Though you can find coffee beans around the world, from Sumatra to Guatemala, they originated in Ethiopia. The popular theory is that shepherds found their flocks eating the berries, making the sheep and goats chipper even at work on a Monday morning; the shepherds immediately saw the potential and chewed the red berries themselves becoming what must have been some incredibly sharp keepers of the herd.
The Arabs in Yemen picked up on coffee in the 6th century and for many years it was more or less their own jittery secret. For some Muslims, such as the dervishes, its consumption meant being able to stay up later for prayer; others criticized it as a stimulant. But the secret soon got out: two traders from Aleppo (in present-day Syria) brought the first coffee beans to Istanbul in 1555 and opened coffee houses. The drink, by then made with the roasted beans, not the berries, grew in popularity, and the coffee houses became social centers where men would gather to chat and play backgammon.
Perhaps the caffeine charge fostered a bit of paranoia, but the sultanate of the Ottoman Empire began to be a bit concerned about all these men meeting and discussing things such as politics. This could only lead to trouble, they thought; coffee gossip equals social unrest. In 1656, the Ottoman Grand Vizier Koprulu under Sultan Mehmed IV outlawed coffee drinking and shut down the shops.
The Europeans were also suspicious of this dark drink of the Muslims. But when a movement urged Pope Clement VIII to condemn it, he insisted he should first try it. Coffee fans can predict the result; in 1600 the drink received the blessing of the papacy and was no longer a “drink of the Devil.”
Coffee as Ritual
The term “coffee” is derived from the Arabic word “qahwa” by way of the Turkish word “kahve.” The word for breakfast in Turkish is kahvaltı, meaning “under or before coffee”. It is so much part of Turkish culture that at one time men would judge whether a woman would make a good wife based upon her ability to brew it. A few hundred years ago a Turkish law made it legal for a woman to divorce her husband if he did not bring home a daily quota of coffee.
Coffee has long had ceremony attached to its production and its consumption. The sultans of the Ottoman Empire appointed a royal coffee maker, a kahveciusta, and his work and service required as many as 40 assistants, far too many to fit in most kitchens.
Turkish coffee is made in a cezve, a metal pot that tapers toward the top. The foam is precious, and much like the foamed milk atop a cappuccino, it is an integral part of the experience. For this reason, coffee is prepared with a cezve that accommodates exactly the number of servings that are being prepared. If there is too much room in the cezve, the foam climbs the sides of the pot and sticks there when removed from the heat.
Turkish coffee beans were once ground with a mortar and pistil, and then with a small grinder. You can still purchase one at the Grand Bazaar or Egyptian Spice Market in Istanbul. The beans are ground to a fine powder, even finer than espresso. The next time you are grinding coffee beans at the grocery store you may note that the finest grind on the machine is set for Turkish coffee.
Sugar is added to the coffee before it is even put over the heat. So when taking your order, a server will ask how you want it: şekerli (with sugar, az – a little, or çok – a lot), sada (plain), or orta (medium). I prefer mine orta and once, upon saying so to a waiter in Ankara, my friend Iffet leaned over to me and chuckled. “It does not matter what you say. They will all be orta.” Since the sugar goes in before the drinks are poured out, multiple measures would mean an extra cezve or two, i.e., more of an inconvenience.
The coffee and sugar are put on top of the water, and most Turks will tell you that there is no stirring. (Even if there is, this is the one time it might be done.) The cezve is placed over low heat and slowly the mixture is raised to a foaming boil. The die-hard traditionalists will then remove the cezve, possibly pouring out some of the foam into the waiting cups, and return the coffee to the heat once or twice more before finishing. The low heat is important because the coffee needs at least five minutes to brew. A perfect cup of Turkish coffee should be a homogeneous mixture, and the surface should be foamy and without coffee granules.
Unlike espresso, Turkish coffee is drunk slowly; the drinker sips so as not to disturb the settling grounds in the bottom of the cup. It is usually served with a glass of cold water to cleanse the palate to make way for the delightful taste. A cube of Turkish delight might rest on the saucer as well. Though all the coffee in the pot is poured into the cups, not all of the mixture is drunk: the grounds remain at the bottom.
A Fortune in Coffee
Tasseography, or fal in Turkish, is the fine art of telling one’s fortune from a cup—in this case, a coffee cup. With Turkish coffee, the grounds are what tell the story. To find your fortune you must put the saucer over the cup, give it a few gentle whirls, and then deftly flip it over and let it cool. Your host will then lift the cup to read the patterns left behind.
As the grounds are nearly black and the porcelain cups almost always white, the shapes and patterns are clear; their meaning, however, is not. The trick is looking for the good omens in the white spaces, and the bad news in the grounds themselves. A good reader will see many things, from people and animals to symbols and inanimate objects. By combining these images, the fortuneteller weaves the story of your days to come. If the cup drips, it means tears. Whether those are tears of joy or sadness can only be determined by the person reading the cup.
I spent a year living in Turkey and often my friend Iffet would invite me to dinner and serve coffee at the end of the meal. Iffet, like many Turks I have known, could spend ten minutes narrating from my coffee cup. “In your future I see a tall thin woman—you see there?—and these are five long journeys. And an elephant.” I’m not sure if that was a good thing or not. I can’t always see the elephants or the thin women in my future; the only thing I ever see is coffee. And even I could have predicted that.
And if you want to learn more about other superstitions in Turkish culture, read more about the evil eye in Turkey.