Turkish Coffee Culture

Turkish coffee culture

The day fell short of our overflowing glee,

All at the coffeehouse were filled with envy.

“With friends”, I said, “talk is as sweet as honey”.

Oh coffeemaker, do not add sugar to our coffee!

Besir Ayvazoglu (from his poem, “unsweetened coffee”)

Every country has its own love affair with this exotic and tempestuous drink. Indeed, the growing trends and popularity of the espresso and it’s bewildering plethora of related concoctions, have resulted in this “elixir of beverages” being turned into a “quick, quick, kiss me and go” drink. Whether its an office worker catching her “Sugar Free Double Shot, Extra Hot, Extra Whip Caramel Macchiato Venti with Semi-Skimmed Milk” from a well known global chain in Central London, or a driver having a “Doppio Espresso Senza Zucchero” whilst he pays for his fuel at a petrol station on the Autostrada into Rome, coffee is no longer what it used to be. At the turn of the 20th Century, the espresso launched the Express Train method of coffee drinking - things would never the same again….

So how did the Turks, still philosophically sipping on their slow-brew, react to such technological developments? Well, initially not a lot changed. The same coffee shops served the same Turkish coffee throughout the 1900s.

Eventually, the opening of global chains during the early years of the new millenium began the enticement of the youth and made coffee drinking“cool” and “chic” among the young and affluent. The Turks were eventually won over and they became advocates for lattes and macchiatos as much as any other European or North American.

But, recently there has been a shift. After all, 500 year old coffee brewing techniques are nothing to be sniffed at, and Turks are now beginning to revive the real value of their “Kahve”. That is one of the reasons why it is now paramount that this Turkish method of coffee brewing receives the recognition it deserves. It is reaping the benefits greatly, so much so that Unesco has recently added Turkish Coffee to its Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

So, now we’re filled with the coffee buzz, let us dive into the frothy culture of Turkish Coffee with some amusing stories surrounding the magical mysteries of this bittersweet beverage.

Since its introduction, coffee has played a very important role in Turkish life. A Turkish proverb declares that, "A single cup of coffee is respected for forty years", highlighting the fact that if you are offered coffee by your host it is considered to be of high regard and a clear sign of respect to the guest.

Not to be offered coffee by your host can easily be interpreted as meaning, “I expect you won’t be staying long”.....

"Serving times..."

Coffee should ideally be served after breakfast, to get you perked up for the day, and after lunch, to prevent the onset of lethargy. Only the die-hard addict will have Turkish coffee in the evening. The tradition of drinking coffee following breakfast is so cemented in the Turkish language that the word for breakfast is “Kahvalti”, meaning “Pre-Coffee”. Even though tea is always at the table during breakfast itself, a cup of indescribably delicious coffee post breakfast is like the icing on the cake.

"The palace coffee bearer..."

There used to be a prestigious position within the Ottoman Palace. One which had the privilege of being the closest confidante of the Sultan, but one which also came with great danger and responsibility. This position was the “Kahvecibasi”, The Head of the Coffee-makers. The Kahvecibasi was in charge of the whole supply chain of Turkish coffee on behalf of the Sultan; the purchasing, storage, brewing and serving to the Sultan and his Harem. Most Ottoman Sultans were quite addicted to the drink, so it wasn’t a case of once after breakfast and once after lunch; but rather whenever the Sultan took a fancy, which could be up to and more than 30 times a day…

It was quite a ceremonious affair. Coffee would be drank in the palace “coffee room” and served by a team of clean-cut young and nimble men, each having a vital role to play in the proceedings; holding the tray and cups, holding the pot, pouring the coffee, serving the coffee or cleaning up the used cups, all under the auspicious eye of the Kahvecibasi. In the Harem, coffee-serving concubines would act out the same ceremony.

Coffee making was an important part of the education of a palace servant. The eloquent serving traditions of Turkish coffee were helpfully spread across Ottomania by way of concubines who had married statesmen and left the palace or those who would depart for some other reason. These palace ceremonies continued through till the end of the Ottoman Empire.

"Ye olde coffee house..."

“If you are seated at a coffeehouse and someone sits next to you, you shall order

him coffee; that is what Ottomanism is all about!”

From when the first coffee houses opened in Istanbul, they quickly became a popular gathering place for hedonistic individuals. Some were busy reading and writing books, others played backgammon or chess, and poets would be huddled together reciting their new odes to each other. Gradually, coffee houses were also being frequented by discharged judges and religious professors, as well as unemployed statesmen, officers and dignitaries. This turned humble coffee houses into hotbeds of religious and political conversation. Of course, an eager and willing audience accepting the learnings of new ideas made the religious fanatics and the Sultanate a little uneasy from time to time. Much to the point that history has many instances when coffee houses were shut down. We’ll look at the prohibition years of coffee in another blog.

"Here comes the bride..."

