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Fermented drink warms chilly Istanbul streets

Boza, a drink of fermented grains, has long thawed Turkish hands and hearts on cold winter nights.

March, known for bouts of cold weather before the April rains start, is an annual last hurrah for “boza.” For Turkish people, the word is associated with a tart taste, shrill voices and cold winter nights. This drink of fermented millet, wheat, bulgur, rice or other grains is seldom made at home but easy to find on the streets, sold by vendors often in the darkest and coldest nights of winter. The boza seller, who announces his arrival with a piercing call, brings with him the distinctive yeasty smell of the fermented starches in the grains.

The drink has a thick consistency, like a soupy pudding or a smooth, drinkable porridge. Its slightly astringent yet sweet taste is addictive to those who've grown up with it. People in Turkey crave boza on cold winter days just as many people in Europe long for a cold beer in summer months. If fact, boza is often historically considered a proto-beer. Some historians suggest that the word booze has its origins in boza or "buza," as it is pronounced in some regions.

This strange drink is omnipresent in Turkey’s literary scene and even its military history, as a fortifying beverage of the Janissary corps of the Ottoman army.

In 2016, the sound of the boza vendor was one of the foremost features in an exhibition mapping the soundscapes of Istanbul, “Everyday Sounds: Exploring Sound Through Daily Life,” at Koc University’s Research Center for Anatolian Civilizations.

Cem Kozar and Isil Unal from PATTU, the architecture, design and research firm that designed and developed the exhibition, maintain that the sound of the boza seller first startles, then becomes a ritual for newcomers to the sprawling cosmopolis of Istanbul. Kozar told Al-Monitor that it was just as typical a sound of Istanbul as the squeaks of seagulls and the sounds of trams and ferries.

Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, a Nobel laureate, was inspired by the boza vendors as the silent witnesses of Istanbul nights and cast one as the hero of his ninth novel “A Strangeness in My Mind.” The novel’s hero, Mevlut Karatas, sells boza as a night job during the winter. In his endless wandering in the streets of Istanbul spanning four decades, he observes the transformation of the city, the people and the country. Through his eyes, Pamuk narrates how the increasing pace of the world devours the historic essence of the city and how ambitious builders tear down old buildings and replace them with new towers.

During the Ottoman Empire, there were actual boza houses, just like coffee or tea houses, where people could come together. Ozge Samanci, an expert on Ottoman cuisine and head of the Gastronomy and Culinary Arts Department at Ozyegin University, told Al-Monitor that the boza vendors were often of Albanian origin, and while wandering through the darkness of the night, they would openly advertise their boozy “mirmirik boza." A bozahane (boza house) was a tavern-like place frequented by sailors, muleteers, porters and other working-class people. The great Ottoman traveler Evliya Celebi was overwhelmed when he accidentally entered one such place in Ankara, circa mid-17th century. He described it as filthy with drunken people, definitely not a place for the elite.

Throughout Ottoman history, the infamous boza houses were banned many times. The most famous prohibition took place during the reign of Sultan Murad IV, though the court still enjoyed a cup now and then. Ottoman historian and author of "Ottoman Palace Cuisine," Arif Bilgin, told Al-Monitor that boza was made in the kitchens of the Topkapi Palace, and registrars documented the purchase of certain grains for boza-making. His extensive work on the provisioning and financial accounts of the imperial kitchen show that the rice bought just for boza amounted to seven and a half tons in the year 1631.

Boza was popularly believed to give enormous strength to the drinker and was therefore favored by the mighty Janissaries and the street porters. The Janissaries, the backbone of the Ottoman army, carried boza-makers with them on their campaigns along with saddlers, farriers, cooks and barbers. Its nutritional benefits apparently made it an acceptable drink, though shrewd commanders made sure that their supplies were consumed quickly, while the fermentation had not been at work for long.

As alcohol was not allowed in Muslim religion, the beverage was an innocent-looking substitute. People regarded it as safe, and even children were allowed to enjoy a glass or two. But the fermentation that creates it means there will always be a certain amount of alcohol in the product.

To differentiate, there was a generally accepted distinction: The acceptable form of boza was called "tatli" (sweet) boza, and "eksi" (sour) boza was regarded as a lowly drink sold in sleazy shops frequented by drunkards. Interestingly, the sweet boza is still traditionally recommended for lactating mothers to increase their milk. Today, boza is considered entirely innocuous, even for pious Muslims in Turkey, enjoyed by all ages, given to small children with a sprinkling of cinnamon and a handful of roasted chickpeas to warm drinkers, especially when the March wind blows bitterly cold.

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