How Istanbul's ancient coffee culture is holding its own in the modern world

For centuries, coffee has percolated through the veins of Turkey’s cultural powerhouse. Times have changed, but even in the face of fast-evolving trends, locals are holding on to the traditions that surround this humble, ancient drink.

Turkish coffee at Mandabatmaz, prepared in a traditional copper cezve. 

Photograph by Richard James Taylor
By Connor McGovern
Published 20 Nov 2022, 06:03 GMT

There are worse places for a morning coffee than Kahveci Mustafa Amca Jean’s. Sitting on one of the stools in the quiet courtyard off İstiklal Avenue, I realise I’m not the only one to think so: a street cat has found a seat of his own, too, curled up on a cushion beside me in the sun’s gentle rays. A quiet clattering of cups comes from the tiny kitchen in the corner.

“We have a saying in Turkish,” says Duygu Doğuç. “‘Eat sweet, talk sweet.’ If you just want to chat, we drink sweet tea. If you want a serious talk, then we have coffee.” 

I’m expecting, then, an earnest conversation with my guide from Istanbul Tour Studio as we sip strong, bitter cups of Turkish coffee, but it never comes. In fact, as I reach the end of my drink, Duygu turns the cup upside down on the saucer with a wry smile. “Ok, let’s have a look.” She flips it back over and peers inside, trying to divine shapes from the formless brown sludge. No luck. “Ah, I don’t know. Did you know there’s an app for reading coffee grounds now, anyway?” 

This should hardly come as a surprise. As Duygu explains, the digitisation of kahve falı — fortune-telling with coffee grounds — is just another chapter in the long, winding tale of Turkish coffee culture. It’s a story that goes back centuries: the first coffeehouse in Istanbul was opened in 1555 by two merchants from Damascus, who’d brought beans from the Arabian Peninsula. There, in the mountains of Yemen, coffee was sipped day and night by Sufi mystics to induce spiritual states. By the end of the 1500s, it had taken on a more earthly purpose as the drink du jour in Istanbul — then Constantinople — and coffeehouses had opened everywhere. Reserved for men only, they became somewhere to socialise away from the ears and eyes of the mosque, promising gossip, games and good coffee. Not that everyone was on board with the caffeine craze: Sultan Murad IV felt so threatened by the popularity of coffee in the early 17th century that he prohibited it, along with alcohol and tobacco, and even executed the few who broke the ban.

“Everything happened in Istanbul’s coffeehouses,” says Duygu, finishing her drink. “Actors, storytellers, puppeteers — they’d all come to perform, and tradesmen would often stay there all day in case anyone in the area needed their services. It was a bit like a job centre.”

Galata Tower, overlooking the Beyoğlu district, is an icon of the Istanbul skyline.

Galata Tower, overlooking the Beyoğlu district, is an icon of the Istanbul skyline.

Photograph by Richard James Taylor

As we walk along a busy İstiklal Avenue, the city’s main shopping street, I’m drawn to Hacı Bekir. The windows of this historic sweet shop are stocked with blushing pink cubes of Turkish delight, piled high on silver trays. Looking at them, it’s suddenly very easy to forgive Edmund’s gluttony in C S Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Fantasy stories aside, lokum, as the sweet is known here, is an integral part of the coffee ritual, served with coffee alongside a glass of water, to rinse the palate. “If I order a coffee and it comes without water and something sweet, then it’s not a Turkish coffee for me,” says Duygu.

Much to her pleasure, coffee is served as it should be at Mandabatmaz, another tiny establishment hidden up an alleyway off İstiklal. It’s a modest place: there’s a tiny counter with a cooker and the tiled walls are decorated with framed newspaper snippets and sepia portraits. “I like tradition,” says Can Özmen, who’s preparing some coffee at the hob. He starts by spooning fine, dark grounds into a cezve, the long-handled pot that’s used to brew the coffee. “Traditional Yemeni beans are the best for making Turkish coffee,” he says, “but we pursue flavours, not destinations, so we might change producers depending on what we like.” 

To make the coffee, Can insists on using hot water — not cold, as others maintain — to bring out the flavour, and he prefers a copper cezve over brass or silver. It’s also about speed: the whole process, he says, needs to be quick to ensure a hot, velvety coffee. With that, he places the cezve over a high flame and lets the liquid froth furiously for just a few moments before quickly turning off the heat and decanting the thick, chestnut elixir into a small cup. A layer of tiny bubbles gathers on the surface. It’s all done in less than a minute. 

Locals cast fishing lines from the Galata Bridge and into the Golden Horn at sunset. Nineteenth-century French poet Alphonse de Lamartine once said: "If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul".

Photograph by Richard James Taylor

While that process has hardly changed, it’s a different story for the city’s coffeehouses. Not far away are branches of Starbucks, Caffè Nero and Turkey’s own chain, Kahve Dünyası — all wildly different from the likes of Mandabatmaz and Mustafa Amca. “When Starbucks opened in 2003, it was a game-changer,” says Duygu. “Suddenly everyone was exposed to Western-style coffee and it became really popular.” 

But the arrival of global brands — Starbucks surpassed 500 stores in Turkey in 2020 — hasn’t spelt the end for Turkish coffee as many purists feared. Realising the drink’s value, the big names added their own versions to the menu. “They use different beans and cups for their Turkish coffee, and serve it with water and a sweet,” she says. “Even they know how special it is.” 

