Getting Your Buzz with Turkish Coffee

Turkish coffee as served in Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, Turkey
Drink up...and remember to floss.
By Lale Surmen Aran and Tankut Aran

If you're a coffee drinker, you're in for a treat…or a shock…when you travel to Turkey. The phrase "Turkish coffee" refers not to a type of coffee, but to the way the coffee is prepared: The coffee grounds float freely in the brew, leaving behind a layer of "mud" at the bottom of the cup. But there's more to it than just coffee grounds and water.

Traditionally, coffee is added to cold water in a copper pot. (Some start with hot or lukewarm water, to speed up the process, but you can taste the difference — Turks call this speedy version "dishwater.") The coffee-and-water mixture is stirred and slowly heated over medium heat. Just before the water boils, the pot is set aside and its contents are allowed to settle. Then the pot is put back on to boil. This time, half is poured into a cup, while the rest is reheated and then used to top off the drink. Locals joke that the last step is to put a horseshoe in it — if the horseshoe floats, you know it's good coffee.

Locals prefer Turkish coffee without sugar, but many first-timers — even coffee-loving ones — prefer to add sugar to make its powerful flavor a bit more palatable. Since the sugar is added while the coffee (kahve; kah-veh) is being cooked, you have to ask for it when you place your order: az şekerli (ahz sheh-kehr-lee) will get you a little sugar, orta şekerli (ohr-tah sheh-kehr-lee) is a medium scoop, and just şekerli (sheh-kehr-lee) roughly translates as "tons of sugar — I hate the taste of real coffee."

Because it's unfiltered, the coffee never completely dissolves. When drinking Turkish coffee, the trick is to gently agitate your cup time and time again to re-mix the grounds with the water. Otherwise you'll drink weaker coffee, and wind up with a thicker layer of grounds at the bottom when you're done.

But in Turkey you'll find there's more to drink than coffee. In fact, if you strike up a conversation with a local, within minutes you'll most likely find a small glass of hot tea warming your hand.

Lale Surmen Aran and Tankut Aran are the authors of the Rick Steves Istanbul guidebook.