From Boza to Bourbon: Chacha at Café Niko

This week's column sees Cameron look east to Georgia, and find dizzying highs in a bus-station watercooler.

In Aksaray there is a bus station, and in that bus station there is a Georgian restaurant, and in that Georgian restaurant there is a water cooler, and in that water cooler is chacha. Chances are that the chacha filling that water cooler, which looks undoubtedly like water, travelled quite some distance to get to that small shot glass on your table at Café Niko.

chacha

The first journey chacha goes through is a distillation process similar to Italian grappa. After winemaking, the left over skins and seeds of the grapes are fermented for a minimum of two weeks, and the distilling process starts over a very low flame. After distillation the chacha is bottled and travels the near-1,500km by bus from Georgia.

Café Niko is a Yabangee favorite and you can find previous articles about the food here and here. It’s been open for four years and is a small space that caters mostly to the bus clientele that travel to and from Georgia. The food is hearty down-home cooking, with a menu that specializes in stews and meat-centric entrées. They even offer pork products. The khachapuri is not to be missed, as the pizza-like dough, layered with butter and goat’s milk cheese, is perfect for soaking up the rounds of chacha that are raised to the middle of the table.

chacha

While the food and beer (Tuborg) are cheap, the emphasis is on the chacha, which, at 10TL for a water bottle of the potent clear liquor, is a steal for spirits in Istanbul. I would definitely categorize chacha in the “fire water” category of spirits (including Hungarian palinka or Kentucky moonshine), because of its intense burn and high alcohol content. Usually, chacha at Niko’s is around 50% ABV, but it can get as high as 70% in Georgia.

Like many “bootleg” spirits, the history of chacha is cloudy and contentious, but is thought to originate in the Caucasus region by dint of a happy accident, when someone distilled the leftover wine products that had been forgotten about. The beverage’s name comes from those crushed grapes, which are referred to as chacha in Georgian. Besos, the owner of Niko’s, says the name is poetic, because when chacha is poured into a glass, it creates a chain of bubbles, and the name chacha imitates the sounds created by the Georgian word for chain.

chacha

While chacha is a staple at Niko’s, Besos says that many Georgians don’t actually like the national drink, but prefer the more widely popular Georgian white wine. On lucky nights and if you ask nicely, a jug full of sweet spring wine may appear at your table. But at Niko’s, drinking chacha is a tradition on a par with Turkish rakı and Russian vodka. As is customary with these types of regional choice beverages there is a certain way to drink chacha: in a small shot (between 30-50mg) and never without a toast. While the order and frequency of toasts depends on the region you are dinking in, it is usually as follows: motherland, mothers, parents, siblings, children, the future, peace, love, the victorious dead, and if you and your friends are still standing after all the chacha be sure to toast to them.

You can visit Café Niko at the Emniyet Otogarı International Bus Station, located near the Aksaray Metro station entrance. They serve until they run out of food. Call ahead with a large group to make sure no one goes home hungry.

All photos by Svetlana Nekrasova.

 

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Cameron Loftus
Cameron Loftus is a former cook who left his job to eat and write. He is searching the world over for the best chai latte and is always looking for the next best pizza. He loves to read, write, and wander the streets of Istanbul looking for a new favorite place to eat and drink. Follow his blog: www.theeuroad.com for more musings on food, drinks, and life.

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