Summer Break #3: Does Turkey Produce the World’s Weirdest Drink?

by Zora O'Neill on September 26, 2012

Want a real mind-bending experience when you travel?

Don’t worry so much about what to eat. Focus on the odd things there are to drink.

That’s where you get into severe mind-warping territory.

Exhibit A: Salgam Suyu

(Sorry–there’s a little cedilla under the s, and also under a c farther down. I’ve taught myself a lot about code in a decade, but never mastered those special characters.)

Salgam suyu is a Turkish purple carrot drink. Apparently it’s fairly common at juice stands in certain parts of Turkey that I haven’t been to.

I think if I encountered it in a juice stand, I’d be pretty giddy and think it was cool.

But I saw it as a packaged product, in a grocery store–and that was even more mind-blowing. It’s like it proved it was a major part of the culture, not just some health nut’s invention.

Looking innocent on the grocery store shelf

“Is that a…carrot? That’s purple?” I said, squinting at the label. I flipped it around to look at the ingredients. Yup, purple carrot.

At the checkout, the lady looked unimpressed with it, like it was a totally normal thing. I guess, for her, it is. Which is the mind-blowing part.

It’s really beautiful stuff:

Looking lurid out on the street

By now, you’re probably wondering about the taste. The label said in capital letters BEST SERVED COLD.

But we had no fridge. We popped it open near the end of a long walk, standing on the top of a windy dyke at the edge of Edirne, with the massive Sinan mosque on the hill above us.

Peter gulped as I read out the ingredients: “Purple carrot, wheat, turnip, salt, red chili, pepper…”

“Huh. All those things really come through,” he said, scrunching up his face. “In that order.”

I took a swig. It was bracing. I wished it were cold. But for electrolyte replacement or whatever, and in lieu of food, it was pretty fantastic.

This product really made me rethink everything I knew about Turkey, Turkish food and Turks in general. Granted, I’m no expert to start with (the only Turkish I know is cok güzel, and I learned that from an Eartha Kitt song), but this made me realize there’s just so much I don’t know, there and nearly everywhere I go.

Like, what is the significance of this drink? Do grownups drink it? Do kids drink it? Does your mom tell you to drink it when you’re sick with something in particular? Do dudes drink it to feel studlier? Does it go with certain foods? Do you drink at night? In the morning? Is it old-fashioned? Or suddenly cool again? Is this a good brand? The only brand? Do people scoff at seeing it packaged at all?

I have no real answers, but I do see the word afrodizyak on the packager’s website. And, according to the ad, it makes you do backflips.

Each dish in every culture has all this resonance, but we barely begin to learn any of it when we travel. We can read up on some of the most famous dishes–it’s bachelor food, it’s court food, it’s imported-from-China-on-the-silk-road food… But a lot is just never even discussed, until someone thinks to ask.

It’s true for food, but it’s doubly true for drinks, because they’re almost always, by definition, a secondary thing.

Drinks also tend to be more personal, like breakfast–we have our routines, and we don’t want to mess them up (just think of your morning coffee).

And, more practically, travelers often shy away from water-based things for health reasons.

But one huge selling point about trying new drinks is: they’re cheap! Even if something’s disgusting and you’ll never put it in your mouth again, you only spent a couple bucks, max, on it. But you will have seen, for a gulp or two, a whole side of a culture you never knew before.

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever had to drink in another country?

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Peter September 26, 2012 at 12:41 pm

My Turkish friend here says he likes Salgam very much. To which I accused him of being an adventurous eater (which he isn’t). He said, “Yes, but it is Turkish adventure.”

And it has no special connotation, says he. And yes, “It is healthy,” but nothing special. For instance, “At a restaurant you can order ayran, salgam, or coke. Whatever you want.” Now if *that* isn’t an odd holy-trinity of drink choices…

2 Naomi October 7, 2012 at 12:33 am

In Split, Croatia I stayed at this weird b&B where a lot of the maintenance workers for the cruise ships stayed. Every morning they had coffee and a shot of something. Finally on the last morning my father and I were invited to join for the shot, he declined…I did not. Apparently it’s some traditional Croatian alcohol. I remember tasting hints of turpentine with a subtle resonance of wiper fluid and then the distinct sensation my insides were were being eaten away by an internal flame. But hey, if you’re going to do a shot at 8 in the morning, that’s exactly what it should be.

3 Zora October 7, 2012 at 2:59 pm

Naomi, I read your “tasting notes” to my parents (the only ones around who would listen after I was laughing out loud to myself), and they approved. Agreed–the 8am shot has different requirements. And how did you find the cruise-ship-staff B&B?! That seems like an intriguing network to tap…

4 Naomi October 10, 2012 at 8:55 am

Alas, it was not as lovely as one would hope. It was effectively in the slums of Croatia. The only place with rooms available during the heart attack crisis of ’08. Although there was a view of the mediterranean, it was marred by the occasional swastika graffiti. Finally we moved to a very western, very nice hotel in center city. The thing about Croatia? Great wine. Plus they sell splits, perfect for a panicking person of one!

5 Zora October 16, 2012 at 2:58 pm

I guess they have to sell splits, seeing how Split is right there!

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