Certain traditions are kept well alive, more for the fun of it in today’s Turkish family life, rather than anything serious. One such tradition is that of the ability of the bride-to-be to brew a good cup of coffee for her prospective husband and parents-in-law, who will have made a formal visit to ask for the hand-in-marriage. The groom’s side will adorn themselves in their Sunday bests, pick up some flowers and a box of chocolates, or "lokum" (Turkish Delight), and make their way over to the family of the bride’s house. Once the introductions and pleasantries are out of the way, it is expected for the bride-to-be to make Turkish coffee for all the guests, and also the members of her own household. If the prospective mother-in-law, in particular, is satisfied with the resultant cup of coffee, then the remainder of the evening moves along smoothly. If not, then that marriage is not going to happen...

Sometimes, the bride will want to test her potential husband’s love for her by delicately adding salt instead of sugar into his coffee. If he drinks it all without the slightest squinch and says, “that was quite delicious”, then obviously he must truly love her to suffer the taste (why don’t you put your loved one to the test at home?). But as we said in the intro, this is all traditional trivia. Today, most young lovers will probably have met, proposed, accepted and even planned their wedding date and honeymoon location themselves. But keeping traditions alive is part of wonders of Turkish culture and some mild amusement and banter never did anyone any harm.

“Coffee on the barbie...”

Traditionally, coffee was brewed over an open fire. We mentioned that Turkish coffee is best prepared and drank following breakfast or lunch. There is also one other time to have a good cuppa, after a wholesome picnic or barbecue.

In Turkey, picnicking is an art and institution in itself. In fact, the word picnic really doesn’t do the actual experience any justice at all. No, it’s more of an al-fresco feast, than a mere picnic. Turks love their food as much as they love their coffee and having a picnic would not be complete without the portable bbq, or “mangal”. Even though the lady of the house would be in charge of daily meals at home, when it comes to preparing the barbecue, it is very much the man’s job. Some aficionados swear that barbecuing is a form of therapy and not even the weather will stop them. Even during a snowy-Sunday in London, the Turkish mangal-man will find any excuse to get his mangal out, fill it up with Big-K BBQ Charcoal and have the pre-marinated succulent slabs of meat cooking away no time. The smell of cooking meat will waft over garden fences and the consciously aware Turk will always prepare a plate of cooked meats for their neighbours. Even better, they’ll invite them over to join the party.

Once the feast is over and everyone is stuffed until they can’t eat anymore, and with the charcoal reduced to a pile of smoldering ember - it is then the right time for coffee.

Of course, the best Turkish coffee is one that is brewed slowly over the ashes of a burnt out bbq.

"Ladies’ mornings..."

When housewives send off their husbands to work or their kids to school, they will congregate at one of their neighbour’s houses, drink coffee and have their fortune told. These ladies will have generated a “Morning Coffee” culture that resembles the “Five o’clock tea” in the UK. But this isn’t a common daily ritual. To make the coffee sessions worthwhile, these informal ladies’ clubs will have pre-organised a form of sweepstake between themselves. At regular intervals, the ladies will meet at one of their houses. They will all bring a predefined sum of money or gold and hand it over to the host. The host in turn will make the coffee and cakes, etc and the morning chit-chat and gossip will commence, until they have to pick up the kids from school or if they have to do a little household shopping before their husbands come home. Upon the next gathering, they will move on to another host’s house and the collected money on that day will go to that host. This is continued until all the ladies have hosted their guests and received the collected money. Once the round is complete, they will start over again. The aim of this sweepstake is an opportunity for everyone to do a little money saving and receive the same lump sum once every period (depending on how many friends there are and how frequently they get together).

"Whatever my fortune shall hold, so it shall be told..."

Turkish coffee is all about relaxation, mingling and sharing. It is about conversation.

So what better to finish off a cup of Turkish coffee than having your fortune read from the coffee grounds or “Telve” left at the base of the cup after you have finished drinking.

It is not clear when coffee cup fortune reading first began. Over time, fortune tellers began to make sense of the the shapes formed within the cup and resembled them to certain symbols, which in turn began to have associated meanings. Generally, coffee ground readings are meant for a bit of fun and intrigue. However, some do take it very seriously. The fortune teller will normally present good news, so that the person having their coffee cup read can have a peaceful night’s sleep and live in hope for the future. But some fortune tellers can also present the bad with the good. Believing or not, is at your prerogative...

As in everything related to Turkish coffee, fortune reading is also covered in tradition and rituals. The process starts off with the coffee being drunk only from one side of the cup. When the coffee is finished and the telve remains, the saucer is placed on top of the cup, and a wish is made. With the saucer still covering the top, the cup is held at chest level and turned counter-clockwise a few times. Following this, the cup is turned upside down onto the saucer, and left to cool. Sometimes a coin may be placed on top to make the cup cool faster and to dispel bad omens that could be read from it. When the coffee cup is cool enough, the fortune teller opens the cup and starts interpreting the shapes for divination. Sometimes, the cup will become stuck onto the saucer. In this instance, the fortune teller will put the cup and saucer back down and declare that whatever the wish has been made, so be it that it will come true.

Despite the fact that tea has moved ahead in recent popularity stakes, coffee is still prestigiously regarded as the traditional drink and steeped in intrigue and deep culture. This is why it is a sin to guzzle it down in gallons, as if a soft drink.

It has to be respected and revered.

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