Writing about the allure of ayran has been on my agenda for over a year now. Every time an expat informs me that they don’t “like” ayran, it serves as a reminder that the drink could use a bit of English advocacy.
Most outsiders come into Turkey with no real idea of what ayran is. The history of the drink’s origin can often be a topic of fierce debate, but it also reinforces the rich history behind it. The comparison to lassi, the traditional yogurt-based Indian beverage (which features more spices than the Turkish counter-part), is the first thing that relates to the region’s newcomers. The use of yogurt in Western cuisine is not a predominant phenomenon, so a beverage consisting solely of yogurt, water and salt (and the occasional mint leaves) can often be a daunting and unappealing prospect. Despite this, it is worth the effort to familiarize oneself with ayran. It is a healthy beverage and a great substitute for sugar-based drinks.
The consumption of ayran here, as you’ve probably noticed, is widespread. You can order it with your McDonald’s combo or have it accompany a traditional Turkish kebab. Savory pastries and street-style rice also go well with it. Outside the realm of sweets, you would actually be hard pressed to find a dish that isn’t enhanced by its presence.
Rule number one of ayran is that it all boils down to the quality of the yogurt used in the prep work. Equally important however, is understanding the two clashing ideologies in the ayran world, kapalı ayran and açık ayran. When dining out or shopping at a market, kapalı ayran is basically a guaranteed option. Kapalı ayran is the name for the pre-packaged form and comes in a variety of brands. You’ll have to shop around a bit to find your favorite. Sütaş and Eker are two reliable companies in the field, but the key to success is sampling all the options and making an educated choice as a consumer.
The opposition to kapalı ayran, and the style this expat personally advocates, is açik ayran. If you frequent pilav or kebab shops, you will have certainly noticed the machines at work mixing the milk-like beverage. The longer they have been mixing it, the better. Some even top off your glass (or tankard) with a bit of the froth from the mixing process, typically confirming that you have struck gold. Many locals don’t “trust” açik ayran, especially in some of the more low-key locations. The rationale here is that they are unsure of how clean the preparation process was or if bottled water was used. Others simply prefer the conventional taste of the kapalı variety. Açık ayran is generally more sour in taste and the quality can widely differ. However, fortune favors the brave and the best ayran can be found by trying the many styles of açık ayran the city has to offer. Even if some shops don’t have the drink prepared in advance, they can make it for you on the spot. This is somewhat less fruitful in terms of taste, due to the little mixing that takes place. However, you can witness the process first-hand and perhaps steal some tips for your own home-brew. It is also worth mentioning that the more environmentally-conscious choice here is to go with açık ayran, as it is not individually packaged.
Traveling outside the city can especially yield some of the country’s best ayran. The holy-grail of ayran can be found in the northwest of the country in Susurluk, a district of Balıkesir. So for those of you that are truly hooked, prepare yourselves for the 6-hour bus journey to the promised land.
Becoming an aficionado of ayran is rewarding in a number of ways, and the variety of styles and people’s preferences proves for some good-natured debate. At its core, it is an immensely foreign drink to what most of us expatriates are used to. It is an acquired taste and takes a bit of time and commitment to fully appreciate. Ultimately, the end result is well worth it. I am sure I speak on behalf of many locals when I can’t help but question why the rest of the world doesn’t also reward themselves with a bit of this satisfying beverage.