Istanbul’s Most Beguiling Cocktail

The fermented wheat drink boza isn’t meant to get you drunk; it’s meant to transport you to a different time and place

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Istanbul’s Most Beguiling Cocktail
Boza, a traditional Turkish drink with roasted chickpea / Getty Images

After a three-day trip in 1983 that left me in awe, I returned to Istanbul in 1988 to study for a pre-nursing degree at Red Crescent Society College. While most of my classmates went on dates with the boys studying at Istanbul’s military academies — nurses, after teachers, make for the most likely spouses of military academy graduates — I spent my weekends taking long strolls, discovering new places, and examining new buildings and neighborhoods in the seven hills of Ottoman Istanbul, an echo of ancient Rome.

What Istanbul offered was significantly different from Malatya, my hometown in the eastern part of Turkey. I remember how summer pastimes in Malatya were limited to picnicking out in the wild near derelict Armenian churches and taking a dip in the Tohma, a tributary of the Euphrates. In Istanbul, on the other hand, there was a great diversity of people, activities, building types and cuisines. I discovered that not just the people migrated, both in the Ottoman period and more recently under the Turkish Republic, but with them a variety of food types and cooking traditions.

In Istanbul, each type of food claims a neighborhood and functions like a geographic or ethnic marker. Your cravings take you to different districts: baby cucumbers in Çengelköy, yogurt in Kanlıca, simit (sesame-seeded bread rings or bagels) in Galata, or the tripe soup and a variety of offal stews in Beykoz. Similarly, if you are dreaming about a steaming hot white bean casserole, you go to Süleymaniye; for heart and throat sweetbreads, your neighborhood is Sütlüce. The best salted and dried Black Sea mackerel can be found in Pera, and finally, for boza, a semi-fermented wheat-based drink, one has to go to Vefa.

I walked and walked through the streets seeking to understand Istanbul’s neighborhoods in their totality. It was during those strolls that I laid the groundwork for my understanding of the urban contexts in Istanbul, which served me well later as an architectural historian of the Byzantine period. It was also during those trips that I discovered the district of Vefa, situated on the third hill, in the heart of the old city. Vefa fascinated me for its state-endowed theater, where one could catch good musicals and plays on the weekends, its dominating late Roman aqueduct, the motor traffic running under the arches, and its Ottoman complexes and Byzantine churches.

Vefa, allegedly known as the karbounaria (the coal market) in Byzantine times, functioned as an important neighborhood in the late Byzantine and Crusader periods. Its Turkish namesake is Sheikh Ebu’l Vefa, who was originally from Konya (where two centuries before lived Rumi, the great Sufi and poet) and was relocated to Istanbul at the request of Mehmed the Conqueror after 1453. The sheikh Vefa founded a madrassa as a Sufi master, which became a favorite spot among the pious people in the city. Then in 1876 came the Vefa Bozacisi, a family establishment with Albanian origins that sold the infamous boza. Among all the foods in Istanbul’s giant foodscape, perhaps the one with the most complicated and long history and provenance is boza.

Today, the lovely neighborhood of Vefa still preserves some of its 19th-century urban identity through its timber houses, Byzantine churches (although, sadly, in disrepair) and Ottoman mosques. And the two-story store of the Vefa Bozacisi is a reminder of the complex history of boza.

Crossing the threshold, worn away by the years, one feels a transition into another world. Once inside, with shelves adorned with glass containers filled with boza, apple and grape vinegar, and balsamic concoctions, this feeling grows. Behind the thick marble counter sit Prokonnesian marble basins and huge ladles with which you can indulge in a cup of frothy boza topped with ground cinnamon and leblebis (roasted chickpeas). The consistency is always thick enough that it would be best enjoyed with a spoon, to avoid swiping the leftover stuff with your fingers. To get the less sweet (more alcoholic) version, visitors ask for a serving from the day-old batch. The longer it sits in the basin, the more sour it gets. Leaving the store having tasted either version will bring a certain joy. You not only feel transported between eras but are reminded about times and traditions now lost.

Boza dates to the Ottoman period, when it was popular in the Balkans, Anatolia and the Middle East. Produced and consumed over a wide geographic range, the beverage was made with different types of wheat. For example, the Albanian and Kosovar version mixes maize and wheat, while the Turkish drink has only wheat; it is millet and wheat in the Bulgarian and Romanian versions. The typical grain for boza in the Middle East is barley. Whatever type of grain used, the drink is made by crushing it to a coarse ground, then boiling it in water and adding sugar and what remains of the previous boza as a starter. This mixture is then left to ferment at a temperature in the mid-80s Fahrenheit. Because it is fermented, the drink is considered alcoholic or nonalcoholic depending on the end result. Back in Ottoman times, when the consumption of alcohol was banned, it became a way to discreetly get a buzz. But it does not necessarily intoxicate; rather it gives warmth and a feeling of nourishment.

