TURKEY: Coffee Culture

Coffee Culture in Turkey, and in Istanbul is widely present and has deep roots in history, drinking Türk kahvesi and eating Lokum with it, is a unique pleasure for the Turks.

Coffee is an important part of everyday life and is surrounded by its own special folklore: equipment, ceremonies [fal or fortuneread], jokes, stories and sayings.

Again I am sitting, in a coffeehouse tucked in a narrow alley near Taksim Square in Istanbul, it is a tiny cafe that proudly proclaims to serve coffee

“so thick even a water buffalo cannot sink in it”.

 That term can be simplified in one Turkish word Mandabatmaz, which incidentally, is the name of the cafe. This name may be given in jest, but its message is no joke. Turkish coffee, Turk Kahvesi is incredibly thick and dense. It is not unusual to hear the local people describe the beverage as

“black as hell, as strong as death, and as sweet as love”


and for a tea drinking country, Turkey, and its people, is fiercely passionate about coffee.

To us, tea is just a beverage … but coffee? It’s a culture,”

  B reakfast only ends when coffee is had, although coffee is also consumed at any time of the day. In fact, the Turkish word for breakfast, kahvaltı, literally means “before coffee”, and is derived from the words “kahve” (coffee) and “altı” (before). Also coffee should not be drunk on an empty stomach. There is a reason why Turks call breakfast “kahvaltı” (before coffee).

“If you cannot find something to eat before coffee, pull off your button and eat it!”

No meal in Turkey ends without a serving of the thick and frothy beverage.

A cup of Turkish coffee is endowed with a variety of important connotations for Turks: friendship, affection and sharing.

This is best illustrated in the old saying:

“A single cup of coffee can create a friendship that lasts for 40 years”.


A lthough tea replaces coffee in daily life, the saying of

“drinking someone’s coffee”


is considered to be the start of peoples to marriage. When decided on wedding one week before the engagement ceremony, coffee and Lokum, a small piece of soft sugar dusted candy with a gummy texture, are offered to the guests. These are also brought to the house of the groom to be in the morning of the ceremony.


On the other hand, when people visit the house of the wife to be, she prepares coffee for the guests and the fact that she prepares coffee with a great deal of foam is an indication of how skillful she is.

There’s another traditional practice for this ceremony, the wife to be puts salt, instead of sugar, into the coffee for her future husband and expects him to drink it without complaining. If he drinks the salty coffee without a fuss, then it is a sure sign of unconditional love.


~ I have heard that if your wife makes bad coffee, that is grounds for divorce.~


T raditionally people were drinking Turk kahvesi without any sugar, unsweetened coffee is called “country style” or “man’s coffee”, till today. Coffee was also consumed bitter and strong when it was first introduced as a drink, but people began drinking it in a weaker form at home.

Mehmed Efendi of Kemah opened the first coffee shop that sold ground or roasted coffee in 1871 in Tahtakale. Later, many coffee vendors set up shop on Tahtakale’s Tahmis Sokak, which means “Roasted and Ground Coffee Street.”

Among the people, coffee was named according to its density, the amount of sugar it contained or the cup in which it was served. Whether the coffee was roasted or not was also important. The more the coffee is roasted, the more it loses its acidic features.


I n order to overcome coffees bitter taste people started offering their guests a small sweet called lokum. The basic ingredients of Turkish delight are corn starch, caster sugar and various oils and flavourings along with dried fruits or nuts.

According to the Frenchman Pretextat-Lecomte, who observed the process in the late 19th century, the secret of authentic lokum lies in stirring the mixture “in the same direction, and without interruption” for “approximately two hours”. Two men, he noted, took turns. Only this traditional method, results in a gradually melting delight as it soothes its way towards ones throat, slowly releasing a heavenly mix of flavours from the oils and fruits.

Sophisticated and expensive flavourings, such as musk and rose were added, traditionally rosewater and orange blossom water flavoured Turkish delight, too. The locals choice of delight are layered with crushed nuts, most popular being roasted pistachios, hazelnuts and coconut flakes added into the mixture and rolled layer by layer. Most popular Turkish delight flavours are rose, lemon, orange, pomegranate, mint, mastic, pistachio, hazelnut, walnut and cream. More recently chocolate coveres Turkish delight as well as coffee.

