From Everywhere and Nowhere
The Delicious Mystery of Turkish Coffee.
We might call it Turk kahvesi — Turkish coffee — but it comes from Yemen.
These days, we tend to be sensitive to any cultural borrowings that might be classified under the banner of “appropriation,” but it’s important to remember that artifacts, except under rare circumstances, aren’t created out of thin air by a single person or people. Culture is the product of many people working together and alone over many years across a wide range of national and ethnic borders.
So it is with coffee. With origins in Ethiopia, Yemen, Egypt, Arabia and the Ottoman Empire, it comes from everywhere and nowhere.
The first recorded evidence of Turkish coffee dates from the 1500s. A Turkish bureaucrat posted in Yemen discovered the drink and was instantly enthralled. He notified Suleiman the Magnificent, the 10th and longest-ruling sultan of the Ottoman Empire, who was also charmed by the potent drink. Because of this royal endorsement, kahvesi became wildly popular, first in Istanbul and then throughout the kingdom. The annals of history don’t record precisely when the label Turk was prefixed to kahvesi, rebranding the Yemeni drink as their own.
Suleiman was indeed magnificent, caffeinating Europe and much of the globe, but Sultan Murad IV wasn’t of the same mind regarding the drink. During his 17th-century rule, he banned coffee based on a strict interpretation of the Quran. The drink was branded “haram” — religiously unclean and unacceptable. Those caught drinking, selling or trading coffee were beheaded. However, the people loved coffee and were up in arms about the injunction, though one suspects their protests were rather feeble and unenthusiastic without their morning joe. The ban was eventually lifted.
By the late 1600s, Turkish coffee had stormed the beaches of France and Britain. In the 1680s, according to legend, the Turkish ambassador to France hosted extravagant soirees for the Parisian jet set (well, the really nice cabriolet set). African slaves served Turk kahvesi in porcelain demitasses resting on golden saucers. Throughout the 18th century, the drink’s popularity continued to grow. Coffeehouses were opening all over Europe, and in Turkey the upper crust had their own personal barista, or kahvesi usta, to prepare and serve coffee to guests. Coffee itself became a treasured commodity. It was prescribed to the sick in lieu of, you know, real medicine, and according to Turkish law, women could divorce husbands who didn’t supply them with enough coffee.
So what exactly makes a coffee “Turkish”? Before you answer, if you’ve only tried Turkish coffee at your average chain coffee shop, then you haven’t actually had it.
Turkish coffee depends on two things: how the beans are prepared, and how the drink is brewed. Basically, any beans will do, but arabica and robusta are the most common. Just don’t try anything fruity, like hazelnut or vanilla. Stick to the classics. I use my favorite espresso since the strength and complexity are perfect for Turk kahvesi.
When it comes to grinding, remember this — you’re not trying to make standard coffee grounds. You need coffee powder. Why? Because there’s no filter. If the beans aren’t ground finely enough, you’ll end up with a mouthful of sediment.
Turkish coffee is boiled on the stove top, or over an open flame, in a long-handled pot called a cezve (pronounced jez-vah). It’s usually made of copper or brass, though other metals can be used. Traditionally, the cezve is quite small. You boil just one or two cups at a time. Work-intensive, sure, but well worth the effort.
The process is simple, but difficult to master. Pot, coffee, water: boil. A sugar cube is usually added, sometimes cardamom. The drink is traditionally served in a kahve finjani, a small and handle-less porcelain cup. Many people drink it with a sweet on the side, such as Turkish delight or rock candy.
Because it’s boiled, Turkish coffee is very hot. Let it cool for a few minutes. This also allows the grounds to sink to the bottom. When you’re finished drinking, you’ll discover a seabed of thick sludge. Your spoon should be able to stand up in it, perhaps even break off like a shovel digging in hard soil.
