Editor’s note: While the fate of the Gezi Park occupation is being hotly discussed, we’ve been spending our time sipping deeper into Turkey’s other great debate: what is the country’s national drink? In the spirit of national reconciliation, here is our report.
The recent protests that raged across Turkey may have been sparked by the government’s ham-fisted efforts to bulldoze a precious stand of trees in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, but the country’s eaters and drinkers had already gotten a taste of Ankara’s increasingly meddlesome overreach during the weeks and months before.
In January, kicking off a new campaign to tackle the previously undiscussed problem of food waste, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – who had previously shown little interest in culinary affairs – unveiled himself as Turkey’s dietician-in-chief. “From now on, we must enter a new period in the business of bread,” Erdoğan said at a ceremony in Ankara. “Let’s remove the so-called white bread from our tables, let’s produce pure, genuine wheat bread and, in addition, let’s bring to the table bread with a high ratio of bran in it.”
“Let them eat whole-grain!” might be a welcome command in these health-conscious times, but not necessarily so in white-bread-loving Turkey. For many Turks, used to their fluffy, crusty white loaves – all the better for sopping up the juices of a hearty stew or for cradling a row of grilled meatballs – this seemed like nothing more than the capricious edict of a mad king.
Erdoğan raised the stakes in late April, when he declared that Turkey’s national drink was not rakı – the anise-flavored spirit that is the essential liquid anchor to any night of mezes and conversation at a meyhane – but rather ayran, the salty, yogurt-based beverage especially popular among small children and their doting mothers, as well as the abstemious set. “For a healthy generation, my grandfather suggested to me ayran as the national drink,” the PM said during a talk he gave to MÜSİAD, an association of Islamic-minded businessmen.
The already polarized Turkish public now had a new divide on its hands, one between those who supported rakı as the milli içki (“national alcoholic drink”) versus those who were now promoting ayran as the milli içecek (the more innocuous “national beverage”). It was a debate with a deep political subtext: rakı and the eating and drinking culture surrounding it have a deep association with Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, modern Turkey’s founder (who was a great lover of the drink), and, by extension, the secularist society that he helped build. A break with rakı represents a break with the past, and since a new Turkey needs a new national drink, Erdoğan was essentially decreeing that ayran was going to be it.
Nonetheless, we come here today not to bury ayran, but to praise it. Lost in all the froth and fury of the drink debate is the fact that done right, a classic ayran – traditionally served in a copper bowl, with a snow-white foamy head that rises up like a cumulous cloud – is not just something to be savored but a sight to behold. And if ayran is to be the new liquid taste of the nation, where better to get a sense of the real thing and what it’s all about than down in Istanbul’s “Little Urfa,” a neighborhood in the Aksaray district filled with kebab shacks run by grill masters from Southeast Turkey, a region where the dairy drink is given top-shelf billing.
The first stop on our ayran crawl was at Babo’nun Yeri, aka Şanlıurfa Zaman Kebap Salonu, a grilled liver specialist where the liquid white gold is made fresh daily. Bedir Usta, who mans the frothy tank from which the restaurant’s home-brewed ayran is served, told us his recipe calls for a combination of cow’s milk and water buffalo milk. “Think of this as the ayran you get in the village; it’s all natural. Not like that stuff made in a factory and sold in the shops,” he told us. (In fact, as one Turkish paper recently reported, most commercial Turkish ayrans are made using imported live cultures.) “[Unlike rakı,] ayran won’t kill you. It’s quite good for the bones, in fact,” he continued. Here, the rich, salty ayran arrived in a metal bowl with a gauzy white head. Not as sour as other homemade ayran we’ve tasted, this one went down easily. “Some people will drink four or five bowls of ayran with a meal,” Bedir said.
We next repaired to old favorite, Ehli Kebap, where manager Müslüm Deniz quickly informed us that there really was no rakı-ayran debate. “We grew up on yogurt and ayran. Not rakı,” he said. Inside Ehli’s ayran fountain, white liquid was gushing in streams from two spouts that flowed into a stainless-steel tub where the brew frothed and was then sucked up again in a kind of endless yogurty feedback loop. “An ayran is only as good as the yogurt used to make it. We use a very good one,” Müslüm Bey said proudly. “We use yogurt from a small local producer, with nothing else added but salt, water and el lezzeti,” he said, using a Turkish expression that literally means “the flavor of the hands,” but is better translated as “the personal touch.”
Given that without yogurt there would be no ayran, we decided to wander down to nearby Sofular Caddesi and visit one of the oldest yogurt shops in Istanbul, Barbaros Yoğurtçusu, to get an unadulterated taste of the beverage’s crucial building block. Since 1919, the Kurap family has been living and working close to the teat. Their yogurt, fresh milk, kaymak and milk puddings are justifiably raved about all over town. We sat down in the cool, dimly lit shop after lunchtime. Aside from the hum of an old refrigerator, it felt like siesta-time at Barbaros. We spooned into a cup of full-cream yogurt made from cow’s milk; piercing the skin on top, we found a varied, fluffy terrain underneath. Around the side, some liquid crept in as we plumbed the depths of the cup, where a thick stratum of dairy lay. We asked Hamza Bey behind the counter if he’d recommend making ayran with this particular yogurt. He paused, as if practicing some internal exercise learned in an anger management course, and then, failing to remain calm, bellowed, “This is the yogurt of yogurts! What other yogurt are you going to use to make ayran?”
After tasting some of Istanbul’s finest ayrans, we were left wondering if there could be a peaceful coexistence between the milli içki and the milli içecek. Could there in fact be a happy place where the two could meet? That place turned out to be a small, laboratory-like bar on Gönül Sokak (next to Suriye Pasajı) in Beyoğlu, where we posed the challenge of reconciling Turkey’s dueling national drinks to one of Istanbul’s finest mixologists, Alex Waldman, the nameless bar’s owner.
The experiments began with a warm-up cocktail called the “White Turk.” This delicious, creamy rendition of the White Russian was equal parts vodka, coffee liqueur and Eker ayran, a brand recommended by connoisseurs that comes in a glass bottle (most commercial ayrans are today sold in plastic containers). The creative juices now flowing, the dapper Waldman considered the next drink carefully, consulting a well-thumbed book of cocktail recipes before settling on the Ramos Gin Fizz, a classic New Orleans drink, as an inspiration. Using ayran as a substitute for cream and noting that “rakı should just be a fragrant accent in the cocktail,” Waldman began filling a frosty shaker, adding gin, egg whites, ayran and simple syrup. He shook vigorously and strained the resulting cocktail into a tall glass, spraying it with rakı and garnishing it with lemon and lime and then tasting it himself. “That’s quite an elegant solution,” he said.
We took a sip. A light whiff of aniseed floated over a thick blanket of ayran and egg whites, comingling with the citrusy tang of the lemons and limes, the herbal notes of the gin and the sweetness of the syrup. We’ve never enjoyed ayran or rakı on their own as much as we did in this concoction – which gave us a thought. Instead of having rakı and ayran fight it out for top honors as Turkey’s drink of choice, we propose a more amicable solution: Let the two join together to become the country’s yet-to-be-named milli kokteyl.