Haci Bekir serving an Ottoman mother with her two young children. Watercolour painting by Amadeo Preziosi. Louvre, Paris.

The first appearance of Turkish delight, started in 1776 by Bekir Efendi. As the legend goes, the Ottoman Sultan, trying to cope with all his harem ladies, summoned his confectionary chefs and demanded the production of a unique sweet.

It is also told, that another Ottoman Sultan angrily summoned his Şekercibaşı, chef pâtissier, in the Imperial kitchens at Topkapi Palace and ordered him to concoct a delicacy that was sweet, soothed the throat and not hard on his tooth upon chipping his tooth on hard candy.

Another story states that it was Bekir Efendi, later titled Hacı Bekir following the completion of his pilgrim duties, who invented Turkish Delight and went on to open a little shop in the city center of Constantinople. Quickly winning fame and fortune amongst a people with quite the sweet tooth. Turkish Delight became a fashionable gift, and rose to become an object used in the act of courting, wrapped in special, lace handkerchiefs. It was no surprise that Bekir Efendi was appointed chief confectioner to the Ottoman Court.

Turkish Delight is made from a sugar syrup and starch milk mixture that is cooked for five to six hours, at which point the flavor is added. The mixture is then poured into large wooden trays to be set and about five hours later they are rolled, cut and dusted with icing.

Manufacturing lokum became the first big businesses with close relation to Turkish coffee. Later coffee pot making and porcelain cups established their trademarks in Turkish coffee business.

Nowadays, Turkish coffee is made after asking the guests how much sugar they prefer in their coffee.

C offee has a distinctive place at the hospitality of Turkish people, if invited to have coffee, you have to accept, as it is considered rude to turn down the offer. That’s how serious they are about Coffee Culture in Turkey.

©TKKAD | Türk Kahvesi

Turk Kahvesi carries special preparation and brewing techniques. It is one of the oldest coffee making methods still in use. The traditional techniques used in preparing coffee led to development of special tools and silverware such as like the boiling pot (cezve), coffee cup (fincan), mortars and hand grinders which have artistic value.

In his “Relation of a Journey to Constantinople”, in 1657, Nicholas Rolamb, the Swedish traveler and envoy to the Ottomans, gives us this early glimpse of private coffee culture:

This [coffee] is a kind of pea that grows in Egypt, which the Turks pound and boil in water, and take it for pleasure instead of brandy, sipping it through the lips boiling hot, persuading themselves that it consumes catarrhs, and prevents the rising of vapours out of the stomach into the head. The drinking of this coffee and smoking tobacco (for tho’ the use of tobacco is forbidden on pain of death, yet it is used in Constantinople more than any where by men as well as women, tho’ secretly) makes up all the pastime among the Turks, and is the only thing they treat one another with; for which reason all people of distinction have a particular room next their own, built on purpose for it, where there stands a jar of coffee continually boiling.”

The Turkish word selamlık translates to “greeting” and was an area of the household reserved for housing male guests. Historian Defne Cizakca explains,

Whether rich or poor most households in Istanbul had a special room for accepting guests. It was in this room that dinner and refreshments would be served, politics discussed, intellectual opinions formed.”

رجال في مقهى في العهد العثماني القدس، فلسطين ١٨٥٨ Men in Ottoman Cafe

The role of the selamlık continued to exist within Ottoman culture but it was transferred from the private household into the public coffeehouse.

Traditionally, women liked to gather around coffee with neighbors and relatives as part of their social routine. Occasionally during those gatherings, fal or fortune telling was practiced.

Fal or fortuneread

Because Türk kahvesi is not filtered or strained, as the coffee is consumed, a dark, muddy sediment forms at the cup’s base. The centuries old practice of reading images in leftover coffee grounds, is known as Tasseography.

