1. Raki – Ask most Turkish people what the national alcoholic drink of Turkey is and most will tell you it is Raki. Raki is a distilled alcohol with a strong aniseed flavour and is made from grapes, figs and plums. It is believed to have been around for around 300 years, however it is not clear exactly where it originates from. One theory is that it was originally called Iraki (which means from Iraq) as it was first made here. Another theory is that it takes its name from the razaki grapes that are used to make it. The third, equally plausible theory is that it comes from the Arabic work “araki” which means that which makes one sweat (and yes, raki can help you work up a sweat).
Raki inspires great passion among its devotees, and serious raki drinkers will tell you that it should never be drunk in a bar as you would a scotch or a vodka. It should be drunk accompanied by meze or melon and white cheese. In coastal areas, it is a very special thing to go out for a fish dinner and drink raki – it is commonly drunk when spending time relaxing with friends.
It is best drunk with water added to it (icecubes are optional), with a second glass of water to accompany it. When water is added to raki it turns it a milky white colour.
2. Sahlep – traditionally a winter drink, sahlep is particularly fascinating because it is made from orchid. It can be traced back to the 8th Century, and was developed as a non-alcoholic winter warmer. The base of this hot milky drink is a flour made from wild orchid tubers, and which contains ingredients which have been proven to be beneficial for bronchial problems and stomach upsets. Served with cinnamon sprinkled on top, it can be found being served from street carts, particularly in Istanbul and small cafes.
3. Ayran – this popular salty yoghurt drink is a cousin of the Indian drink Lassi, and the Iranian drink doogh. Served cold, it is made with just yoghurt, water and rock salt, is often served as an accompaniment to meat dishes, particularly in summer. The tradition of drinking it when eating meat possibly began as a means of counteracting any possible stomach upsets as a result of eating meat in summer months. Today, it is so ubiquitous in Turkey – it is even served in McDonalds and Burger King. It is also available in small take away containers or in 1 litre plastic bottles, and many restaurants (especially kebab restaurants) will serve home made ayran (pictured) which is much frothier than its ready-made version.
4. Çay – (Chai) – With a per capita consumption rate of 1000 glasses per year, Turkish black tea is as essential to Turkish daily life as breathing. It is impossible to even contemplate breakfast, a social gathering, a meeting, or in Istanbul, a ferry ride, without a glass of the red coloured Turkish tea in hand. Look around you as you walk through any bazaar or the pedestrian shopping area in any town and you will see tiny, hole-in-the-wall tea stops which serve tea to the local businesses, and harried looking young boys power walking down the street with a tray of tea in small tulip-shaped tea glasses on his way to deliver to customers.
Funnily enough, although tea is firmly ingrained in daily life today, it didn’t actually become popular until the late 1870’s when the then governor of Adana in Turkey’s south east published a pamphlet promoting its health benefits. Tea houses sprang up everywhere, and the fact that it was cheaper than coffee probably helped to seal its popularity. Two important words to remember when ordering tea – “Açık” (Ah-chik) which means weak or “light” tea, and “demli” which means strong.
5. Turkish Coffee – an important part of social gatherings and in traditions such as engagements. Today it is cooked using finely round coffee cooked in a pot with sugar according to taste, then served in a small cup where the grounds are allowed to settle. You can’t add sugar to Turkish coffee after it has been made, so there are four important words you need to know when ordering a cup of Turkish coffee – “sade” (sah-deh) – this means you want your coffee without sugar, “az sekerli” (Ahz-sheh-ker-LI) – with a little sugar, “orta” – this means “middle” and says you want a medium amount of sugar, or “şekerli” (sheh-ker-LI) – which means with sugar, and so you want a lot of sugar.
Enjoy tasting these drinks when you visit Turkey!