Halfway through reading Orhan Pamuk’s latest novel, A Strangeness in My Mind, I booked a one-way flight back home to my native Turkey, stabbed with homesickness and with tears in my eyes.
A Strangeness in My Mind revolves around a national obsession of ours: boza, a sweet and sour fermented Turkish winter wonderland drink. Made of bulgur wheat, it has the consistency of pudding.
In Turkey, boza is traditionally served with a generous helping of cinnamon and roasted chickpeas. This nutritious drink had been consumed in the Balkans, the Middle East, and Central Asia for millennia, for both leisure and medicinal purposes. But it was the Ottomans who took the tradition one step further and popularized it with hundreds of boza shops – although it was briefly banned by the Sultan Mehmed IV during the 17th century, due to the fact that booze can contain up to 1 percent alcohol by volume, a result of the fermentation process. (And yes, according to some historians, the word “booze” might in fact be derived from “boza.”)
A Strangeness in My Mind takes the reader through the streets of Istanbul with the boza vendor Mevlut in the 1970s and 1980s. It’s impossible to not be consumed by nostalgia for a bygone era of boza street vendors, as this winter treat is a reminder of cozy good times, family gatherings, and winter festivities. Anyone who remembers the vendors crying “Bozaaaa!” in the streets after the evening prayer has appreciated the service they have done to brighten our long winter nights.
It must have been a decade or so since the last time I heard the cry in the streets, although this hardly means I’ve stopped drinking boza since then. The consumption habits of industrialized Turkey are rapidly changing, and boza vendors have been all but wiped out. But a few committed independent boza makers continue to thrive on the nation’s love affair with the fermented drink.
Karakedi—literally meaning “black cat” in Turkish—is one of the iconic boza makers in the city of Eskisehir in Western Turkey. A family business since 1925, Karakedi’s tiny shops are always brimming with boza lovers in the winter, who often queue outside to taste it.
Industrialization and mass consumption in Turkey has also given rise boza being sold in plastic bottles, available at corner shops and supermarkets. But Ilhan Unugur, the general manager of Karakedi, doesn’t think this will challenge the tradition, as people notice the difference in quality. Boza isn’t something that’s meant to wait in plastic bottles for an extended period of time, he thinks.
“There are no additives in our boza and there’s live culture in it, like yoghurt,” he says. “Because of this, it goes off quickly. We have to sell what we produce immediately.”
Loyal fans don’t disappoint, as they queue by dozens. Some of them even drive from the smaller neighbouring cities, instead of just buying a bottle of boza from the next supermarket.
Since it is a drink that goes sour easily, in the past boza was merely a winter drink. But as technology has removed the need to eat according to the seasons and given us long-lasting food, we can drink boza whenever we want. Globalization presents a challenge to the status of boza as a winter drink with Turkish migrants living abroad, some of whom only visit Turkey in the summer months.
“We didn’t use to work in summer months. But in the last years, we started to open the shop in the summer, too. Otherwise, ‘Don’t we have a right to drink boza, too?’ people who come from abroad ask,” says Unugur.
Yet, although supermarkets and industrial producers could fill the shelves with boza in any season, it’s industrially available only in winters. And despite the changing production and consumption patterns, boza will remain a primarily winter drink in the foreseeable future, evoking feelings of community, belonging, nostalgia, and shared joy.
In the next 50 years, perhaps boza will begin to resemble other traditional foods in the modern era, and countries with cheap labor will import it, 3D print it, or find any other technology that would have been completely unimaginable under the rule of Sultan Mehmed IV. But I know one thing: People will still be drinking boza, with the same need for nostalgia.