It’s banal to say that in Istanbul they smoke like Turks – like chimneys, that is. But, to add another cliché, there is no smoke without fire! Many travel guides will tell you that Turkey is a difficult place for non-smokers: wherever you go, they’ll be delighted to keep bringing you clean ashtrays. You can’t smoke on buses, unless you’re the driver, which says a great deal.
But the best smoke is to be found in specially equipped establishments, and only with the Turkish water pipe, or narghilé, in Turkish. It is widely used in north Africa and central Asia, but its home is in Turkey.
The open firebox sits on the top of a column, while a metal pipe is immersed in the liquid below at the bottom of a sort of carafe. A hose, which may be two meters long, is connected to an opening halfway up the pipe, and on the end of this is a mouthpiece to breathe through. A tip for anyone who wants to take one home: the hose must be made of leather, which is heat-resistant and long-lasting, unlike plastic which is cheaper and uglier, as well as more fragile. The smoke travels a couple of meters, cooling down in the water and in the hose, so that it’s easy to breathe it in directly. You must try it at least once. Anyone can do it, and it’s virtually harmless. Usually aromatic dried Egyptian apple is being burned, with hints of honey, stewed fruit, and ripe figs.
There are many variants. In the glowing embers, which will be changed for you when they burn out, you may burn coffee-flavored or regular tobacco leaves as well as apples. Instead of plain water down below, you may have water with lemon, orange flowers or rose essence, and even with milk.
You can even smoke your cappuccino in Istanbul: coffee on the top and milk on the bottom, releasing an unexpected, surprising cappuccino-like flavor. Stronger palates can try Turkish tobacco: large leaves, pressed whole, creating a kind of candlelight, hard to burn and rather bitter. They say it’s for men only: the fact that it is difficult to breathe in and the acrid fumes does make it hard to smoke.
We urge non-smokers to break the rules and try holding a Turkish water pipe in their hands.
The charm of these courtyards, in which you’ll find everything necessary to enjoy a narghilé, is hard to resist. You are drawn away from the confusion and chaos of the streets crowded with dried fruit vendors and eager shoeshine boys by the sweet, intense aroma of dried apples. Follow your nose and don’t be afraid to enter the little doors leading into the many han. These were once dotted all over the center of Istanbul, providing a temporary lodging for travelers and their animals. But since vans and trucks replaced horses and mules these typical two- or three-storey buildings have lost their original function and become small working districts where you can still breathe in the oriental atmosphere of old Istanbul.
As you pass through the inconspicuous passageways you enter another world, far from the noise of the main streets, sheltered from the stifling heat of the long Turkish summer.
The pestering – but always very polite – managers will seat you on rustic benches covered with kilim, or carpets, with painstakingly detailed patterns.
A discerning selection of beverages, ranging from ayran tea and Turkish coffee to imported soft drinks, and the rhythmic, hypnotic music provide the background for a few moments of convivial relaxation. No one’s watching the clock here, the ancient walls protect you from the summer heat outside and the Turks will put you at your ease with their discreet, improvised conversation. Everything inevitably ends up with haggling over the price and quality of the carpets on sale.
It’s so much more than a smoke…
Chiara Fornari and Alberto Arossa work at the Slow Food Master of Taste office
Adapted by Ailsa Wood