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  • Writer's pictureJocette Lee

Turkish Tea: Sovereign Spirit in Edible Form

While the image of potent cups of gritty coffee might come to mind when thinking of Turkish beverages, Turkish black tea leads the way in national hot beverage consumption.[1] In every town in Turkey, one can spot teahouses and tea gardens lining the streets. In the off chance that a teahouse is too far, there is sure to be a street vendor hovering with a hot pot ready to pour a cup at a moments notice. From the contents of the cup to the physical presentation, the development of Turkish tea, natively known as çay, captures Turkey’s sovereign sprit in edible form. This national drink originally gained popularity after the First World War, and continues to manifest the revolutionary spirit evident in Turkey’s current events.[2]


Turkish çay (pronounced CHAI) is a black tea produced primarily on the Eastern Coast of the country abutting the Black Sea.[3] The tea is prepared in a traditional double pot method where the tea is steeped in the top vessel and water is boiled on the bottom. This allows individuals to adjust the strength of the tea by pouring more or less water into their own personal cup. The tea is then consumed in a tulip shaped glass that holds no more than six ounces. Sugar cubes are in close proximity to drop into the cups and dissolve into the amber colored liquid; milk is never added.

Ataturk’s Initiatives

At the end of the First World War, the Ottoman Empire was in decline and the birth of the Republic of Turkey was in progress.[4] Under the new leadership of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the government was making decisions to reinvent the culture of the nation. The Turkish language is one of the most evident ways Ataturk influenced his nation.[5] As an attempt to participate with the surrounding western world, Ataturk romanized the language in 1928.[6] While there were many reasons to make this shift, ultimately the goal of the language reform was an attempt to democratize the nation and become involved in the world economy.[7] The intentional restructuring of the Turkish language closely paralleled the consumption and cultivation of çay.

Coffee to Çay

The popularity of çay did not happen naturally. In fact, due to the high price of coffee and the need for an economic revival, the Turkish government mandated that çay be cultivated in a particular region to develop a strong national export.[8] By 1930, Turkey had legislatively mandated that tea would be produced in northeastern Turkey, in a region called Rize. The rich soil and moist environment provided the ideal climate to grow tea.[9] The deliberate decision to grow and consume çay demonstrates Turkey’s ability to independently control the future of their country. Due to prolonged government encouragement, Turkey now flirts with being considered the fifth, and at times sixth, largest consumer and producer of tea in the world.[10]

Turkey’s first exposure to tea culture is documented in Turkish literature as early as 1631, however crop cultivation did not take place until the end of the nineteenth century.[11] After a reintroduction of tea from Russian influence, the potential of tea was realized. The popularity of çay did not take effect until Ataturk emphasized the economic importance of this product for the country.[12] By the mid 1950s, Turkey became self-sufficient producers and no longer depended on foreign imports.[13]

During its’ time of introduction, Turks consumed çay and actively made decisions to support the tea initiative for national economic improvement. In a time of reinvention, progress and solidarity, Turks unified to rebuild their country after the decline of the preceding Ottoman Empire. Because all Turks were consciously consuming çay, an environment of social equality was cultivated.[14] Çay helped develop democracy in Turkey as it provided an environment for Turks to vote, through drink, for an optimistic future for the country. Through the language reform, Turkey attempted to progress as a modern country. Çay represents the edible form of this nationalistic effort.

Current Impact

Turkey continues to experience cultural shifts with the introduction of Prime Minister Recep Erdogan’s new agenda.[15] Erdogan is attempting to revert the future of Turkey’s culture to a stricter Islamic atmosphere. While the structure of the government experiences change, Turks gather around tables to discuss politics while holding çay in one hand and leaving the other vacant for emphatic pantomime.[16] The tiny cup of tea represents the pervasive Turkish spirit that is fervent to move forward and willing to take control to progress with the modern world.

[1] Matthee, Rudi. 1996. From Coffee to Tea: Shifting Patterns of Consumption in Qajar Iran. Journal of World History 7 (2) (Fall): 199-230,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Munteanu, Monica. 2013. All About Tea in Turkey. Rivertea blog.

[4] Aytürk, İlker. 2004. Turkish Linguists Against the West: The Origins of Linguistic Nationalism in Atatürk's Turkey. Middle Eastern Studies 40 (6) (Nov.): 1-25,

[5] Ibid., 12.

[6] Ibid., 1.

[7] Ibid., 1.

[8] Munteanu, Monica. 2013. All About Tea in Turkey. Rivertea blog.

[9] Rize's Gift to the World Tea. 2013. Skylife.

[10] Saberi, Helen. 2010. Tea: A Global History. London: Reaktion Books Ltd: 75,

[11] Saberi, Helen. 2010. Tea: A Global History. London: Reaktion Books Ltd: 75,

[12] Ibid., 76.

[13] Ibid., 76.

[14] Landau, Jacob M. 1992. International Journal of Middle East Studies 24 (4) (Nov.): 732,

[15] Dombey, Daniel. 2014. Six Markets to Watch: Turkey. Foreign Affairs. (accessed 2/15/2014).

[16] Fowler, Susanne. 2007. Turkish Tea Time. The New York Times, 2007, sec In Transit.

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