‘Please don't turn the stove off!’: Travelling with the çaydanlık and Turkish tea
Turks have an obsessive relationship with Turkish tea. I choose the word ‘obsessive’ because Turkish tea is served and consumed continuously at every possible occasion, multiple times a day. It is a vital element and occupies a significant place in everyday life. Yet, what meaning and function does it have in a migrant’s life? That is the question I will discuss in this article, as an immigrant myself.
Çaydanlık, the Turkish tea kettle, consists of two parts. The bigger part is used to boil the water. A portion of that boiled water is then added to the second, smaller pot on the top, filled with spoons of tea leaves. The process of cooking takes about fifteen minutes after which the stove is always left on, to allow the water to boil constantly and make sure the tea is ready to drink for hours. Turkish tea is dominantly present in all spheres of Turkish everyday life, from private to public.
Surprisingly, as a central element of the culture, Turkish tea does not date back centuries. The first traces of Turkish tea appear in the late Ottoman times, with the arrival of Russian and Balkan immigrants. However, tea only became widespread after the First World War, with the foundation of the modern Republic of Turkey from 1923 onwards. Previously, Turkish coffee appeared in daily life most commonly as a consumption beverage. After the territorial loss of Yemen, the coffee source of Turkey, coffee was imported from Brazil and difficulties arose in access and price. Therefore, the newly founded government officially promoted Turkish tea by planning public areas such as tea gardens and tea plantations in the Northern coast of Turkey. These were designed within the scope of the modernisation plan – a plan intended to transform the old Ottoman Empire to a modern-secular, Europe-like nation-state.
Today, Turkish tea is more than a beverage with meanings and functions; it is a tool for socialising both at home, work, cafes, and tea gardens. It is a symbolic item to serve a guest to display hospitality and kindness; a support mechanism to facilitate heart-to-heart conversations; and a mundane element to accompany all possible daily occasions from waiting at a hairdresser or a bus terminal, to breakfast and business meetings.
When I packed my suitcase for my migration path in 2016, my çaydanlık was among the most essential items. I purposely purchased a mini-size one to carry it with more ease all around the world. Eventually, my çaydanlık travelled to Germany, then to Argentina and Thailand, and then back to Germany. As I am coming from a family who starts and finishes the day with Turkish tea, my tea kettle finds its place in my life as a medium of celebrations, sharing, exchange, and even mourning. Tea was present when I was admitted to my bachelor´s programme, when I lost my grandfather, when I broke up with a boyfriend, and when I celebrated graduation. My route would not have been complete without that essential companion.
This brings to mind In Small Things Forgotten by James Deetz, who focuses on material culture and emphasises how certain objects reflect beyond themselves. He argues that items which appear insignificant and small are useful to understand the complexities of cultures. In that matter, the çaydanlık has a lot to say. It has a symbolic value that, as an immigrant, I intended to carry with me. I tried to bring with me more than a beverage itself. I brought with me a part of what I use to construct as ‘home’.
This understanding of home has undergone major transformations during my mobility by transcending borders. I managed to feel ‘home’ at various locations thanks to my çaydanlık. I now enjoy it individually only when I want to hold on to my connection with Turkey, to feel a sense of familiarity, such as on a Sunday morning during breakfast. Hence, the function of çaydanlık has evolved from a socialising accessory to a binding one, where I stretch my connection privately. I now only boil the tea occasionally, rather than for casual social drinking on a daily basis.
Most noticeably, the setting where I consume tea has changed dramatically to include only the private sphere. During my migration path to Germany, Argentina, and Thailand, only in Germany could I find opportunities to enjoy Turkish ways of life in the public sphere, due to the existence of a Turkish community. However, the teahouses in Germany are mostly exclusive to men, which led me to start enjoying tea privately as an immigrant woman. In Argentina, I constantly faced a struggle in my apartment since the fact that Turkish tea needs to boil uninterrupted until the drinking phase has come to an end was not a familiar concept to many. This confusion led to many of my Argentinian flatmates turning off the stove before the tea-drinking process had concluded. Thus, during my field research in Buenos Aires with Turkish expats, I asked whether they preferred Turkish tea or mate, which is a caffeine-rich beverage considered the equivalent of Turkish tea in Buenos Aires. Mate is also consumed all day long from a specific container, drunk through a straw shared with friends and family in a social environment. All the participants stated their preference for Turkish tea, yet they only drank mate in Buenos Aires. Although this indicates a change in consumption, the significance of Turkish tea remains crucial. Moreover, in Thailand, it was not even possible to enjoy Turkish tea, because most apartments do not have kitchens, due to the common street-food culture. These contextual distinctions affected my way of carrying and implementing ‘home’ with my companion çaydanlık.
All in all, Turkish tea may carry various meanings in a migrant´s life, depending on the individual, locality, and context. My çaydanlık has transformed into a transcultural element which travelled across the globe and, eventually, shaped itself and integrated into the context-specific situations on my path, transcending borders. The journey transformed it into a binding and comforting element that I enjoy alone with no company, to have a sense of familiarity, maintain ties, and stretch my bond to Turkey.
Material culture shapes itself accordingly through cross-border activities. As cultures are not fixed but dynamic, objects during migration are also open to shifting. Therefore, it is fundamental to explore the journey of migrated cultural materials to deepen our understanding of immigrant incorporation. Four years after my migration, I still use the same çaydanlık, feeling the nostalgic taste it leaves when drinking, wondering about its many possible future transformations.
Zeynep is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Duisburg-Essen and doctoral researcher at ILS - Research Institute for Regional and Urban Development. After completing her BA in Sociology and Architectural Culture at the Middle East Technical University, Ankara, Turkey, she moved to Germany and completed her MA in Global Studies at Albert-Ludwigs-University Freiburg and FLACSO Argentina. She also spent one semester in Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand during her MA studies. As an immigrant herself, she is interested in migration research, skilled migration, and integration with a spatial focus. Additionally, she is a big fan of classical music. She can be contacted at Zeynep.firstname.lastname@example.org.