We’re not quite sure what we like about boza, a drink made from slightly fermented millet that is popular in Istanbul during the wintertime. The thick beverage tastes like a combination of applesauce and beer-flavored baby food, though we warmly recall the strength it gave us one blustery December day. On that relentlessly rainy morning as we crossed the Bosphorus aboard the ferry from Kadıköy to Eminönü, just one small bottle of boza gave us a sharp kick in the britches, making us feel the way we imagine Popeye does after wolfing down a can of spinach.
During the winter months only, boza is sold late at night by a few remaining old-school roving vendors who call out the two-syllable word with a soulful touch that slices through the cold, damp Istanbul air: “Booo-zaaaa!” While we love hearing this late-night chorus, it can be tough to make the trip down from the fifth floor to the street at midnight when the central heating has just kicked in.
We prefer to stop by earlier in the evening for a cup from Damla in Kurtuluş. A tiny, mirror-lined shop with bar stools seating five or six customers, Damla is beloved for its ice cream, serving classic flavors like chocolate, caramel, strawberry and lemon year-round. While sales of boza are limited to wintertime, as it goes sour quickly in the warmer months, having both options available at Damla conveniently suits the schizophrenic Istanbul winter. Just in the last month, we were blessed with balmy weather and sunshine, only to be greeted days later with a torrential downpour and temperatures hovering around freezing.
But even on the colder days, customers shuffle in and out of Damla purchasing ice cream to go, or electing to pull up a stool for a glass of boza, a mug of salep (a hot drink of milk mixed with dried orchid powder, another wintertime favorite) or tulumba, a small, cylindrical fried-dough dessert similar to the Spanish churro. These are the only items on offer at Damla. Boza can be ordered plain or with cinnamon and roasted chickpeas sprinkled on top, constituting nearly a whole meal – the way we like ours.
The Tufan brothers, Ali and Fahri, opened their doors in 1989 in the Merter neighborhood, one of the countless (and faceless) new districts that have sprung up around Istanbul over the last few decades, later relocating in 1994 to Kurtuluş, a more central area that was once home to large Greek and Armenian communities. Over the years, their venue has acquired the status of local favorite, with Hürriyet newspaper even declaring it one of the top 10 ice cream makers nationwide in 2010.
It is a four-man operation: Wearing white coats, one of the brothers, or their two assistants, Ender and Nevzat, can be found manning the counter. A tiny upstairs is used for storage, while the Damla factory is located up the street. The crew has no plans on expanding, insisting that it would spoil the homemade quality of their products, which are all made with the freshest ingredients available.
“When you open up too many branches, you lose the original taste,” Nevzat told us from behind the counter.
“It’s a small shop, but a sweet one!” Ender chimed in between trips to and from the small attic.
Their reluctance to expand and their determination to remain true to their recipes have earned them a loyal customer base, though keeping things small means comparatively meager business during the winter.
“Things aren’t so bright at the moment. During the summer, you’ll see a line out the door,” Ender told us. Customers buying ice cream at this time of year tend to order it takeaway to enjoy with family in the comfort and warmth of their homes, whereas the significantly higher number of customers stopping in for a cone – complimentary chocolate sauce and shaved coconut is optional – during a summer stroll is what really keeps the wheels of the small operation turning.
During our chat, we were treated to a portion of the syrup-laden tulumba, suitable for any season. “Anytime you’d like a cup of tea, we’ll be waiting!” Ender said with a smile as we left.
From butchers to bakeries, and picklers to sweets shops, there are numerous old-school mom-and-pop businesses in Kurtuluş providing genuinely fantastic service and consistent quality, and Damla is the cream of the crop. We raise our glass (of boza) to them.