Turkish coffee is majorly misunderstood, I find. No, there is no such thing as Turkish coffee beans – they have never been grown in this country. No, you don’t add milk to your Turkish coffee. And no, that muddy beverage you had somewhere else is not a typical Turkish coffee. I have already put my 5 cents into the cause of educating people about Turkish coffee by providing a useful list of places where one can go for a decent cup in Istanbul. But even the right cup of coffee can be treated wrong way so today I’d like to share a few tips that will help you enjoy Turkish coffee the way locals do.
1. Choose the right occasion: after the meal
Older days it was common in Turkey to have coffee in the morning: Özgür’s grandma recalls how as a young bride she was serving a few cups to her in-laws. As a hint to that old tradition exists the Turkish word for breakfast kahvalti that means “coming after coffee”. Times change and nowadays Turks get in shock at the sight of foreigners looking for coffee first thing in the morning. For them – and here they very much agree with Italians and French – beverage like Turkish coffee is a wonderful way to sum up a meal not to start one.
After a long breakfast, a brief lunch and definitely after a proper dinner a cup of Turkish coffee will be enjoyed with pleasure and if you dine outside it is even offered to you on the house. There is a great logic to that: it helps you carry on with your day without falling into the sleepy mode after a substantial meal and then there is a convincing scientific proof that coffee aids digestion.
2. A little cup goes a long way
Cup of Turkish coffee is rather small. You’d probably say – tiny if you are living in the Northern America. 1/3 or 1/4 of your regular measurement cup. Yet unlike Italian espresso which you can knock down almost on the go Turkish coffee assumes a no rush indulgence. And a good conversation. And you will see how a small cup can last for a while (by the way, be gentle to your heart and don’t try to go for double: Turkish custom is to have a cup of tea after coffee if you absolutely must).
5 centuries of Turkish coffee tradition have resulted in the ways to prepare and serve coffee which ensure it does not go cold too soon and you can enjoy it longer. First, Turkish coffee comes with a thick foam on top which seals it so the coffee keeps its temperature – a good coffee maker (or a smart Arçelic machine) is easy to spot by the thickness of that foam. Second, the grind of Turkish coffee is very fine and some of the coffee grounds will be mixed with water making the coffee thicker and the heat staying longer. Finally, the coffee grounds at the bottom provide additional padding and keep coffee hot for longer period of time. In addition in some places they’d serve your Turkish coffee by hiding a little porcelain cup in the beautiful copper case to protect it from cooling down way too soon.
3. Sugar upfront and no more sugar
When ordering Turkish coffee you need to make an important decision upfront: how sweet you’d like your coffee to be. The options are four: no sugar (sade), little sugar (az şekerli), semi-sweet (orta şekerli) and sweet (şekerli). The reason you are asked about it with all seriousness is that coffee powder, sugar and cold water are mixed before they get simmered together. Because of the thick layer of coffee grounds at the bottom you can’t really stir coffee after it is being poured into your cup and hence no sugar will go in afterwards.
I’d say that more often than not travelers to Istanbul overestimate the need for sugar in Turkish coffee. Many hope to balance the strong coffee flavour with sugar but it does not quite work like that. And you know what’s worst? You will see a piece of Turkish delight typically arriving with your Turkish coffee and you start regretting ordering your cup so sweet. So go for coffee rather than sugar.
4. Take it slow
Conversation.. did I say conversation before? Yes, and I repeat it again. Don’t rush your Turkish coffee drinking. After your order seat back and as your foamy cup of Turkish coffee arrives let it cool down just a bit. You don’t want to spoil the whole experience but burning your mouth. That little pause will help the grounds settle too. Then take a first tiny sip – and sit back to register the sensations. First will be the bitterness – it is ultra-fine ground of Turkish coffee which releases the bitter notes in it. But with the next sip comes more sensations – the spice, the chocolate.
Now look around: many locals are savoring their coffee as they smoke and chat. Those two ladies speaking about big emotions in low voice, that young couple absorbed into the little world of them two, that regular who chats with the coffee shop owner – they all are here for great coffee as much as for a good conversation as both go together in Turkey.
5. Know where to stop: coffee grounds are for fortune telling
I have to disappoint you at this point but then I promise I have a cheerful news for you in my sleeve: 1/3 of that tiny cup of Turkish coffee are the grounds which you will not be able to drink. Depending on how your coffee was poured it can be more or less than a third but you can easily see when your coffee thickens as you approach the bottom. Don’t drink those grounds – earthy and rather unpleasant. Better have a glass of water which was served with the coffee to cleanse your palate. And get ready for more.
Some would say leaving so much coffee grounds is a waste. What if I tell you it is a superb material for fortune telling? Invert your cup and place it on the saucer, let it cool down and most of the coffee grounds slide onto the saucer – those remaining form patters than become instrumental in learning your fortune. That way even when coffee is finished you can still continue the conversation. However, be considerate: you will get looks if you go into the fortune telling at a busy place with a line of people waiting outside to get seated. But then you know it’s a perfect thing to do late morning or early afternoon at one of Istanbul’s tea gardens. And that is a certain reason to have a cup of Turkish coffee.