Some of the most interesting eating experiences happen off the beaten track in neighbourhoods not frequented by tourists. Often this exposes the traveler to how ordinary people are living which, in Istanbul, took us to some sadly derelict areas. Poor neighbourhoods nestling alongside mosques of grandeur and splendour, abodes that appear to have survived an earthquake yet still housing families.
These are the backstreets which provide a very different view from the modernised parts of the city which more closely resemble the shopping areas of any large metropolis. But if your quest is to eat and experience, rather than to shop and spend, then you will come away enriched.
One of local items I was determined to track down in Istanbul was Boza, a drink made from fermented millet and produced between October and April. Although we were in the city in late May, I hoped to try out this refreshment which, I had been advised, was a somewhat acquired taste.
Boza first came to my attention through the writing of Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish, Nobel prize winning author who writes so evocatively about Istanbul and whose books formed the backdrop to my visit. In his book, Istanbul: Memories of a City, he describes taking his lover to the Vefa Boza Shop where he had been taken as a child.
Vefa Bozacisi is located in a backstreet of the suburb of Vefa not far from the Roman aqueduct, a magnificently preserved remnant of ancient times through which the Istanbul traffic now flows. Dating back to 1876, when it was established by Hadji Sadik Bey, an immigrant from Albania who set up the Vefa Boza brand, it continues to be run by his descendants. The shop has a beautiful tiled floor, alternating wooden and tiled panels behind the bar, old mirrors hanging on the walls and a marble topped, wooden counter running down one side of the room. High up on a wall, the glass from which Ataturk drank his boza in 1937, is now mounted like a shrine.
On the bar are small glasses filled with boza and topped with a sprinkling of cinnamon. Alongside stand plastic flagons of various sizes which the staff were filling from a boza-filled vat.
We were surrounded by adults and children alike, all enjoying this drink which seems to have a popular following. A framed poster proclaimed the health benefits of boza which contains vitamins A,B,C and E. It is said to aid digestion as well as milk production in pregnant women and is very effective in cholera treatment. Having no need of any of these cures, except perhaps the first, I was curious to know how it tasted.
The boza itself was surprisingly sweet and thick, eaten with a small plastic spoon. It has the texture of smooth apple puree and is very rich, so much so that I was unable to finish a glassful.
It is traditionally served with roasted chickpeas. In order to procure the chickpeas we popped across the road to Tarihi Vefa Levbicisi, another establishment which has stood the test of time, where we bought warm chickpeas packed into an old fashioned paper bag. In fact the whole experience felt like a visit to another age.
Boza does indeed date from another age. There are references to a fermented wheat drink from 4BC although the name Boza appeared during the 10th century. It developed some notoriety, having been banned by a succession of Sultans for the inclusion of opium which was popular at one time and later because of the high alcohol content caused by over-fermentation. Although the drink has been somewhat controversial historically, in the 19th century a sweeter, non-alcoholic version found favour with the Ottomans. I like to think of boza being drunk in the opulent pavilions of Topkapi Palace.
The general populace would buy boza from sellers who roamed the streets with their wares in the winter months as boza perished quickly and could not withstand summer temperatures. Nowadays it is refrigerated and sold in supermarkets. That boza sellers no longer roam the streets on a cold winters night shouting ‘Booooozaaaa’ is a result of modernisation, but at least travelers can go back in time at Vefa Bozacisi.
On our return home I asked our local Turkish restaurant where I could find boza in London. The owner laughed and told me I could not. ‘No one can make boza here’ he assured me.