Due to its heartiness, boza is almost as much a porridge as a beverage.

Due to its heartiness, boza is almost as much a porridge as a beverage. The taste of boza is dictated by its alcohol content — the more sour, the more alcohol. This helps explain why two different types of boza became famous: the sour, especially produced by Armenians, and the sweet, mostly made by Albanians. It was also incorrectly believed that adding cinnamon, ginger, cloves and nutmeg decreased the alcohol content; in reality, such spices add taste complexity for the palate.

The story of fermenting cereal and wheat is an old one in Anatolia and Mesopotamia. In fact, in written accounts from the Sumerian and Akkadian periods, we find references to a fermented ground millet drink. The fifth-century Greek philosopher and mercenary Xenophon discusses a fermented wheat drink produced and stored in terracotta jars, as observed during a military campaign in eastern Anatolia. Boza was transported across the Middle East, making its way among the local tribes of Central Asia, Persia and Anatolia; from there it infiltrated the Balkans. The routes it followed led to its being known by different names in different places: Boze dari by the Persians, Bekni by the Seljuks (a medieval Islamic culture in Anatolia) and Mizri by the Arabs.

Boza’s history was especially intriguing under the Ottomans. Mehmed II (1444-1446, 1451-1481), who conquered Constantinople and transformed it into the Ottoman capital in 1453, is said to have loved boza, and it was in his time that the boza business in Istanbul took root. In the 16th century, its intoxicating effects were reinforced by opium, but the Ottoman Sultan Selim II (1566-1574) banned this recipe upon its discovery by the authorities.

Instead, the lighter and simple fermented version produced by the Albanians was promoted. In the 17th century, the consumption of boza was banned intermittently because of its alcohol content. Even the simple — that is, the sweet — version was thereafter ruled contrary to Islam, and most of the boza shops were closed.

The great Ottoman traveler Evliya Çelebi (1611-1682) is an inimitable contemporary source regarding the consumption and production of boza and the imperial and religious attitudes toward the beverage. For example, in between the bans, he claimed that about 300 shops and over 1,000 street sellers were peddling boza (think of Mevlüt, the main character in “A Strangeness in My Mind,” by Orhan Pamuk). Evliya praises boza for increasing the milk of lactating mothers, strengthening the body, increasing overall stamina, diminishing problems associated with gout and helping with digestion. He adds that he does not consume anything alcoholic and that drinking boza in moderation does not conflict with the rules of an Islamic diet.

Despite the debate on whether the drink contained alcohol, it was a favorite among the Janissary soldiers, who were initially captured by the Ottomans during wartime, conscripted and converted to Islam. Consumed especially on cold nights, its warmth and invigorating qualities helped soldiers to keep up their energy.

The story of boza is incomplete without a mention of the Vefa Bozacisi shop that was opened in the late 19th century on Vefa Street by two Albanian brothers, Haci Sadik and Haci Ibrahim. (The “haci” prefix indicates that they had gone on a pilgrimage in Mecca, so producing the less alcoholic version was a certainty for them.) The store was once located in a neighborhood alongside the area of entertainment complexes known as the Direklerarasi (“in between the columns”). The Direklerarasi was a colonnaded street within the 18th-century socio-religious complex built by Ibrahim Pasha, the Ottoman vizier of the Tulip Period. It was the hub of meddahs, or storytellers, standup comedy and one-man dramas, magicians and jongleurs, and shadow plays. Because of the multitude of attractions and forms of entertainment, especially during Ramadan, people of different backgrounds, as well as Janissaries, would come to the Direklerarasi to socialize. One pastime in the area was to stop by the boza shop, especially in wintertime.

Before the founding of the Turkish Republic, there were many bozahanes in Istanbul, but currently boza is mostly confined to production by the Vefa Bozacisi, as well as a few other less-significant brands. The neighborhood of Vefa, where people once flocked to socialize, go to the theater or hear the performance of a storyteller, is now more subdued and does not see many visitors. But boza remains something that brings different neighborhoods and people of different incomes together.

At the Vefa Bozacisi, you can see grandparents giving their grandkids a proper introduction to the original boza and teaching them that this is the real thing, unlike the knockoffs sold in plastic containers at the grocery store. Customers in chic dresses and expensive cars pull over to the side of the road, and one can see the regret in their faces at not being able to get boza through a drive-in window. Curious newlyweds from a small city in Turkey stop by to taste the drink because the place is recommended on Tripadvisor. A local vendor from the area goes in with his own cup to get a serving that can be taken back to his store.

Whether you go to the Vefa Bozacisi to take a sip or wait for the cries of the street vendors that ring out during the cold winter nights, in the foodscape of Istanbul, the image of boza is strong. It underscores a tradition that is centuries old, and it is an environmentally sustainable and healthy drink. Served in a historic setting, it captures the imagination and powerfully transports you to a different place and time. One discovers that it is sweet and sour, just like the history of the city.

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