I’m a sucker for wintery drinks. Not just of the hot chocolate variety—that’s a given—but also thick, filling, savory drinks, like eggnog, Mexican atole, and this stuff, boza, in Turkey. A traditional fermented drink made from wheat, millet, or bulgur—and onetime favorite beverage of Ottoman sultans—boza is kind of an odd duck: It’s served chilled, it’s thick as pudding, and it’s at turns sour and sweet. It’s typically served topped with cinnamon and crunchy roasted chickpeas, which only makes me love it more.
In Istanbul, we wandered the streets a while before we found Vefa Bozacici, an old-school boza dispenser in the otherwise modernized district of Vefa. There was just one other couple inside, but the guy behind the marble-topped antique wooden bar had ladled-out glasses of boza waiting for us, as if he was expecting a huge rush. The place, established in 1876 by an Albanian immigrant and run by his descendants today, is an experience unto itself: The walls are mirrored and the floor tiled, the staff consists almost exclusively of burly mustachioed men, and a cup from which Atatürk, the founder/national hero of modern Turkey, once drank (in 1937) is enclosed in glass in one corner of the room. It has the feel of a nostalgic, well-worn, distinctly Turkish sundae parlor, where languidly spooning boza into one’s mouth over conversation feels like just the right thing to do.
I was pregnant at the time, attempting to ask vendors left and right, in Turkish, if their cheese was pasteurized, so I was pleased to see the sign on the wall touting boza’s health qualities, particularly for pregnant women. It is slightly alcoholic (about 1%), but apparently it’s rich in vitamins A, B, C, and E, as well as lactic acid, a digestive aid. The boza at Vefa’s, made from fermented bulgur, water, and sugar, was delicious, with a rather complex flavor: sweet, tangy, somewhat floral, nutty. It’s thick and creamy enough to be served with a spoon, thus making the crunch of the roasted chickpeas, or leblebi, a must.
We ate our boza like pudding and chatted with the other couple inside—locals who were at Vefa’s for their first time, too. They pointed out Atatürk’s cup and the cafe’s well-trod entranceway, the marble nearly flattened from more than a century’s worth of coming and going. We talked about Istanbul, where we’ve been and where we were going. We sampled the other historic drinks on offer here, two types of juice-like şerbet with strong notes of clove, cinnamon, and cardamom.
At the bottom of our boza cups, the chickpeas were going soft, and we were getting full. It was time to go. When our new friends learned we were taking public transport back to our apartment in Karaköy, they insisted on driving us. The mustachioed staff, in crisp white shirts and aprons, had lined up by the door, waiting to send us off. The four of us thanked them and stepped over the threshold, like so many before us.