It's snowing! In Istanbul!
And with big fluffy flakes drifting down outside our window, now seems the perfect time to tell you about boza.
Thought to have been invented in the 10th century or thereabouts by central Asian Turks, boza is a fermented drink made from corn, wheat, or millet. We sampled the beverage at Vefa Bozacisi, an old-timey shop not far from Suleymaniye Mosque. Vefa is certainly not a "find" -- it's in every guide book and probably on every walking tour, but it's not just for visitors; Istanbullu frequent Vefa too.
The shop has a long history. By the 1600s there were boza shops all over Istanbul selling a thin, sour, rather alcoholic version, until Sultan Mehmend IV closed them down as part of a genearl ban on alcohol. During this period a sweetish, hardly alcholic version is said to have been favored by the Janissaries who guarded Topkapi Palace. Given the Sultan's ban on booze it became popular outside the palace walls as well.
In the late 1800s -- or so the story on the Vefa website goes -- Vefa founder Hadji Sadik Bey immigrated to Istanbul from Albania and "started to make Vefa Boza of a different flavour and taste, with thick consistency and having a less sour taste, just as it is flavoured and enjoyed today."
Boza is a winter beverage meant to be drunk warm. Long ago it was sold by itinerant vendors who pushed their carts up and down Istanbul's slippery wintertime hills shouting "Boooza! Booooza!" Now you can buy the stuff in a bottle, but for pure nostalgia value it's hard to beat the Vefa experience.
The shop is all mirrors, blue-and-white tiles, and timber. Orders of boza are ladled up to order from a big marble tub on the bar that runs along one side of the shop.
We sampled our boza off-season (as you might deduce by the short sleeves in these photos). Such a hearty drink would probably have gone down easier in the dead of winter but even in June boza cast its spell on me.
It's quite viscous -- thick and slurpy. Some may find this repellent, but living in Asia has pretty much inured me to gloppiness in any dish or beverage. I loved the boza's's mildly sweet-tanginess, which is nicely complemented by the generous sprinkle of cinnamon with which the boza server annoints each glass.
Right across the street from Vefa is a leblebici (roasted chickpea seller). This is not a coincidence. Some boza drinkers sprinkle the roasted legumes on top of their boza before each sip/slurp.
On that summer day, as we sat in Vefa sipping/slurping our boza, our friend Evren (he of the healthy obsession with deliciousness and the memorable brunch near Rumeli Castle) explained the custom such: "Imagine buying a bag of just-roasted leblebi from the leblebici, then rushing over to Vefa to eat them while they're still hot, with a warm glass of boza."
That I can imagine, on a wintry day like this.