For many Westerners, visiting Turkey is an exotic experience, but it’s incredibly easy to get drawn into the everyday rituals that make life here such a pleasure. Eat, drink, shop … you’ll quickly understand the allure of the country and why the Turks are renowned for their hospitality.
MARKETS AND BARGAINING
A highlight of any trip to Turkey is a stroll through one of its markets; they provide the chance to experience the country at its most vibrant and colorful. The granddaddy of them all is, of course, Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, a must-see simply for its size and historical significance. Though touristy, this is the most convenient place to stock up on souvenirs—inlaid wood backgammon sets, colorful ceramic bowls, and of course, rugs.
Remember, in nearly all of Turkey’s markets, bargaining is the norm. Every vendor (and every buyer, as you will soon discover) has his or her own style, but some general rules govern the interaction. The seller will undoubtedly offer you a high initial price, so don’t feel embarrassed to come back with a price that’s much lower—try half, for starters. And remember, it’s your money that’s being spent, so feel free to walk out at any time—though it’s both bad manners and bad business to bargain aggressively or to decline to buy once the seller has accepted your offer. And don’t shop in a rush: bargaining takes time.
Good things come in small packages, and the Turkish tradition of serving appetizers known as mezes—the local version of tapas—is proof. Mezes originated when simple dishes—usually a slice of tangy, feta-like sheep’s milk cheese with honeydew melon and fresh bread—were brought out to accompany rakı, the anise-flavored spirit that many call Turkey’s national drink. From its humble origins, though, the meze tradition has developed into something quite elaborate. Today, in the meyhanes (literally “drinking places”) of Istanbul and other restaurants throughout Turkey, waiters will approach your table with a heavy wooden tray loaded down with sometimes more than 20 different kinds of small dishes—smoky eggplant purée, artichoke hearts braised in olive oil, slices of cured fish, perhaps—for you to choose from. Just point at whatever looks good and the dish will be placed on your table.
Typically served with fish, mezes, or a simple plate of melon and cheese, Turkey’s favorite alcoholic beverage (similar to the Greek ouzo or Lebanese arak) is best consumed with water and ice, which give rakı the cloudy white color that inspired its nickname, “lion’s milk.” At up to 90 proof, be sure to pace yourself and don’t worry if you can’t keep up with the locals.
Visitors who come to Turkey expecting to be served thick Turkish coffee at every turn are in for a surprise—black tea is the hot beverage of choice and you’ll be offered it wherever you go: when looking at rugs in the Grand Bazaar or when finishing your meal in even the humblest restaurant. Tea, called çay, is grown domestically along the slopes of the Black Sea coast. Flavorful and aromatic, it’s not prepared from tea bags, a concept that horrifies most Turks; instead, it’s made in a double boiler that has a larger kettle on the bottom for heating up the water and a smaller kettle on top where a dark concentrate is made using loose tea leaves. The resulting brew—strong and rust-colored—is usually served in a small, tulip-shaped glass, with two or more cubes of sugar (but never, Allah forbid, with milk or lemon). If you want your tea weak (light), ask for an açık çay.
Most teahouses will also carry a range of herbal teas, which are also popular, especially ada çayı (sage tea) and ıhlamur çayı (linden flower tea). Elma çayı (apple tea), usually made from a synthetic powder, is often served to tourists.