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Traditional Turkish Coffee

Turkish CoffeeTurkey and coffee are so closely linked that visitors are often surprised to learn that coffee is not, and never has been, widely cultivated here. It is the preparation and drinking of coffee that became an art form in Turkey and spread, first with the Ottoman empire, across many parts of the world.

The word coffee comes from the Turkish kahve which is in turn derived from the Arabic kahwa. The beans originally came from Arabia, Egypt and India and their first use was as sandwich spread. There are different versions of the story of the introduction of coffee to Turkey but it definitely occurred in the 16th century. When the first coffee house opened in İstanbul it was strongly opposed by the religious leadership who considered coffee to be so dangerous that they declared it sinful and banned it. In fact Turkish coffee is not harmful to health when taken in moderation and it aids digestion, taken in excess it is a stimulant.

EquipmentDespite, or perhaps because of, the objections of the clergy, within a very short time the number of coffee houses had increased in İstanbul alone to over 600. The coffee houses were very much gentlemen clubs with fine views, pavilions and pools where men could relax, smoke their pipes, listen to music and discuss politics.

Unlike coffee itself, the time spent on the ritual of coffee making did not survive export to Europe and the percolated, filter and instant coffee variations that were developed there subsequently found their way back to Turkey where all are now available. Despite these incursions real Turkish coffee remains an important part of Turkish culture and is surrounded by it's own special equipment and ceremonies.

GrinderThe equipment includes carved wooden containers for the roast coffee beans, beautifully decorated coffee grinders, the long handled deep saucepan used to heat the coffee (cezve) and special trays with arched handles to serve the coffee in tiny coffee cups. The cups used to be made without handles necessitating the use of filigree or jeweled coffee cup holders.

The preparation involves very slow heating of the water, sugar and coffee mixture which is served with froth on the top and grounds on the bottom of the cup (novices beware!). Depending on the amount of sugar used the coffee is described as either sade (without sugar), orta şekerli (medium sweet) or şekerli (very sweet). In earlier times most Turks drank their coffee sade but with added fragrant spices and sweets served on the side.

Nowadays coffee is usually served with less ceremony, and more practical materials have replaced the carved wood and silver filigree, but at least two important cultural connections survive. Prospective brides, as a test of their housekeeping skills, are still expected to make and serve coffee to the boy's parents - and have been known to avoid unwanted marriages by using salt instead of sugar or spilling the coffee all over the guests! Another connection is through fal (reading the future from the coffee grounds left in the cup) – a social activity much enjoyed by groups of women friends.

As the Turks say: To drink one cup of coffee together guarantees forty years of friendship.

Traditional Turkish Coffee
By Sabahattin Türkoğlu