Food fermentation is a culinary trend around the world, and for good reason. In certain foods, the process of converting carbohydrates and sugars can not only create bacteria-boosting agents but also release small amounts of alcohol. Boza and şıra, fermented drinks quite common in the Ottoman kitchen, are no exception in this process.
Though present-day Turks may not place boza and şıra on the same level as beer or wine, they might be surprised to learn about the similarities between alcoholic beverages and their innocent-looking substitutes. Boza and şıra are traditional drinks from the Ottoman times with a complex history. As alcoholic drinks were not allowed in the Muslim religion, these two beverages, though containing tiny amounts of alcohol from the fermentation process involved in their production, were not regarded as alcoholic. Even children were allowed to enjoy a glass or two of these drinks without a worry. However, boza and şıra are not as innocent as one may think. As long as there is fermentation involved in starches of cereal used to produce boza, or in sugars of grape juice used to produce şıra, the end product includes a low percentage of alcohol content. This low percentage may not be so innocuous if the fermentation process continues. In learning more about boza and şıra, we begin to see how these innocent drinkables have been enjoyed–sometimes even in excess–from the Ottoman times to the present day.
Boza, the proto-beer
If you have never tried boza before, imagine drinking a soured soupy pudding with a slightly pungent yet addicting taste. Just like some of us crave a glass of cold beer when the summer comes around, you’ll crave the texture and taste of boza once winter is on the way.
Boza is considered to be an ancient type of beer, dating back to the time period of the Sumerians, Egyptians, and Hittites. Though the Ottomans insisted that boza was safe to drink, rumor has it that the word “booze” originates from boza. In the Ottoman times, boza with a notoriously high alcohol content, which was called mırmırık boza or Tatar boza, was sold in drinking holes called bozahane, which is roughly translated to booze houses or taverns.
Regular customers at a bozahane were sailors, porters, muleteers, laborers and other working class people. The bozahane was definitely not a place for the elite. A story goes that the great Ottoman travel writer Evliya Çelebi was overwhelmed with shame when he accidentally walked into a bozahane in Ankara and was surprised at its resemblance to a sleazy bar. Needless to say, Tatar boza was subject to prohibition from time to time, though with little effect. Still, drinking boza was tolerated to a certain extent, as it was never categorized as booze. The popular belief was that boza gave enormous strength to the drinker. It may have even given him a sense of empowerment!
Boza is made by fermenting millet, barley, wheat, bulgur, rice, or a combination of these grains. Unlike beer, boza is opaque and quite thick in consistency; it can often be as thick as pancake batter. In the process of making boza, a considerable amount of sugar is added to the mix. Boza bears a sweet and sour taste, which becomes more sour if left to ferment longer. The fermentation, and the potential for higher alcohol content, becomes uncontrollable in warm climate. This is why its consumption is restricted to the cold months.
Şıra, the fermented grape juice
When warmer weather rolls around in the spring, boza season is officially over, and şıra season begins. Şıra is made by fermenting grape juice, but the fermentation process is stopped before the sugars–most of them, at least–are converted to alcohol. Depending on the degree of fermentation, şıra can be cloyingly sweet if the fermentation is minimal, or it can be a bit sour and less sweet if it ferments for a longer period of time. The ideal sip of şıra leaves a fizzy and refreshing taste on your tongue, just like a summer wine cooler. One can easily say that şıra replaced wine on Muslim dining tables of the Ottoman Empire. Just as with wine, there are elaborate varieties of şıra that can be found in different regions of Turkey. One such example is the Hardaliye of Kırklareli in Thrace, where the fermentation is stopped by adding mustard seeds and cherry leaves to the grape juice. With a complex flavor coming from the sharp bite of the mustard seeds along with the faint bitterness of cherry leaves, this special type of şıra was Atatürk’s favorite.
Safe for consumption?
In present-day Turkey, the type of boza safe for drinking is called tatlı boza (sweet boza). The other type, ekşi boza, is regarded as a lowly drink, and was often sold in grungy shops frequented by drunkards in the past. Needless to say, we recommend the former, not the latter. Interestingly, the benefits of tatlı boza are high. It is traditionally given to lactating mothers to increase milk flow, and some might argue that is can help with postpartum depression due to its sugary, starchy, slightly boozy content. In addition, boza is usually served with a generous sprinkle of cinnamon, which may help regulate and lower insulin levels.
Unlike the two different types of boza, şıra is typically safe for drinking, though we recommend drinking it in moderation due to the high fructose concentration. While tatlı boza is typically consumed by itself except for the occasional nibble of leblebi, or roasted chickpeas, şıra is a classic accompaniment to kebabs, just like one would have wine with steak. The original Iskender Kebap restaurant in Bursa makes its own şıra from the dried black grapes of Manisa that have been aged in mulberry casks.
The old wisdom is that leblebi is always good with booze, as in the case of the rakı-leblebi pairing. Since we know that boza is always served with a small portion of leblebi, this gives us the hint that the Ottomans surely knew what they were drinking. What they were drinking was not as innocent as they feigned it to be–they simply preferred to see the sober side of the matter. One Turkish saying goes, “bozacının şahidi şıracı,” which translates to “the witness of the boza maker is the şıra maker.” Alas, neither is as trustworthy as we may think!