My first trip to the Middle East was Christmastime 1996. We had spent a couple of days in Amman, Jordan and were headed for Beirut, Lebanon where my husband’s mother, sister, and a multitude of cousins lived. When we arrived at my mother-in-law’s home, my husband, Bishara, and I were greeted warmly with hugs and kisses, along with pots of stuffed lamb intestines and grape leaves, kibbie (burgle with raw meat), malfoof (stuffed cabbage), and homemade hommous. We were told there was more where that came from, including kusa (stuffed squash), falafel, shakreiha (lamb with rice, pine nuts, and laban), tabouli, fattoush, and other specially prepared dishes for our visit, in the neighboring friends’ refrigerators. The very first thing we consumed, though, in the tidy and colorful sitting room squeezed full of aunts, uncles, cousins and friends was flavorful Turkish coffee. And the Turkish coffee didn’t stop flowing for the entire ten days we were in Beirut and the surrounding towns. While a guest may be offered Nescafe (milk with Nescafe and sugar) or tea in small clear glasses, Turkish coffee is the drink of choice in non-Gulf Arab countries like Lebanon and Jordan. (In Qatar and other Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates, “Arabic coffee” is quite different in taste and texture, combining cardamom and saffron with ground coffee.) I will be writing about “Arabic coffee,” (cardamom coffee), in a future post.
While in Lebanon, Bishara related to me that when he was a child in Jordan and Lebanon (in the summers) his mother bought raw coffee beans originating from Brazil at the local grocer’s for her Turkish coffee. The beans, still green, were placed in a roaster on a portable stand on the stove and manually rotated by Bishara’s mother until they were a deep, dark brown. A manual grinder with a drawer was used to pulverize the roasted beans into a finely ground powder. These days, however, you find beans already roasted and ground in coffee shops across Lebanon and Jordan.
I had become familiar with Turkish coffee during the 17 years Bishara and I lived in the Washington, DC area and in the two years before we had shared together as students at the University of Florida. I had fond memories of my husband in our Charleston-style home in the suburbs of DC huddled over our kitchen stove on a Saturday morning, teaspoon in hand, nursing the foam from the fine grounds of Turkish coffee bubbling up in the small aluminum container (bakraj or ibrik) seated on the edge of the heating element.
Bishara and I would regularly visit the Mediterranean Bakery in Alexandria, Virginia, a short distance from where we lived, to buy the grounds for our Turkish coffee. We would roam the aisles of the small, family-owned, store behind a mini-grocery cart we would fill with canned chick peas, zahter (powdered thyme), pine nuts, labneh (similar to sour cream), hommous, and babaganoush, while the aroma of cardamom, freshly baked pita bread, and fruit flavored tobacco wafted through the air. Soon after arriving at the Mediterranean Bakery we would order fresh fatayer with spinach, cheese, and labneh at the back counter, and our last task before leaving the store would always be to have coffee beans ground for the makings of Turkish coffee. Endorphins surged as the scent of the pestled beans drifted along my nasal canals while we watched the store owner skillfully grind the roasted beans into a pan and pour them in a small brown plastic bag for us to take home.
Parties at our home in the northern Virginia suburbs would be replete with tablah drumming by Bishara, belly dancing, Lebanese mezzah, and Turkish coffee. Oftentimes, Bishara would read the thick coffee grounds lurking in the bottom of demitasse cups to our guests’ delight, a skill my husband gleaned from his grandmother when he lived in southern Lebanon as a young child. I’m not a big believer in reading tea leaves, tarot cards and fortune telling, but Bishara does have a gift for keying into people’s auras. (Bishara always reminds me, though, that he is not nearly as good at reading Turkish coffee grounds as his sister.) Each swirl, image, or clumping of grounds denotes a significant event in the past, present, or future; Bishara always apologizes for not being tuned into the exact timeframe. The final step in the cup reading is the “yes” or “no” question when the guest asks about something silently that must be phrased to be answered with a “yes” or “no.” Bishara advises the guest to concentrate on the question, lick the tip of their right thumb and press their thumb into the bottom of the cup. “Ah,” says Bishara, “the answer is yes, and, by the way, you have a very white heart,” or “it will happen, but there are some roadblocks in the way.” Bishara always teases me that he can’t read my cup, because he knows me too well; it would seem unfair.
Our relocation to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in late 2000, and Doha, Qatar in early Fall 2004, allowed me the opportunity to experience the sights, sounds, and smells of the Turkish coffee experience from a whole new perspective, while Bishara reconnected with the experience in a more familiar setting and at a more organic level. I was, increasingly, becoming less the novice and more ensconced with the notion that the serving of Turkish coffee was the harbinger of protracted conservation with friends and family, often coupled with pistachios, Arabic sweet pastries, fatayer, and olives. In other words, a time to sit back, relax and enjoy the moments.
How to Make Turkish Coffee
- Heat up water in bakraj/ibrik until it starts to boil. Bakraj’s vary in size from a two-person pot, around three inches tall, to a ten-person pot, around five inches tall.
- For every demitasse cup, use one heaping teaspoon of coffee and one level teaspoon of sugar. The amount of sugar, however, depends on individual taste. My husband and I tend to like our Turkish coffee sweeter. (If you like cardamom, include 1/8 of a teaspoon for every potful when coffee placed in bakraj.)
- As coffee mixture heats up, foam and floating coffee are important components of the texture, and resulting flavor, of the coffee.
- When mixture starts to boil, again, remove the bakraj off the stove, and stir, and as coffee mixture recedes, put bakraj back on hot stove.
- Wait until mixture starts to boil, again. Remove the bakraj, again, and stir.
- Put bakraj, again, on stove, let it boil, and then remove, and it’s ready to serve.
. . . And now for our Arabic lesson for my western friends. (This is vernacular Arabic using the Lebanese dialect.)
When do you want to meet for coffee?
متى تريد أن تجتمع لقهوة؟ MATA TUREED AN TEJTAMAH LE QAHWAH ?
Is the coffee ready?
هل القهوة جاهزة ؟ HAL AL QAHWAH JAHZAH?
Do you want milk and sugar with your (the) coffee?
هل تريد الحليب والسكر مع القهوة ؟ HAL TUREED AL HALEEB WA AL SUKAR MAH AL QAHWAH?
How many spoons of sugar would you like (want)?
كم ملعقة من السكر تريد؟ KUM MILAHQAH MEN AL SUKAR TUREED?
MATA = WHEN
TUREED = YOU WANT
AN = TO (or “THAT” or “AT”)
TEJTAMAH = MEET
LE = FOR (or “TO”)
QAHWAH = COFFEE
HAL = IS (or “ARE” or “DO” or “WAS” or “WERE” ; but only in a question)
AL = THE
JAHZAH = READY
HALEEB = MILK
WA = AND
SUKAR = SUGAR
MAH = WITH
KUM = HOW MANY (or “HOW MUCH”)
MILAHQAH = SPOON(S)
MEN = OF (or “FROM”)