Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
For avid coffee drinkers the Turkish, Greek or Arabic version of the beverage is a satisfying sip of a “coffee delight”. It is an integral part of the Arabic, Eastern Mediterranean and Balkan as well as North African culture and social life.
The coffee preparation is a ceremony in itself. This specific version of coffee requires a different way of brewing, with a very distinct brewing device. The pots, called jezve or ibric or ibrik in Turkish and briki in Greek are long handled; many times they are hand-hammered small copper pots that are tinned inside and have a lip. The pot is heated either on a gas burner or an electric stove top or, preferably, in very hot sand covering the top of a clay firepot, nowadays using an electric heater element, until the mixture of very aromatic, freshly medium roasted and pulverized coffee, sugar and water starts frothing up.
Then the créma i.e. the froth is poured into a demitasse cup and the process is repeated - traditionally three times - until the entire ibric is emptied. The resulting coffee is strong, has liquid at about 3/4 up the top of the cup and “mud” at the bottom quarter; and that mud is to be avoided at all costs!
When the pot has emptied, you give the ibric a rinse with warm water and dry it with a towel. Don’t use soap. Don’t use an abrasive scrubber. Just a thorough rinse is all that is needed.
Depending on the amount of coffee powder, sugar and water and the number of times the liquid is allowed to rise and then be poured into the cup, the name of the beverage changes. The servings (kahve in Turkish, kafés in Greek, gahwa or qahwa in Arabic, ahweh in Lebanon) have different names such as çok şekerli (i.e. very sugary) in Turkish and in Greek glyki vrastos (i.e. sweet and well boiled); the Greek metrios i.e. equal small amount of coffee and sugar and boiled until the froth partially rises, is called orta şekerli in Turkish; and when no sugar is used it is called in Turkish şekersiz or sade or mirra (in Syria and the rest of the Arab world) or skétos kafés in Greek. In Egypt the different levels of sweetness are arriha (sweet), mazboot (medium) or ziyada (very sweet); sada is plain coffee without sugar. Yet another Greek designation is pola vari ke ohi (i.e. very heavy without) which means more coffee powder without sugar and barely boiled until the foam just starts to rise. These are some of the designations in a coffeeshop or home with which I’m familiar. It’s been said that there are 30 different ways one can order coffee depending on where you are and the sugar to coffee-powder ratio and the level of boiling.
Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee and Yemen, across the Red Sea, was the first country where, in the 15th century, coffee was grown as a commercial plant.
Turkish coffee dates back to the 16th century and the reign of the Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent when an Ottoman governor who was stationed in Yemen, at that time part of the Ottoman Empire, loved the beverage and introduced it to the imperial kitchens. A century later, as the story goes, Sultan Murat IV outlawed coffee, calling it an indecent drink and chopped off the heads of those who drank it. Obviously, coffee won the day and the entire region that was once the Ottoman Empire now drinks coffee the same way, even though they use different local designations.
By the early 17th century, coffee had arrived to Europe and became popular across the continent. The Catholic clergy – like Sultan Murat IV - condemned coffee when it came to Venice in 1615, calling it the “bitter invention of Satan!” But coffee won again.
It should be noted that, prior to 1974, in Greece the coffee was called “Turkish Coffee” and in Izmir, where I spent 2 years in the early ‘60s with the NATO forces, it was called “Greek Coffee.” In Sarajevo, Bosnia, it is called “Bosanska kafa" i.e. Bosnian coffee. Nowadays the coffee in Greece is called “Ellinikos kaffes” i.e. Greek coffee since all names having a Turkish connotation were changed to have a Greek name, such as Turkolimano(Turkish Harbor) for example, a seaside cove near Piraeus with a famous restaurant-row, has been changed to Microlimano i.e. Small Harbor.
The “Arabic” version, which is mostly drunk in North Africa and the Arabic Peninsula, many times has additional aromatics such as powdered cardamom or cinnamon added to the coffee powder.
When visiting someone's home, the hostess will ask you how you like your coffee and then will brew cups for everyone in the room, according to their taste, to be drunk with a small sweet on the side such as a Turkish Delight or a small piece of baklava or other pastry or little round cookies. It is an integral part of the hospitality tradition.
Other times, depending on where the home is, the sweet part of the offering could be a spoon-sweet which is a spoonful of syrup-drenched fruit preserves or candied rose petals that are exceedingly sweet and heavily aromatic.
Most Turks and Greeks and Eastern Mediterranean residents are avid coffee drinkers consuming numerous cups per day starting with morning coffee, then elevenses, post lunch, mid-afternoon and ending with a post-supper cup to “settle the stomach.” The Italians drink espresso, a similar very strong demitasse cup but without the “mud” at the bottom, and will many times make it a ristretto i.e. with a shot of grappa, the fiery liquor distilled from fermented grape pomace once the grape must is removed.
In the Spanish speaking world a small cup of coffee is called cortado and is mostly drunk with a splash of frothed milk.
The “morning coffee” is usually accompanied by a piece of buttered toast or a simit (in Turkish) or koulouri (in Greek) which is a toasted sesame or poppy seed covered circular bread, reminiscent of a thin bagel.
Most high end porcelain manufacturers make beautifully decorated demitasse coffee cups as part of their dinnerware sets that sometimes, depending on the producer and where and when they were created, can cost $100 each or much more, including the small plate underneath. In my collection I have wonderfully decorated thin bone china demitasse cups from such world known manufacturers as Wedgwood, Royal Copenhagen, Meissen, Spode as well as Spode Copeland, Royal Crown Derby, Vista Alegre and Bernardaud Limoges to name but a few.
I also have, meant for everyday use, much less expensive “coffeeshop” demitasse cups that are made from heavier porcelain, earthenware or even stoneware since they have to endure more frequent use and in most cases machine washing. Many of them are given to the coffee shops by coffee suppliers when a contract is signed, to be used as that brand’s promotion.
Regardless of what type of pot or cup you use and how you call it, enjoy your coffee whenever you get a sip of it.
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