11 things you need to know about Turkish coffee before heading to Turkey

I love coffee, and I love Turkey. I love living here, I love learning here, and I love the people. Most people around the globe know at least some things about Turkey (Turkish Delight, the Whirling Dervish, Istanbul not Constantinople), and therefore many people have heard of Turkish coffee. But, those same people probably do not realize just how important it is in Turkish society. I set out to measure just how special it is by, of course, reading some books and blogs, and by interviewing an “expert” (a Turkish housewife) to learn more about this drink that takes your taste buds on the ride of their lives.

  1. “A bubbly brew indeed” – Turkish coffee isn’t made with today’s popular methods (Chemex, V60, or the Barista at Starbucks). Turkish coffee is boiled — coffee, water, and sugar all together; not in a pan, but in a traditional instrument made of copper called a “cezve”.
  2. “The best things come in small packages” – Turkish coffee is served in what looks to be a teeny-tiny little mug; in part because it was so valuable that it could only be afforded in small amounts, and at the same time, so strong that it could only be consumed in small amounts. But don’t worry, even the most burly of Turkish men drink their coffee in these glasses, holding their pinkies up high and proud.
  3. “You’ll never be drunk alone” – Another thing one must know is that Turkish coffee is never served alone. “Usually” says Rusen, “Turkish coffee is given with a small glass of water. The reason for this is that if one drinks the water before the coffee then they can clean out their mouth and the flavor of the coffee will be better. It is drunk after the coffee in order to clean out the coffee grounds from your teeth and mouth.” I’ve also been told that if you drink the water before the coffee, it means you are still hungry and the coffee was served too soon. Thankfully it also sometimes comes with chocolates, or my favorite, Turkish Delight.
  4. “More coffee, or I am divorcing you!” – According to Mark Pendergast, in his book “Uncommon Grounds”, coffee was so important during the 16th-century in the Ottoman empire, that a husband not providing enough coffee became grounds for a woman to seek divorce.
  5. “Coffee, tell me my future” – Many are familiar with psychic reading of tea leaves, but did you know that some people think coffee might give you a clearer picture of your future? “Falcılık” (fortune telling), or “fal bakmak” is where a fortuneteller reads your coffee grounds and tells you what the future has in store. So does it really work, or is it just a game played for fun? It depends on whom you ask. First you drink your coffee, living a little bit of the grounds in the cup. Once you have just the grounds left, you gently turn over your cup on the saucer, and if you have a ring you put a ring on top of the cup. This makes the cup cool down quickly and helps your fortune come out better. “Then,” Rusen excitedly explains, “once everyone has turned the cup over, the reader removes the cup and looks at your grounds to read your fortune.” There are even apps that will help you figure out your fortune.
  6. “Give a cup of coffee, earn my respect” – Ask anyone on the street in Turkey and they can probably tell you this saying about Turkish coffee: “bir kahvenin kırk yıl hatırı vardır”, meaning, “one cup of Turkish coffee has a forty year obligation.” Even with the translation it is somewhat of a riddle, but this means that the person giving the coffee is to be respected, honored, and remembered for a long time for the sake of his offering the coffee. “This shows us that Turkish coffee is very valuable and special,” said Rusen.
  7. “I fell in love because of her coffee” – This might be something you only hear a barista or a coffee addict say, but in Turkey, it has a lot more meaning. At a “kız istemeye” (“to get the girl” – when a man comes to ask for a girl’s hand in marriage), it is a tradition for the would-be-bride to make Turkish coffee for the would-be-groom and his family. Since Turkish coffee is only for special occasions, this makes the guy and his family feel special. “In the groom’s Turkish coffee”, says Rusen, “you sometimes put some salt, or a little spicy pepper.” “Why?” You ask. “Is this something that will be hitting Starbucks menu soon? I thought the coffee was meant to impress the groom!” Yes, but it is also used to test his love for the girl. If he complains about the coffee, then the coffee was more important than she. If he drinks it without complaining, he really loves her. I once watched my friend drink a coffee with vinegar in it at his “kız istemeye.” True love indeed. Thankfully, the cups are small.
  8. “Give me that foam” – most coffee lovers know that a cappuccino or latte is judged by it’s foam. Well, Turkish coffee, being the “grand-father of the espresso” — according to Erin Meister of Counter Culture Coffee here — is also judged by the spumy, lathery foam. Rusen told us how all her friends know that her Turkish coffee is the best because of the amount of foam she can froth up.
  9. “Coffeehouses – where business and brawling happen” – Erin Meister, who writes for seriouseats.com hereabout the journey of coffee, rightly cites coffee as fuel for “marketplace discussion” during the Ottoman Empire. She tells how it was “continuously used as a catalyst for business meetings and the exchange of a day’s news.” But Turkish coffeehouses were not just the place for brewing economic and intellectual growth, they were also known for brewing troublemakers. Some rulers thought people in coffeehouses were having too much fun, and one Grand Vizier Kuprili of Istanbul “banned coffeehouses during a war, fearing sedition” and treachery, writes Mark Pendergrast. Looks like caffeine helps out with brain function and military coups!
  10. “How should we celebrate? Coffee!” – During the time of Ataturk (someone you need to get to know when planning a trip to Turkey), and even during the time of the Sultans, a “paşa” (general) would celebrate winning a battle by sharing a cup of Turkish coffee with his lieutenants.
  11. “Let’s chase this meal with a cup of joe” – Having a cup of coffee after dinner is not uncommon the world over. But in Turkey, one is hard pressed to find someone who does not end their meal with a glass of “çay” (tea). However, there are also those who like to end a meal with a cup of Turkish Coffee. So, next time you are in Turkey, why not follow that kebab and pilav with a nice, strong, thick cup of the REAL Turkish delight, coffee.