Following the discovery of coffee in Yemen 5 centuries ago, the flavorsome stimulant spread across Anatolia and the Middle East with the world’s myriad cultures developing their own unique blends and ways of preparation.
Coffee, or Qahwa in Arabic, continues to remain part of our culture. Since its introduction to the people of Egypt during the period of Ottoman colonization, ours became known as Turkish coffee. Turkish coffee, however, has its own diverse light, medium and dark blends that depend on how the beans are roasted. The taste depends on the tahwiga, or added herbs such as cardamom.
In the last decade, coffee blenders have become more creative, adding flavors like hazelnut, vanilla, and chocolate. Nevertheless, coffee lovers typically prefer the taste of pure, strong, and unadulterated coffee.
Coffee can be prepared Qahwa Sada (plain, sugarless), Qahwa ‘al Re’a (a pinch of sugar), Qahwa Mano (one spoon and a quarter of sugar), Qahwa Mazbouta (little sugar) and Qahwa Zeyada (lots of sugar). The plain, sugarless coffee is common at funerals as the bitter taste of the tahwiga goes hand in hand with the somber mood of death and loss. Qahwa Mazbouta is the most common; one spoon of coffee (or one and a half) and one spoon of sugar. ‘Al Re’a is also common as many Egyptians have diabetes.
“I used to have two cups a day,” says Farida Abdallah, a government employee, who switched to drinking Nescafe after being diagnosed with high blood pressure. “The strong blend is known for its negative effect on blood pressure,” she adds.
“We buy a kilo of Bonn Mehaweg (blended coffee) every month,” says Am Saeed, the cafeteria manager in a government establishment.
Preparing a cup of Turkish coffee can be tricky and needs artistry and experience. Qahwa is done in a kanaka, a small, narrow metal pot. After adding the blend and the sugar, thoroughly stir the mix until it completely dissolves in the hot water. Once the mixture begins to boil, it should have a wish or thick layer of foam.
Qahwa Soury(Syrian coffee) is boiled and has no layer of foam. Turkish coffee is served with a glass of cold water to lessen the bitterness of the taste.
Some people choose to add a piece of hashish (hash) to their blend to create a relaxed mood. This method of preparation is sometimes called kanaka.
Urban legend has it that if the mixture boils over completely (al-Qahwa farret), it is a sign of bad luck. Potential brides are asked to present coffee to their future husbands as a test of their kitchen expertise. Coffee falling outside the cup represents bad luck or signifies a young woman’s lack of kitchen knowledge.
Other rituals or urban legends, such as cup reading or taseography, also proliferate. Some people are known to have the talent of using coffee cups to predict the future. After drinking the coffee, the person is asked to cover the cup with a saucer, swirl it towards himself, and place it upside down for the coffee sediment to settle and dry.
After the coffee sediment dries, drawing and figures begin to appear on the cup and the saucer (some cup readers read the saucers as well). The cup reader will wait 10 minutes while the cup is upside down before he begins the reading.
Even the reading-preparation phase has signs and meanings. If the cup is still wet, it signifies sadness (drops of coffee are interpreted as tears). A cup sticking to the saucer means that the person is loved by another.
Trees signify success while numbers portend wealth and clocks herald new jobs or partnerships. “A heart indicates love,” says Amal Najjar, a Lebanese housewife with some knowledge of cup reading. According to her, rings symbolize marriage while flags signify victory or the death of an enemy. Camels are usually the bearers of money and pleasure while birds bring good news, says Najjar. “A wooden board suggests death, God forbid,” she adds.
Snakes are usually enemies and lines that split into two or more represent life choices. Dots represent a time frame, “Three dots are three days, three weeks, three months or three years,” she states. In Lebanon, eyes mean the person is being watched while in Egypt they are a sign of the “evil eye,” or envy.
Having a cup reading session is a fun activity that women use to pass time, have fun and maybe learn some valuable information about their significant other. Though almost every Egyptian family contains an old aunt or a grandmother as cup reader, professional cup readers charge LE50 to LE100 per reading, depending on their level of ability. Warda, who used to sit at the Naguib Mahfouz restaurant in Khan al-Khalili, and Fadda, who worked for years at the Mariott Hotel, counted among Cairo’s most famous fortune tellers.
Whether you drink it for the taste, the effect, or to mourn a loved one, Turkish coffee is an undeniable pillar of modern Egyptian culture. For many, however, it’s more than a drink; it’s a way of life.