Coffee Break at the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts

I’m still digesting my April trip to Istanbul and finding great ways to utilize the goods I brought back from the spice market. Turkey is a culinary paradise and right now Istanbul is leading the way with a strong economy, growing contemporary art scene and emerging wine culture. I’m lucky to have family in the city so I get the inside scoop on all the recent happenings!

The food culture is too vast to write about in one post, so I’ll start with the most common beverage besides raki, Turkish coffee. Coffee houses in Istanbul date back to the 1640’s and continue to be an integral part of a culture filled with ritual, history and folklore. As part of a wedding ritual, the groom’s family is invited to the bride’s family home to ask permission and blessings upon the union. The bride prepares Turkish coffee for the group but in the groom’s cup she adds salt instead of sugar. Of course his reaction to the bitter concoction will determine his patience and social skills, suck it up guys! I guess this is what separates the boys from the men!

Turkish coffee is unique from espresso in its preparation of boiling the water and grounds together. You can make Turkish coffee with any type of coffee, what makes it uniquely Turkish is the ground, very fine, and the slow boiling of water with grounds in a one handled pot. There are grinders for Turkish coffee, or you can use an espresso grind and then grind it finer with a mortar and pestle. Sometimes milk is added and also spices such as cardamom, mastic or coconut. Here is a great site that tells you everything you need to know to make the perfect cup.

The Turkish table is designed as a communal experience. There are small plates for eating and serving, and the utensils go beyond fork, knife and spoon with tiny cups for coffee and tea. I admire all the attention to detail and appreciate the love, labor and dishwashing involved in all the jigsaw puzzle pieces required for a proper meal. As a child I had two different tea sets and I loved the activity of taking all the parts, cups, saucers, spoons and pot out of it’s original box and setting up for a tea party. The tea itself was secondary to the thrill of handling the fragile parts, many already glued together, of the set that spent most of the year tucked away on a high shelf. It was a convivial, proustian sort of moment with everyone grasping the saucer in one hand and delicately lifting the cup up by the tiny handle. It was so tres chic, sophisticated and important, a celebration of small things, which at the time seemed not so small.

In Turkish coffee shops adults, male and female, young and old bring the diminutive cup of bitter elixir up to their lips with a determined elegance, judging just how much liquid to sip before they hit the muddy bottom. A small shot of caffeine along with a Turkish delight or small baklava is a great pick me up in just the right size package, Mayor Bloomberg approved portions!

When visiting Istanbul be sure and stop at any of the local coffee shops usually outfitted with hookahs and a great place to ask directions or restaurant advice. These places do tend to be male dominated but here are a few my favorite places that are visitor friendly:

Holy Coffee, ph. 02122436869.
An excellent east meets west coffee house in the Taxim area of Beyoglu. This part of the city is right up the hill from the Istanbul Modern, an up and coming hip neighborhood full of art galleries, boutique hotels, antique shops and home to the Turkish author Orhan Pamuk. The owner, Arzu studied film in LA, traveled the world working on Cruise ships before coming back home to open Holy Coffee. Besides excellent coffee, all the cakes and goodies are made in house. We even met an old Turkish film star who seems to be a fixture here!

Coffee House in the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts. This museum is in the Sultanahmet square, close to the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. A great small museum you can get through in an hour or two full of regional examples of Turkish tilework, rugs and calligraphy. Inside the courtyard is a coffee house devoted to the education of Turkish coffee culture. It is also a great place to pick up supplies for making Turkish coffee and some excellent Turkish Delight and other sweet goodies.

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