ANKARA, Nov 7 (Reuters) A cup of Turkish coffee, strong, bitter and black, is for many the defining symbol of Turkish tradition, yet many Turks prefer imported cappuccinos and lattes or tea.
Traditional coffee -- heated slowly in a special pot and served in small cups with a light froth on top -- has been around since the 16th century. It is steeped in ritual and takes time and care to prepare.
But Turkish coffee is less well-suited to the pace of modern life. Young Turks, like their counterparts across swathes of the world, are more likely to grab a cappuccino, espresso or double mocha macchiato from a global coffee chain as they dash to work.
Some see this trend as evidence that Turkey is becoming more fragmented and Westernised. Others say tea -- the sweet, black variety served in thin glasses -- is more Turkish than coffee.
From the days of the Ottoman empire when it first arrived in Istanbul from Yemen, Turkish coffee spread to parts of Europe.
It is still drunk in the Balkans and across the Middle East.
From betrothals to fortune-telling and ancient hospitality rituals, coffee has been the glue of society, as reflected in the proverb ''a cup of coffee means 40 years of friendship''.
Hamdi Akan, a coffee enthusiast and professor of medicine at Ankara University whose passion for the brew has driven him to create a Web site (www.kahve.gen.tr), is not impressed by the modern froth.
''This society is more and more Americanised,'' he said, while sipping Turkish coffee and water and eating Turkish Delight in an Ankara shopping mall.
TURKEY'S TEA-DRINKERS A poll on Akan's Web site suggests more people think tea -- cheaper, grown locally and heavily promoted by producer groups -- better reflects Turkish culture than coffee.
The amount of coffee imported annually from Brazil to make the traditional Turkish beverage has remained constant at 9,000 tonnes over the past 45 years, even though Turkey's population has more than doubled in that period to 74 million.
Total tea consumption jumped to 220,000 tonnes last year from 150,000 just five years ago.
''The tea market is constantly growing. Private players enter the market and our advertisement efforts also help raise consumption,'' said Huseyin Keles, a manager at state tea company Caykur.
Turkey produces 180,000 tonnes of tea a year and imports an additional 40,000 tonnes.
Coffee consumption is increasingly limited to special occasions.
When a family wants to marry off a son, the coffee ritual gives parents a chance to express their feelings about his potential bride. If they say nice things about her coffee, it means they approve of her skill in the kitchen.
PATRIOTISM In an effort to rekindle Turks' interest in traditional coffee, some companies have revived the ancient rite of using the grounds to tell people's fortunes.
Turks traditionally turn their coffee cups upside down after drinking. The pattern formed by the thick residue is believed to hold the key to that person's future.
Many cafes now employ professional fortune-tellers to attract customers.
''You're passing a difficult period, someone has upset you very much but do not let your heart be troubled,'' fortune-teller Ayse told one customer in an Ankara coffee-house Cafe Orti.
She said she had about 20 customers daily, drawn from all walks of life, women more often than men.
Akan, in another attempt to stem the traditional coffee decline, has asked the government to oblige all global coffee chains to offer genuine Turkish coffee on their menus -- but admits they can't force customers to buy it.
''People probably won't order Turkish coffee when they go to a Starbucks cafe (even though the global brand offers a Turkish variety). A lack of diversification in Turkish coffee is its greatest problem. You can't serve it up in different flavours,'' he said.
But Haluk Tuncay, head of Kocatepe Kahve, an Ankara-based coffee maker, says increasing patriotism in Turkey has helped his business. Some consumer groups called for a boycott of American goods after a U.S. Congress Committee earlier this month named the 1915 massacre of Armenians by Ottoman Turks a 'genocide', which Ankara firmly rejects.
''There are thousands of elements in a coffee bean,'' said Tuncay. ''It is the slow heating that gives Turkish coffee its flavour. When you make coffee with hot water, the number of elements melting in the water declines.'' But he added people have been abandoning tradition for many years -- in coffee, Turkishness is just not trendy.
REUTERS RC RN0822