Love at first sip

Aziza Sami , Tuesday 20 Feb 2024

The soulful experience of preparing a cup of Turkish coffee

Turkish coffee
Turkish coffee photo: Engy Eleslamboly


Over the years coffee has etched unforgettable experiences in my memory. 

The very first was the taste of its rich and velvety grounds savoured stealthily on the tip of a finger I had dipped into my mother’s cup of Turkish coffee that had been left unattended after she had finished drinking it.

I was seven years old at the time and did not have a full cup of coffee until years later, but I believe that this was the moment when I was propelled into a love of coffee and along with it an addiction to the beverage, especially when dark roast and blended with cardamom and mastic.

Writing about food and drink can carry pitfalls, laden as the topic can be with history and culture and, along with them, accusations of cultural appropriation. Turkish coffee is similar to Arabian coffee, and, to a much lesser degree, to Italian espresso in that it is served dark in small cups whose total volume is most often no more than two ounces of liquid.

But its similarity is greatest with Greek coffee, as Greece, just as the case with Egypt, was under Ottoman rule starting in the 16th century. Both countries consequently possess a culinary heritage that is indigenous to them, while carrying the stamp of cross-cultural influences.

I was once in a small inn in Athens during a brief stop-over and asked for a cup of Turkish coffee, as would be the habit of most Egyptians. For them, this kind of coffee would mean one that is black and is brewed slowly over the lowest of fires with sugar to taste and served in a small two-ounce cup.

The waiter paused and asked me in an amiable tone where I was from. When I told him that I was Egyptian, he smiled and said, in Arabic and in an Egyptian dialect, that “I am going to serve you Greek coffee.” What ensued was a most unexpected conversation that was full of nostalgia, warmth and, amazingly, shared memories.

He had been born in Alexandria in Egypt, he said, and had returned to Athens as a child when his family, Greeks who had been born in and lived in Egypt for decades and were part of the substantial Greek community that had resided in Egypt for centuries, had decided to leave the country.

Historical sources indicate that coffee first made its way into what is now known as the Middle East region in the 16th century. Arabian coffee beans were transported from Yemen, consequently spreading throughout the region and on to Europe.

In Egypt specifically, it is said that coffee was introduced by Sufi students studying at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. Arabian coffee imported from Yemen with its high caffeine content assisted them in their studies and in staying up for long nights spent in meditation and prayer.

By the 18th century, coffee and its manner of brewing had evolved into what is now known as Turkish coffee, where water and coffee are mixed in a narrow open pot with a long handle called a kanaka in Arabic. This is traditionally made of copper, but it is now also manufactured out of stainless steel.

To make a cup of Turkish coffee, add one-and-a-half rounded teaspoons of coffee, or maybe a bit more, to every 1.7 ounces of water, although the enjoyment of preparing this kind of coffee is intuitive and needs to be measured to taste.

A perfect cup of Turkish coffee should have a “face” – a “wesh” we call it in Egypt – which is a film or cream-like top that gathers on the surface of the gently brewed coffee and should remain intact once the coffee is poured into the cup. 

This is the tradition, or at least it used to be, with some people often preferring to boil the coffee and present it without a “face” and more in line with the method of preparing Arabian coffee.

I remember a family friend who every time she came to visit would ask for a cup of Turkish coffee “mazbout,” meaning with one teaspoon of sugar. During every visit, she would describe to me in detail how to brew coffee that would yield a perfect “wesh” or “face.”

“On the very lowest of fires, after you have stirred for at least two minutes, let the coffee rise once, twice, three times, without overflowing. Then, you will enjoy the most perfect ‘face’,” she said.

Years later, I realised that this must have been her way of complaining that the coffee we offered her in our house was consistently without a “face”. The take-away, though, is that I myself have followed her unforgettable instructions, and my cup of Turkish coffee always has the most perfect “face”.

Turkish coffee evokes many things in Egyptian culture, from the once-existent tradition portrayed in films from the 1940s to the 1960s of how the preparation of a perfect cup of Turkish coffee was the ultimate test of a bride-to-be’s home-making skills to the still-prevalent tradition of offering “qahwa sada,” or coffee without sugar, at funerals.

The qahwa or café as a public space continues to be an important mainstay of Egyptian social life, from the days when the neighbourhood café was the daily meeting place after work, mostly for men, to the present day when popular Egyptian-style cafes have made a comeback, even with Generation Z, the age group born after 1995.

Turkish coffee might not be the beverage of choice among the new generation of Egyptians, but the look of the traditional Egyptian coffee shop that many of them now frequent has been maintained, from the simplest coffee shops in popular neighbourhoods to those emulating them in five-star hotels.

Traditional Egyptian qahawi have also expanded into serving their own versions of cappuccinos, lattes, and frappuccinos, each with its own distinctive twist. I enjoy these versions of Western-style coffee, mostly while meeting friends. But when it comes to Turkish coffee, I enjoy it most when it is a solitary endeavour made at home.

The reason might reside in its method of preparation, which must be slow and methodical in order to yield the best results. The ultimate test of one’s mindfulness is the “face” of the coffee, where the creamier and thicker it is, the more present it means I must have been when making it. 

Is it any coincidence, I sometimes ask myself, that coffee with all the rituals that its preparation entails in an almost yogic-like sequence, was introduced into Egypt by Sufi mystics?

My paradoxical urges of hedonism coupled with health consciousness when it comes to food or drink find solace in the fact that coffee, specifically black and sugarless the way I like it, is being increasingly recognised by medical science for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, when taken in moderation of course.

I personally still go overboard with my Turkish coffee, welcoming the intense bouts of energy and focus that it gives me. And as on that childhood day so long ago, it is always the first sip of the creamy face of Turkish coffee, heavenly with its infusion of cardamom and mastic, that truly makes my day.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 22 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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