An introduction to çay

No one comes into the world drinking tea. (I would hope not, at least.) We all have to be introduced to it. I would hazard a guess that my first experiences with it are rather different from those of other U.S. tea aficionados.

When I was 10 years old, my mother–a newly minted consular officer with the U.S. Department of State–received her first posting: Istanbul, Turkey. This was an exciting and exotic experience for a 10-year old girl, and my first weeks there were full of introductions to new experiences, new culture, new sights, and new foods. And one of those new things was çay (pronounced cha-yee, though the second syllable is very short and almost a dipthong), the Turkish way of serving black tea.

Infused or brewed hot beverages weren’t really part of my life at that stage. This was long before branded custom-made coffee in takeout cups and status-symbol teas became a standard part of the American cultural landscape. My mother drank neither coffee nor tea; my grandparents were coffee drinkers, but it wasn’t a major ritual for them, simply something they had a cup or two of (often decaf, percolated please) in the morning or after dinner. I had no history or culture of taking a hot beverage regularly, let alone as a particular ritual of serving and socializing.

I don’t remember the exact details of the first time. It might have been in a café, or possibly in a private residence, likely with some of my mother’s co-workers from the consulate. I do remember being startled that I was being served tea, since in my world up until that point, hot brewed beverages were something for adults. I was also startled at the way it was served: not in the typical porcelain cup with a saucer that I knew from my grandmother’s china collection, but in an elegant fluted glass set on a matching glass saucer. (I can’t recall if the glass and saucer were decorated. Plain glasses are common in cafés, the same way coffee shops here in the U.S. will have simple white stoneware coffee cups. The fancy banded or etched glasses were more common in private homes and upscale hotels.) The tea itself was dark, almost as dark as coffee, and bits of tea leaves swirled in the glass. (I never deliberately cut my çay with water; I don’t think I knew that was an option. Whatever strength the host or establishment provided was what I drank.)

My first taste was almost certainly tentative, and I almost certainly burned my tongue. It was powerful, bitter, deep and dark-tasting, and rather overwhelming to my young palate–a foreign, odd experience, yet not really unpleasant. I was offered cubes of sugar, and I took them, dropping them in one by one and stirring with the small spoon after each one, tasting to see when the liquid in my glass stopped being overwhelmingly bitter. Three was the final count on the cubes. This resulted in a deeply sweet liquid with a slightly bitter aftertaste that I found very pleasant. It was the way I would take my çay for the two years we lived in Istanbul, and it has almost certainly affected the taste I’ve since developed for rich black teas brewed long with sweet elements to them (though I no longer put sugar in my tea as a matter of course).

I have myriad wonderful memories of moment and sense wrapped up in my experiences with çay. The sun shining through a glass as I stirred in my sugar, glinting off the metallic bands or delicate etching of the glass, giving the tea a gorgeous, translucent reddish cast, and highlighting the swirling bits of leaves that were never entirely filtered out. The friendly noise of cafés, filled with raised-voice Turkish arguments (always friendly) and the clatter of backgammon pieces and the moist warmth of steam and the red-bitter scent of tea brewing. Dozy Saturday mornings spent at our favorite rug vendor, located in the oldest part of the Grand Bazaar (the part that was originally a caravansarai), where they would give us çay to sip while we sat in the stone alcoves in the walls and they spread rug after rug out before us for my mother’s review and approval, stacking the rugs in a pile that might reach three feet high by the time we were done, while morning sunshine slanted through the high window and highlighted the dust stirred up when the rugs were unrolled. Breakfasts during our school ski trips (yes, you can go skiing in Turkey!), rows of prepubescent kids seated on benches at long rough-hewn tables, served our tea out of white porcelain pots along with fresh-that-morning bread and sweet butter and rose-petal jam, a combination of flavors that even now makes me happy when I so much as think about it. Çay is an integral part of one of the most formative periods of my life, and deeply tied into my senses.

We didn’t continue with tea, let alone çay, once we returned to the U.S. My mother wasn’t interested in investing in a samovar or the time required for brewing and serving çay according to tradition, and I’m sure we would have found it difficult in those days to get Turkish tea leaves; and since we hadn’t had that history of regular tea-drinking before going to Istanbul, there wasn’t much to keep us doing it once we left. It would be a decade before tea returned to my life as a regular feature. But there is no doubt in my mind that çay is the foundation of the interest I developed in later years, and I treasure my memories of experiencing it in Turkey. I hope to return there and experience it again soon.

(allaboutturkey.com has a brief overview of the history of tea in Turkey and information on preparing çay the Turkish way. The articles “Taking Tea in Turkey” and “Turkish Tea in Istanbul” from turkeytravelplanner.com give a more…spirited view of the experience of çay.)

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3 Comments

  1. That was fascinating to read. It made me want to run away to Turkey, at least for a few weeks.

    Now that proper implements and teas are so much easier to obtain, are you tempted to try to brew some çay here using the traditional Turkish method?

  2. Fascinating! I’ve had Turkish coffee (my MIL is a big fan) but never çay. And I’ve had many varieties of Asian teas, but again, not Turkish. Now I’m totally curious & want to experience it. Must it be done w/the exact tools, or can you fake it with, say, a French-press pot? I’m sure the best way would be to find a place that serves Turkish food, not impossible where I live, but a challenge… Intriguing! Thank you for the virtual experience 🙂

  3. I really enjoyed reading your post! What a wonderful insight to Turkish Tea. I am a tea lover and really enjoy your blog. I live in Turkey and have started my own blog with some friends. I just did my own post on Turkish Tea!

    http://theistanbulletin.com/2012/10/07/eat-cay-turkish-tea/