Turkey takes its caffeine seriously: Turkish coffee and Turkish tea are unique and renowned around the world. Instead of going out for coffee, like in the United States, you go out for kahveçay, getting an option of either kahve (coffee) or çay (tea) [chai— the “ç” is pronounced like “ch”]. Although you can find iced coffee and tea in Turkish grocery stores, drinking it is still very uncommon. Here I’m going to focus on çay, which is consumed even more than coffee in Turkey.
Turks have the largest annual consumption of tea per person in the world, beating out the next closest countries by several pounds per person! This is hardly surprising, considering how many occasions you have to drink it. Çay is a traditional part of the Turkish breakfast, it is frequently drunk during the workday and in the evening, and it is always offered to guests. Many neighborhoods across Turkey have a local çaycı [chaiju—the “ı” is pronounced somewhat like a groan, or the “i” in cousin] that prepares tea in their small, often hidden, H.Q., delivering hot tea to shops in their neighborhood. If you walk through the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul you can sometimes spot a çaycı carrying a tray filled with cups of tea to various stalls. Don’t be surprised if you are offered tea too – it is considered part of Turkish hospitality and is common if you are looking in a store for a while, such as a rug store or a textile stand in the Grand Bazaar.
Çay is a black tea that is grown along the Black Sea coast. Because it is grown in a colder climate, it takes longer to steep the leaves (10-15 minutes), but this also makes the caffeination and flavor much more potent. It is typically prepared in a double-boiler pot known as a çaydanlık [chaidanluk]. It is basically two tea pots on top of each other, with the bottom one containing only water, and the top containing the tea. The steam from the bottom kettle heats the tea in the top kettle while allowing the top kettle to steep. Because the tea is strong, you can pour the water from the bottom kettle into your tea cup to cut the strength. You can request that your çay is either açık [achuk], weak, or koyu, strong.
The cups are small, tulip-shaped glasses. They often have a golden rim and a line around the outside middle of the glass, where you can estimate when to stop pouring tea and switch to adding the water to dilute it. The tea is served boiling, and the glass doesn’t protect against heat well, so hold the glass like the Turks do: from the rim rather than the body. The glass is so you can see the dark amber color of the tea. While they don’t put milk or lemon in their tea, sugar cubes made from beet sugar can always be added, which are usually in a dish and added by the drinker. And don’t be shy about refills—drinking three or more cups is not that uncommon, and more likely than not they will be pushed on you anyways!
Çay actually doesn’t have that long of a history in Turkey. After World War I, with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the loss of direct access to Yemen, the major coffee supplier for the Ottomans, coffee became expensive and was often unavailable. The new Turkish government promoted the alternative of tea, which began to be grown in large amounts around the city of Rize, which is still known for its tea today. Tea had existed in the Ottoman Empire for centuries before, but now it quickly became a Turkish staple. The Turkish government actually maintained a monopoly on tea through the early 1980s before it was opened to the private market.
While you can buy Turkish tea in grocery stores in Turkey, you can also find it in the United States and online. Çaykur is the largest brand (it has about 60% of the market), and it is stocked in most Middle Eastern specialty stores and is even carried by Amazon. Not to mention that çay is cheap: you can get several pounds for under $10. Other brands, such as Doğuş also exist, but are often harder to find outside of Turkey.
One of the best parts of drinking çay is the view. Looking out over the street or reading the newspaper in your kitchen is nice, but Istanbul has really outdone itself with having a çaybahçe [chaibahche], or tea garden, in many spectacular locations. The çaybahçe at Pierre Loti Hill, in the Eyüp neighborhood, and the one in Çamlıca Hill in Üsküdar have particularly great views of the city, the former over the European side of the city and the Golden Horn, while the latter looks over Istanbul’s Asian side. At the end of Gülhane Park there is a small çaybahçe right next to the famous Topkapı Palace that looks over the Bosphorus Sea and across to the Asia. Several other çaybahçes and a host of neat cafes, some of the most interesting in the Beyoğlu and Kadıköy neighborhoods, dot the city. Perhaps the most unparalleled, and often overlooked, is just drinking a glass of çay on the Istanbul ferries while watching the city and the waves. Try to aim your time going to Europe at sunset and you will be in for a fantastic view.