Once the coffee is finished and the cup has cooled down, it’s turned upside down onto its saucer. The drinker rotates the cup clockwise three times, and lets it cool down a little longer. When the cup is slowly lifted, the fortune teller will read the coffee drinker’s future from the patterns the grains leave on the inside of the cup and saucer.

The “reading”  is done by deciphering the images that appear within the coffee grounds. These represent symbols and various omens, both good and bad.

  • Ring: Marriage, new love
  • Broken ring: Divorce, break-up
  • Knife: Break up with a friend
  • Bird: Good news
  • Raven/Crow: Bad News
  • Mountain: Obstacles
  • Heart: Love
  • Full moon: Love
  • Flower: Happiness
  • Volcano: Loss of control
  • Fish: Career achievement
  • Nest: Pregnancy
  • Angel: Protection, good news
  • Devil: Danger, bad news
  • Dog: True friendship
  • Cat: Argument, bad friendship

Today the fal is still common in Istanbul and Turkey.

No wonder Coffee culture in Turkey is recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, with so much tradition surrounding it. Turkey and coffee are so closely even if it is not, and never has been, widely cultivated. It is the preparation and drinking of coffee that became an art form in Turkey and spread with the Ottoman Empire across many parts of the world.

The word coffee comes from the Turkish kahve which is in turn derived from the Arabic kahwa or from the Kaffa Kingdom- Ethiopia. The beans originally came from Africa (Ethiopia), Arabia (Yemen), Egypt and India.

There are different versions of the story of the introduction of coffee to Turkey but it occurred in the 16th century. When the first coffeehouse opened in Constantinople, it was strongly opposed by the religious leaders who considered coffee to be so dangerous that they declared it sinful – haram, and banned it.

Ethnobotany: Caffeine

In fact, it is not harmful to health when taken in moderation and it aids digestion, taken in excess it is a stimulant. Caffeine was not described as such in Ottoman times.

The presence of the bitter alkaloid in the coffee plant can affect aspects of brain function and stimulates certain portions of the autonomic nervous system. Further research has indicated that it can reduce physical fatigue and prevent or treat drowsiness. It produces increased wakefulness, increased focus, and better general body coordination.

Actually, coffee was known in the East in the 11th century. Avicenna, a Persian polymath who lived during the Islamic Golden Age, was the first scholar to mention the curative effects of coffee. Europeans were very cautious about coffee in the beginning:

It is curious to note that among several misconceptions that were held by some of the peoples of Europe was one that coffee was a promoter of impotence, although a Persian version of the Angel Gabriel legend says that Gabriel invented it to restore the Prophet’s failing metabolism. Often in Turkish and Arabian literature, however, we meet with the suggestion that coffee drinking makes for sterility and barrenness, a notion that modern medicine has exploded…”

An Arabic poet once said,

“That black-faced coffee drives sleep and lust away.”


Despite, or perhaps because of, the objections of the clergy, within a very short time, coffeehouses where build in Constantinople and the Sultan used to build them in the whole empire. This grand coffeehouses were gentlemen clubs with fine views, pavilions, fountains, and pools where men could relax, smoke their pipes, listen to music and discuss business, politics, arts and more.

Cofeehouse (from ‘Voyage Pittoresque de Constantinople, Antoine Ignace Melling.

This engraving shows the intricate interior of a grand coffeehouse, with the  “Yasmakli coffee oven” on the left, where the Türk Kahvesi was prepared. Coffeehouses were square-shaped and surrounded by large sofas on three sides called “peyke.” Clients took off their shoes and sat on the peykes. Thus, these verses were always written on the walls of the coffee houses:

“The heart desires neither coffee nor coffeehouse

The heart only desires companionship, coffee is only the excuse.”

Coffeehouses are designed so that people can have a talk with each other, to play, to dream…

Old Istanbul

Well that’s about it: you never considered getting rich nor surrendering to the will of fate, nor anything else. You now know that all your dreams – even the wilder dreams of your youth – were nothing more than the aroma of coffee drifting out of some coffeehouse in a tiny neighborhood.”

Demir Özlü, Gezintiler II (Excursions II)

~ ○ ~

Works Cited & Multimedia Sources