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Editor’s note: In a recent New York Times article, Joshua Hammer wrote about a tour that Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk gave him through the author’s native city and his personal history there. We were delighted to read that one of Pamuk’s favorite places is Vefa Bozacısı, which is one of ours too (and also a stop on the Old City culinary walk).

After our first taste, we were not quite ready to sing the praises of boza, a thick, almost pudding-like drink made from fermented millet. But the experience stuck with us. What is that flavor? Something like cross between Russian kvass (a fermented drink made from rye bread) and applesauce may be the best way to describe it. As it did to us, the drink may haunt you, much like the call of the itinerant boza vendors who wander the streets of Istanbul during the winter months calling out a long, mournful “booooo-zahhh.”

Vefa Boza, photo by Ansel MullinsIt’s a taste all its own, bearing the sour mark of fermented millet grain and the sweetness of the sugar added during the fermentation process. The consistency is that of a milkshake that can’t decide if it wants to be thick or thin, while the texture is all Gerber’s. It is served in a glass with a spoon, a layer of sprinkled cinnamon and roasted chickpeas floating at the top. The first few spoons are beguiling, the palate fooled by the cinnamon dusting and utterly sidetracked by the crunchy chickpeas. The contrast of the cinnamon makes the boza seem sour at first, while soon after a subtle sweetness emerges in the chilled unadulterated boza below.

Perhaps better than the taste of the drink is the experience of ordering and consuming it at Vefa Bozacısı, a tavern-like boza outlet where this Ottoman culinary tradition has been protected with a flourish since 1876, when the current owner’s great-grandfather first opened shop. The entire street where the store is located may have been leveled at one point and rebuilt in a “modern” fashion, but Vefa Bozacısı remains carefully preserved, down to the worn marble doorstep and the antique wooden bar. We like to sit in the corner, below the case holding a glass from which Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, enjoyed a glass of this strange brew (the alcohol content is about one percent), just as sultans must have before him. It’s no wonder that boza appreciation extends beyond the simple act of spooning it out of a glass. An order of boza at Vefa is indeed a cultural experience. And as with other obligatory cultural experiences, say the opera or a visit to a science and industry museum, you are allowed to sigh with relief when your glass of boza has finished.

(top photo by Ayman Oghanna, bottom photo by Ansel Mullins)
 
This review was originally published on Istanbul Eats on October 7, 2009.
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