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Tea is to Turkey what fizzy, watery beer is to Milwaukee – consumed in copious amounts, a desired chemical reaction takes place, but its real value lies not in the taste but in the ritual of swilling. Without noticing it, tea has snuck its way into daily life for us. We never really enjoyed the flavor of standard Turkish tea, but it is part and parcel of the rich Turkish experience.

In Kars, memorably, we guzzled it from a pockmarked, coal-fired samovar stamped with a Russian crest as we sat in the shade beside a river. In the eastern Black Sea, it was the offer of a tea that brought us into a village çayhane, where we eavesdropped on the local men speaking their Pontic Greek dialect, as they warmed their feet around a stove. Tea unlocks doors.

Slowly we began to seek it out when we had some time to kill. We used it as an excuse to stop into an old smoky kıraathane, where playing cards are smacked down on green felt and dirty words are not uttered but bellowed. We followed çay jockeys with aluminum trays covered with poker chips (this is how tea payments are calculated among regulars) to magical, steamy nooks, the caffeinated nerve center of entire commercial strips. We soon discovered that çay can be arranged in just about any conceivable situation or location, public or private, by barking “iki çay, lütfen!” loud enough. Wait a minute and someone with a tray will come rushing your way with tea for you and your newfound friend. Çay is everywhere, always, and there’s never a reason not to drink one. You never know what it might lead to.

What follows are some of our most memorable encounters with Turkish tea.

A teahouse inside Diyarbakır's walled city, where tea served as a companion to a spirited game of dominos. Photo by Yigal Schleifer.In Gaziantep's old city, this sleepy teahouse felt like a trip back in time, watched over by a gruff çaycı who had been serving what appeared to be the same daily crowd of layabouts for years. Photo by Yigal Schleifer.A tea in the çay ocağı at the back door of the Büyük Yeni Han in Mahmutpaşa is accompanied by the tinkering of hammers from the blacksmith shops throughout the han. In cold weather the pot-bellied stove keeps the place toasty warm and full of workers from the han. Photo by İpek Derin Baltutan.
The çay ocağı at the Sirkeci train station is open to the public but it doubles as the porters' local. From the windows we like to watch the action at the freelance truckers market, a sort of auction sending big loads on long hauls. Photo by İpek Derin Baltutan.Two çaycıs in Istanbul discussing the finer points of tea making. Photo by Vanessa Able.As the logic goes, anyplace worth standing for a moment can only be made better by çay. In this lookout in Cihangir, a commando teahouse is set up on a sidewalk with excellent views. Photo by Monique Jaques.
As the logic goes, anyplace worth standing for a moment can only be made better by çay. In this lookout in Cihangir, a commando teahouse is set up on a sidewalk with excellent views. Photo by Monique Jaques.In the Kürkçü Han in Mahmutpaşa, through a hatch door cut in the roof created especially for the delivery of tea, tea is delivered on a winch. Photo by İpek Derin Baltutan.In the Kürkçü Han in Mahmutpaşa, through a hatch door cut in the roof created especially for the delivery of tea, tea is delivered on a winch. Photo by İpek Derin Baltutan.
Mustafa Amca serves tea from Rize on the Black Sea coast in Hacopulo Pasajı. Photo by Ansel Mullins.Mustafa Amca, or “Uncle Mustafa,” makes his rounds though the hodgepodge courtyard of Hacopulo Pasajı, distributing tea from Rize on the Black Sea coast. Photo by Monique Jaques.In this tiny çay nook near the Grand Bazaar, each phone on the wall is connected to a different shop. Photo by İpek Derin Baltutan.
Waiting for a seat to open at a barbershop without the offer of çay is unimaginable. This vintage Taksim barbershop behind Ağa Camii is a hangout for çay-drinking shopkeepers on the block. It is refreshed frequently by the çay man of this block. Photo by Ansel Mullins.In Karaköy, down on the Golden Horn, Osman serves çay out of his truck, mainly to local boat captains. Photo by Ansel Mullins.No endeavor better exemplifies the ubiquity of a hot cup of çay than the Mezopotamya Çay Evi, seen here set up smack in the middle of the road at Taksim Square during the Gezi protests of the summer of 2013. It was a time of hope in Taksim Square and the prospect of a humble tea garden with a cool name replacing a taxi-choked road is the kind of utopian notion we will continue to dream about. Photo by Ansel Mullins.

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