Coffee beans were eaten, roasted, and drunk in eastern Africa for many centuries, but it wasn’t until it arrived into the Ottoman Empire around the 15th century that the drinking of coffee was perfected in Istanbul (then Constantinople) into a beverage that resembles what we imbibe today.
Today, Turkish coffee has been added to the Unesco list of “intangible cultural heritage”, and no visit to Istanbul is complete without trying this unique preparation.
Today the distinctive Turkish coffee is still a major part of people’s life in Istanbul, functioning as a breakfast drink, and a social pause throughout the day, when Istanbul residents meet and chat over this stimulating brew. It is also the subject of songs, poems and legends. Here we explore some of Istanbul’s coffee traditions.
Turkish coffee in Istanbul today is drunk sweet and very, very strong. It is made by grinding freshly roast Arabica beans very finely, then boiling the resulting fine-ground coffee with sugar until it forms a froth. If you want it made without sugar you must specify before it’s made – the word is “sade” (pron. SAH-deh) which means “plain”.
The grounds are left in the coffee when it is served. This makes the liquid a bit gritty and isn’t to everyone’s taste, but you must at least sample this legendary brew once during your visit!
In the 15th and 16th centuries, coffee in Istanbul was originally heavily spiced with cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom, and it was in this form that it originally became popular throughout Turkey.
The spiced version is still available in parts of Istanbul too. The best place in Istanbul to sample traditional Turkish spiced coffee is Süleymaniye Çikolatacısı, a chocolate shop near Suleiman mosque.
This technique involves heating a metal tray of sand with a flame, then placing the coffee pot on the sand. This way the heat can be controlled precisely: a pot can be kept piping hot by placing it on the surface, or caused to boil almost instantly by sinking the pot into the sand.
Of course this is a lot of work and so is not practiced everywhere in modern Istanbul, but the technique can still be seen here and there, as this video shows.
Watch coffee being brewed the traditional way by this street vendor in Taksim.
Coffee swiftly became so important in Turkish culture that under a 16th-century Ottoman law, a woman had the freedom to divorce her husband if he did not provide her with enough coffee!
But more significant than this, one of the more fascinating ritual uses of coffee is in proving to the family of a bride that her groom is good enough for her.
Many years ago during the time of arranged marriages, a prospective husband would come to the home of the woman his family had chosen, and she would make a round of coffee for the gathering. If she did not want to marry the man, she would load his cup with salt, causing him to refuse the coffee and therefore insult the family, meaning she didn’t have to marry him.
Now that most marriages in Istanbul are love matches, this tradition has softened and has become more symbolic: when her fiancé asks for her hand in marriage, the woman will ritually prepare coffee for the family, but put salt in his cup. He will drink the horrible cup as part of the ritual, thus symbolically proving his worthiness for her hand in marriage.
The left-over grounds in the cup serve another purpose. They’re essential for another traditional particular Istanbul ritual: telling your fortune by the coffee cup.
To have your fortune told, first you drink a cup of Turkish coffee, and then turn the cup upside down on the saucer. After it cools, the shape and distribution of the coffee grounds inside the cup, on the rim, and on the saucer, are interpreted by the fortune teller (with or without tarot cards).
The best places to get your fortune told in Istanbul are either Symbol Café in Şişli, Melekler Kahvesi in Taksim, or Nostradamus Café over the Bosphorous in Kadıköy.
Unfortunately few of the fortune tellers speak English, so it’s a good idea to bring along a friend, guide, or translator to discover your future.
Turkish coffee beans or ground coffee make a great and light gift or souvenir to bring home from Istanbul. The best place to buy Turkish coffee in Istanbul is from the Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi shop near the Spice Bazaar in Eminönü.
Image credit Okan Caliskan.