By Elif Selvili
Photography by Kate LeSueur
The word “coffee” entered the English language through a circuitous phonetic route by way of the Dutch word koffie, derived from the Italian word caffè, which probably came from the Turkish word kahveh, that has its roots in the Arabic word qahwah—a shortening of the expression qahwat al-bun, roughly translated as “wine of the bean.” This is where any agreement between lexicographers ends.
Although there is no hard evidence, some scholars assert that the word qahwah is foreign to Arabic, and that it originates from the Kaffa region of the southwestern highlands of Ethiopia, where the coffee plant was first cultivated. Although in many languages, “coffee” refers to both the beverage and the bean (which, in fact is a berry, not a legume), in Arabic, the two are distinct: the berry is called bunn and the word qahwahrefers only to the stimulating drink many of us have come to worship.
There are many colorful tales about the spread of coffee through the Arabian Peninsula and its discovery as a stimulant, including the one about Sheikh Omar, a Sufi doctor who was exiled from Mocha, Ethiopia (the modern word “mocha” owes its name to this ancient city), to a remote region in Yemen in the 12th century for the crime of curing patients with prayer. Omar, hard-pressed for food, chewed berries from a nearby shrub but discovered them to be bitter. He roasted the berries to sweeten the flavor, but the berries became too hard to chew. He then tried to soften them by boiling, which resulted in an aromatic brown liquid. When he drank this liquid, he was instantly energized and felt no hunger for days. As stories of this miracle medicine reached Mocha, Omar was asked to return and was made a saint (sainthood would have been well deserved for a deed this monumental!).
The first documented evidence of people drinking coffee appears in the middle of the 15th century, in the Sufi monasteries around Mocha. By the 16th century, the beverage had reached the Ottoman Empire, Persia and northern Africa. Istanbul was introduced to coffee during the reign of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent by Özdemir Pasha, the Ottoman governor of Yemen, who had become a coffee convert during his appointment to that country. Coffee quickly became an essential part of the Ottoman palace kitchens, with the “chief coffee maker” (kahveciba??) taking his place in the royal court. The chief coffee maker’s duty was to prepare the sultan’s coffee while maintaining absolute loyalty and secrecy. A good number of chief coffee makers percolated through the court ranks to become grand viziers to the sultan. Coffee’s fame eventually leaked from the palace to the grand mansions and then on to the general public. Green coffee beans were purchased and then roasted at home on pans. The beans were then ground in mortars and brewed in copper pots. Written records document that the first coffeehouse in Istanbul was established in the 1640s in Tahtakale, a neighborhood next to the famous Spice Bazaar. The oldest Turkish coffee purveyor still operates today from a tiny storefront in this area.
In modern-day Turkey, much as it was during the Ottoman Empire, coffee is not just a drink but a culture. Ever since the first coffeehouse opened in Istanbul centuries ago, artists, students and teachers have come together in coffeehouses to read books, perform plays and hold intellectual discussions. Today’s Turkish coffeehouses may be a little less intellectual, though no less lively. The traditional ones—as opposed to the ubiquitous and unisex American franchises currently dotting the urban Turkish landscape—are gathering spots mostly for men who play backgammon, watch soccer on TV, argue and joke, all at top volume. Although locally grown tea is probably consumed in greater quantity, these establishments are still known as kahvehane (coffeehouses). Outside these traditional coffeehouses, Turkish coffee is served widely in restaurants, pastry shops and in every Turkish home. In more traditional families, Turkish coffee plays an important role in asking for a girl’s hand in marriage by the potential groom’s parents. When the young man’s parents visit the girl’s family to get the blessing of her parents, the future bride prepares and serves Turkish coffee to the guests. The groom’s parents judge her readiness to be a good wife for their son by her skill at preparing the coffee. If the potential groom is also present, the bride-to-be sometimes uses salt instead of sugar to test his character. If the future groom drinks his salted coffee without any complaints, the bride-to-be assumes that the groom is good-tempered and patient.
Turkish coffee is prepared in four degrees of sweetness: plain (sade), little sugar (az ?ekerli), medium (orta) and sweet (?ekerli). The reason the coffee drinker has to declare his sweetness preference in advance is because the sugar is mixed into the coffee as it is being prepared. Turkish coffee is unfiltered, with the fine grounds sitting in the bottom of the delicate demitasse (espresso cup), as thick as mud and as bitter as a raw coffee bean. The coffee is best prepared in a cezve, a small copper pot with a long handle to keep the coffee maker’s hand safely away from the heat and flames (originally, coffee was cooked over a coal fire). Although both robusto and arabica beans can be used, the latter produces a smoother, sweeter result. A medium to dark roast results in an ideal taste for this method. Regardless of the type of bean or roast, the beans have to be ground to the finest possible degree, resembling the consistency of talcum powder. Traditionally, this fineness was achieved with a brass mortar and later with a handmade brass burr mill. The mill would be passed from one family member to the next to take turns at this arduous task while the aroma wafting from the mill would remind everyone of the treat to come.
Today, many industrial and home grinders have a very fine grind setting especially for Turkish coffee preparation. The coffee is always served in a demitasse, usually accompanied by a cool glass of water and, if one’s lucky, a piece of Turkish delight. The freshness of the roast and the grinding of the beans just before making the coffee ensure a thick layer of foam on top of the cup—the trademark of an experienced coffee maker and the harbinger of excellent coffee.
Turkish coffee, besides being considered an excellent digestive after a big meal, is also used for fortune-telling throughout Turkey. After the coffee is sipped almost all the way down to the grounds (taking great care not to touch them), the saucer is placed on top of the cup and the remaining liquid is swished around. The cup is immediately turned upside down before the grounds can settle back down, while holding on tightly to the saucer to create a seal. After the bottom of the cup has cooled down, it is lifted away from the saucer to reveal the patterns left by the grounds. There are as many ways to interpret the patterns as there are patterns to be created by the grounds. The cup’s sides are read in a clockwise direction, starting with the handle as being the present time. The walls of the cup can be divided evenly into vertical time slices the fortune-teller decides, such as a week, several weeks or even months, but rarely longer than two or three months. The bottom of the cup usually reflects the drinker’s mood or frame of mind: dark and thick means troubled, a bubble means a big source of worry, being able to see the bottom of the cup means lighthearted. There are a few widely accepted patterns: a bird means news, a fish means money or good fortune, long lines mean voyages and eyes mean envy or jealousy. The rest of the patterns are entirely up to the imagination and interpretive skills of the fortune-teller as she (this is primarily performed by women) rotates the cup and translates the velvety brown shapes.
TÜRK KAHVESI (TURKISH COFFEE)
Makes 1 coffee
1 demitasse cold water
Sugar to taste (¼ t. for semisweet, ½ t. for medium, 1 t. for sweet)
2 heaping t. finely ground medium- or dark-roast arabica coffee
In a cezve (a small saucepan with a long handle), heat the water and, if requested, the sugar. Use a different pot for each of the different levels of sweetness (for example, one pot for plain and another for medium-sweet). After the water warms up, but before it reaches a boil, stir in the coffee. Turn down the heat as low as possible.
Slowly bring the coffee to a gentle boil. When a slight foam forms on the surface after 4 to 5 minutes, carefully pour out only the foam into the demitasse and return to the heat. Continue bringing the coffee to a boil and pouring out the foam into the cup, 2 to 3 times more. Serve immediately. Allow the grounds to settle down for 3 to 4 minutes before drinking.