To the bitter end

It might be the coffee, but the waterfront district of Eminönü is frenetic with activity on this hot afternoon, its quays busy with ferry passengers. “Bosphorus tour! Bosphorus tour!” call ticket sellers, while men cast long fishing lines from the Galata Bridge and into the choppy water below. Wheeling seagulls — white smudges on the bright, blue sky — eye up the balık ekmek (grilled mackerel sandwiches) of people dawdling along the promenade. Leaving the hubbub, Duygu and I slip down a side street towards the Spice Bazaar, minarets looming above, and squeeze past customers as they browse heaps of sweet, dried rosebuds, electronic gadgets and cut-price Fenerbahçe jerseys. 

But it’s caffeine we’ve come for. We arrive at İhsan Kurukahvecioğlu, a shop on the corner of a busy street that’s been roasting coffee since 1871. Her eyes lavished with turquoise eyeshadow, Aslı Tapucu takes me to her ‘breathing space’ — a room that’s somewhere between an office and an artist’s studio, cluttered with books and boxes of filter papers. 

Aslı Tapucu in her studio at İhsan Kurukahvecioğlu, a coffee roastery in the Eminönü district. 

Photograph by Richard James Taylor

You could say coffee is in Aslı’s blood, in all senses. Before Covid-19, she worked as a costume designer in New York and practically ran on the stuff. “Coffee was what kept me going during those long, sleepless nights,” she laughs, “sewing sequins onto outfits.” But when the pandemic suddenly put paid to her fashion work, she moved back to Istanbul to work in the family business. Fortunately, though, she’s lost none of her creative spark. “I host some coffee workshops, where we make ink from coffee grounds and experiment with permaculture,” she says wistfully. “It’s all a work in progress.” 

We head down to the roasting room at the back of the shop, where the smells hit me like an ambush: caramel, vanilla, chocolate, anise, cherry — all united in one singular, heady scent. Whole beans from at least a dozen origins, from El Salvador to Ethiopia, are labelled up at the counter. It’s overwhelming. I wonder how Aslı decides on which varieties to source. “It really depends on my mood,” she says, “but we like to make our own blends, too, so it’s always changing.” She shows me the century-old Probat roasting machine — a cast-iron beast that’s fired by wood and manned by hand. “We’re the only place in the city to roast our beans this way,” she explains. “And we won’t change it. The machine gives the coffee a unique sort of maple flavour.”

Despite the business’ apparent deference to tradition, Aslı is also mindful of the future. “Things are changing massively,” she says. “Climate change is affecting the growth of cocoa and coffee, which affects the pricing. Coffee might even become a luxury product in 20 years.” She shrugs. “It’s hard to say.” But there’s no time to dwell on what might be — Aslı is back to work behind the counter, customers jostling for space outside the shop. 

Left: Top:

Cats are a common sight in Istanbul, including this one, watching life tick by in the Balat neighbourhood.

Right: Bottom:

Customers at Primi, a popular cafe-restaurant in Balat.

photographs by Richard James Taylor

Over in down-to-earth Balat and Fener, however, two contiguous districts to the northwest, things are less frantic. These have always been working neighbourhoods, home to Jews, Albanians and Greeks, evidenced in the number of old synagogues and Orthodox churches that stand venerably on quiet street corners. These days, however, Balat and Fener are becoming popular for their bohemian cafes, many of which are perfecting Australian-style oat lattes and American-style pancakes. Two decades after the arrival of ‘second-generation’ coffeeshops like Starbucks, Duygu reckons another chapter of the city’s coffee scene is being written: the fashionable, ‘third-generation’ cafes, focusing on quality and craft. “I call it ‘lattefication’,” she says wryly, as teenagers pose for photos in front of candy-coloured buildings. “These areas are very slowly becoming gentrified. We’re seeing it everywhere, but this is what many people want now.”

We order two Turkish coffees at a cafe in Fener and take a pew. Life ticks by: opposite, a white cat slinks along the low rooftops, moving elegantly and sure-footedly as if performing for the elderly couple watching below. A man on a bike zips past, his basket loaded with fruit, the old wheels clattering on the cobblestones. When I finish my coffee, Duygu decides to have another go at predicting my destiny. “Hmm,” she says, squinting carefully at the bitter dregs. “I think that’s a bird, which means you’ll receive some news soon. Or is it a boat — that would mean some kind of journey?”

She laughs. Whatever it means, you won’t find it in a flat white. 

Top tip: When ordering Turkish coffee, you’ll be asked how sweet you want it: 'sade' for plain, 'az şerkeli' for a little sugar and 'şerkeli' for sweet. Don’t drink to the bottom of the cup unless you want a mouthful of grounds.

Ortaköy Mosque and the Bosphorus Bridge, viewed from The Stay Bosphorus hotel.

Photograph by Richard James Taylor

Getting there & around

British Airways flies direct from Heathrow; Pegasus Airlines from Stansted and Manchester; and Turkish Airlines from Heathrow, Gatwick, Birmingham, Manchester, Edinburgh and Dublin.     
Average flight time: 4h20m.
Istanbul’s key tourist areas are walkable, but factor in enough time to get around this sprawling city. There’s a good network of trams, buses, funiculars and a metro. Commuter ferry services link the European and Asian sides, and run up and down the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn. A single crossing starts at 15TL (80p). Yellow taxis are also plentiful and affordable.

When to go 

Spring and early autumn are the best times to visit, with pleasant highs of around 25C. Summer can be humid, with temperatures easily reaching the 35C mark, while in winter, snow isn’t uncommon. Eid celebrations take place in spring and summer, during which many businesses open sporadically and hotels fill up.

How to do it

Pegasus Airlines flies direct from Stansted and Manchester from £89 one way. 

The Stay — Turkey's first carbon-neutral independent hotel group — has four hotels in Istanbul: BebekNişantaşı and Boulevard Nişantaşı and in Ortaköy, overlooking the Bosphorus. From £200, B&B. 

Published in the December 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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