest of this feature at Culinary Backstreets .