Having read about “boza” prior to our arrival in Turkey, I was determined to track down the real stuff at Vefa Bozacisi in Istanbul, a local boza shop and café that has been around since 1876.
So what exactly is boza?
It’s a beverage made from fermented millet, water and sugar. It’s quite popular throughout the Balkan region and has slight variations depending on the country of origin. For example, in Albania, it’s usually made with corn or wheat, while in Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey, it’s made with wheat or millet. Boza has a yogurt-like consistency, and due to the fermentation process, it has a slightly sour and sweet taste. In fact, as a result of the active fermentation, boza contains a trace of alcohol (up to 1%). Oh, and it’s entirely vegan (score!). Depending on the primary grain used, it’s also possible to make a gluten-free version.
Boza has been around for thousands of years
This fermented beverage has been around for a very long time, with historical records showing that boza-like beverages were produced as early as 9000-8000 BC. During the 10th century, the drink was coined “boza” and eventually became an important good traded in major cities within the Ottoman Empire. During the 16th and 17th centuries, however, the drink’s reputation was slightly tarnished when it was discovered that people were adding opium to the otherwise healthy beverage. Additionally, during the 17th century, alcohol prohibition bans came and went, but eventually the unique drink’s reputation was back on track with over 300 boza vendors throughout Istanbul.
The shop, Vefa Bozacisi, was started in 1876 by two brothers, Haci Ibrahim and Haci Sadik. Located just a few blocks from the Suleymaniye Mosque, Vefa Bozacisi is the oldest boza shop in Istanbul.
Head over to Vefa Bozacisi
Vefa Bozacisi’s boza is served in a small drinking glass with a plastic spoon. Head to the counter, help yourself to a glass and then grab a seat in the café. The thick, light yellow beverage comes sprinkled with a touch of cinnamon, but you’re more than welcome to add more if you wish.
As we looked around the café, we noticed that most locals had a small paper bag of what looked like a topping for their boza. We asked some fellow customers at a nearby table about the contents of the mystery bag and learned that it contained freshly roasted chickpeas. They kindly offered some to us so that we could enjoy our boza in the traditional Turkish fashion. The chickpeas were a perfect addition; they added not only a nice crunch but they cut the sweetness of the boza, giving it a more mild flavor.
The production process is a little more complex than you may expect
The mixture of grains (wheat, corn and/or millet) is first crushed using a mill. The crushed mixture is then boiled in water until the grains are completely soft. Afterwards, the boiled mixture is spread onto trays and cooled to about 30°C or until a thick paste forms. The paste is then rehydrated with water and filtered through a fine sieve to separate out any large particles. After the sugar is added, the mixture is pasteurized in preparation for the fermentation process. At this point, a starter culture is added to the mixture and it is left to ferment at 25°C – 30°C for 16 hours. When the pH of the mixture has reached a value of 4.5 – 5, the fermentation process is complete.
Boza is loaded with B vitamins!
While boza is a bit sweet for me, from a nutrient perspective, it’s rich in B vitamins (B1-B2-B3-B6-B12) and probiotics thanks to the fermentation process. “Fermenting” means that we’re taking naturally occurring starches, sugars, and carbs in the grains, and we’re converting them into lactic acid using three things: a starter, time, and a lack of oxygen.
As I discussed in an earlier post on fermentation from our travels in Japan, while fermented foods are by no means a cure-all, there are a few health benefits that you can enjoy when incorporating small amounts of fermented foods into a balanced, nutrient-rich diet:
- Support the immune and lymphatic systems through the production of amino acids, probiotics, isoflavones, and essential enzymes
- Help to breakdown the fermented food before it enters our digestive system, thus aiding the digestive process and maximizing nutrient absorption
- Promote increased regularity by helping the gut to get rid of waste. A culinary instructor at the Natural Gourmet Institute in NYC put it rather simply, “the goal here is to strengthen the food entry and exit process.”
A trip to Vefa Bozacisi will give you a perfect opportunity to see another part of Istanbul and also the opportunity to enjoy a traditional (and unique!) Turkish beverage. You may love it, or not, but a taste of boza will mean that you have tried something new. And if you find that it’s your new favorite snack, you can purchase large vats of the fermented Turkish beverage so that you can enjoy boza back at home.