Your drink will be, to say the least, quite robust. In Turkey, they often serve it with a shot of water on the side, which tells you something. They also tend to leave out the cardamom and serve the coffee on the bitter, overcooked side. On the Persian Gulf, it’s typically made with a healthy dose of cardamom. In America, we like to take something from another culture and do it better, even if this means doing it much worse. Most coffee shops here will serve it weaker, lighter in color, and they’ll leave out the sludge at the bottom, which is like the Mississippi River without its muddy banks. That’s not Turkish coffee.
So who died and made me sultan? No one died, but I learned everything I know from Linda, my “coffee lady” in the United Arab Emirates, where I taught creative writing for a government university. Like an old-school kahvesi usta, her job was to brew fresh coffee and bring it straight to my office. Every department had a coffee lady and, no, coffee men did not exist.
Linda didn’t do small talk, or even eye contact. She would scowl at the floor and grumble indecipherably in Malay if I asked for a second or third cup. Sometimes she would pretend to be out of coffee grounds. Other times she’d hide in an empty classroom to sleep in the dark, play games on an iPad, or FaceTime her family back home. If I took out my wallet for a tip, however, the coffee magically reappeared and, for a few days, she’d be in a reasonably chipper mood.
We eventually came to an understanding. Or rather, she came to an understanding and I had to go along with it. One cup a day, in the morning, as large as I wanted. No refills.
The next day, she walked a Stanley Cup-size mug of Turkish coffee to my office, giggling as I took the first sip. Keep in mind, Turk kahvesi is devilishly powerful, the equivalent of a whole pot of standard brewed coffee. I finished the cup, or tureen, quickly. It was like an abrupt kick in the face with a simultaneous B12 injection in the rump. I was wide awake and remained so for the next four years.
Like I said, no one died, but when I left Abu Dhabi and didn’t have Linda to bring me Turk kahvesi anymore, it sure felt as if I had. She made the best coffee I ever enjoyed. I guess it takes an Indonesian woman on the Persian Gulf to make a proper cup of Turkish coffee.
How To make Turkish Coffee:
1. You’ll need a cezve (or small saucepan) and fine-ground coffee. Use the highest setting on your grinder. You want a powder so fine that it looks less like something you would to drink and more like something to snort. This is crucial. If the grounds are too large, they won’t properly sink or dissolve — your drink will be crunchy, like a mouthful of de-weaponized Pop Rocks.
2. Add 3 tablespoons of coffee to the cezve, a sugar cube, and 1 tablespoon of powdered cardamom. Ginger and other spices can also be added. Over time, adjust the quantities and ingredients to your taste.
3. Add approximately 1 cup of water. Stir to mix the ingredients. Don’t stir a second time — this is key. It’s also vital not to use too much water. My cezve has a capacity of 1 1/4 cups. If you fill it too close to the rim, you’re asking for trouble. We’ll return to this.
4. One of the secrets to great Turkish coffee is patience. It must be cooked slowly at low heat. Otherwise, your drink will be bitter and charred. Brewing takes about 15 minutes and requires fastidious attention to detail. To hasten the process, I crank up the stove top to high for the first minute. This accelerates the process without compromising taste.
5. After a minute, reduce heat to medium-low. Brew for another 5 minutes. Pour one-third of the coffee — slowly, cautiously — into your mug. My cezve brews one mug or two small cups at a time.
6. Return the cezve to the stove top. After another 2 minutes, reduce heat to low.
7. Keep your eyes on the cezve. If it boils over, the coffee’s ruined and you’ll have a sticky brown mess. A watched pot may never boil, but an unwatched Turk kahvesi will always break bad. It only takes a few seconds of oversight for the coffee to froth up and jump overboard. This is why you don’t overfill the cezve.
8. Once you see a bubble or two, you’re near the finish line. A few seconds later, the liquid will begin to undulate, a set of ocean waves rolling in. That’s the signal — you’re done.
9. Remember, don’t stir. If you disturb the sediment at the bottom of the mug, you’ll get a mouthful of mud.