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Turkish Coffee: Brewed with Culture and Tradition
by Cihan Koru
First, let’s clear a possible misconception. Turkish coffee is not necessarily made from a particular variety of coffee bean. However, experts agree that it is a good bet to use the beans of the Coffea arabica plant. ‘Turkish coffee’ is, rather, a term that refers to a specific method of preparing and serving that is also associated with a rich collection of accompanying rites and tradition. This method of preparing the coffee beverage first emerged during the reign of the Ottoman ruler Sultan Suleiman ‘the Magnificent’ during the 16th Century. From the Ottoman palace it spread out to the Middle East and also made its way to Italy by way of the Venetian merchants that traded with their counterparts in Istanbul.
Although in common practice not all details of the complete tradition are adhered to, there are several basic requirements that need to be observed in order to call the end product ‘Turkish coffee’. First, you must start with good quality drinking water. Tap water in most urban areas contain excess chlorine that obstruct the true flavor. Bottled spring water is a good choice. I’m not going to go into the process of harvesting and preparing the beans before they become ready for roasting. I will suffice to say that the curious will also find interesting reading about that stage of the process. As mentioned above, ‘arabica’ beans are preferred over those of the ‘robusta’ variety of the coffee plant as the former contains less caffeine (1 – 2 %) but pack a higher level of aroma and flavor. The arabica beans are more expensive because the plant is more difficult to cultivate and more susceptible to unfavorable climate, diseases and pests. Next, is the time to roast the green beans. Best flavor is achieved with freshly roasted coffee beans. The taste difference between Turkish coffee and other popular coffee styles such as espresso lies mainly in the way the beans are roasted. Certain chemical changes happen as coffee beans are roasted. They expand and, under specific conditions, even explode. As they roast, beans lose weight and their flavor intensifies while their caffeine content drops. If the desired end product is Turkish style coffee, the roasting should be terminated when the size of the beans double at which time they are rapidly cooled. Espresso, by contrast, is roasted further until the beans acquire a deeper bronze color. That is when the beans experience a second explosion and fully release their oil. The released oil imparts the characteristic bitter taste. Next comes the grinding phase. Turkish coffee is ground down to quite a fine powder, however it does not need to be as fine as, for example, wheat flour. Take a pinch of flour and rub between your fingers. You are likely to note that it feels quite fine. Well, Turkish coffee should be ground a bit coarser than that; say, more like finely ground corn flour. An alternate test to see if the coffee had been ground fine enough is to take a sip of the foam that forms on the surface of the liquid in the serving cup. If you don’t detect any grounds in your mouth, you know the beans have been properly ground. Most coffee grinders designed for espresso and many other types of coffee beverages do not grind fine enough. In the olden days roasted beans would be pounded in a stone or wooden pestle. A traditional Turkish coffee grinder, which is basically a type of burr mill, will also do the job.
From left, an old stone pestle, an old wooden pestle and a Turkish coffee grinder.
Check out the label at the lower left. Stomach Tea. Yetch!!!. What’s That!!!?
Once you have the properly ground coffee, it’s time to let the coffee particles meet with heat and water. Preparing Turkish coffee properly requires skill, patience and attention to detail. This is where the unique preparation technique comes into play. Heating of the coffee grounds is traditionally done in a cezve (seen on the left), a special utensil usually made of copper.
You need to measure the amount of water to use with the cup that you will be using to serve the coffee in. The traditional container for service is the demitasse cup which takes in about 3 ounces or 90 ml of water. Following citations regarding the amount of coffee and sugar to be used assume that a traditional demitasse cup is being used. Turkish coffee is a rather strong beverage, therefore it is not consumed in larger containers such as the mug you choose to drink your morning American coffee. The correct quantity is one demitasse cup full of good quality still spring water, at room temperature, per serving. Now, spoon in the ground coffee. The traditional amount is ‘two heaping demitasse spoons’ of coffee. This is equal to about 7.5 to 8.0 grams per serving. So far so good. Next task is to decide on the sweetness level of the beverage. Customarily, there are four levels; plain (no sugar), slightly sweet (2 – 3 gr sugar), medium sweet (4 – 5 gr sugar) and very sweet (8 – 9 gr sugar). The Turkish words for these levels are ‘sade’, ‘az sekerli’, ‘orta şekerli’ and ‘çok şekerli’, respectively. Some use sugar cubes, others use, again, demitasse spoons or other measuring devices to allot the correct amount of granular sugar. You add the desired amount of sugar to the water and ground coffee. Once the water, coffee and sugar are all in, you stir the mixture until the sugar is dissolved and, then, put the cezve on a heat source of low to medium intensity. Do not continue stirring the liquid any more to avoid lowering the temperature due to the immersion of the cool spoon. The traditional heat source, which is still used sometimes, is the smoldering embers of charcoal. However, it is OK to use any other heat source for this purpose.
You may have read that Turkish coffee is boiled three times. This is incorrect. What you do is, bring it close to boiling, three times, but don’t allow it to actually boil. As the liquid warms up, you’ll see foam forming followed by the rising of the surface of the liquid. Every time this happens you immediately remove the cezve from the stove, or whatever source of heat you are using. Now, connoisseurs of Turkish coffee consider the foam very important. More foam the better. The amount of foam is also an indication of the skill level of the preparer. Some preparers like to carefully collect the formed foam off the surface with a spoon following the first and second rising and gently transfer it to the serving cup and pour the rest of the liquid into the cup following the third rising. Some others do not collect the foam at all but raise the cezve progressively higher as they pour the coffee into the cup following the third rising which helps formation of more foam.
Turkish coffee is traditionally served with a glass of water. The custom is to drink the water after you finish your coffee. It should be noted, however, that some experts suggest drinking the water first as doing so clears the pallet and increases the detection of the flavor further. Either way, it is a good habit not to rush the drinking process and wait a minute or so before taking the first sip. This allows enough time for most of the suspended coffee grounds, which are quite bitter, to settle to the bottom of the cup. If you are having your coffee at a traditional Turkish coffee house (a kahve) or an ordinary café, a glass of water is all you get along with your coffee. If you are, however, a guest in a Turkish home or dining at an upscale restaurant, in addition to the glass of water, your coffee is likely to be served with a few pieces of Turkish delight and/or a small glass of fruit liquor.
Turkish coffee served with a glass of water, a few pieces of Turkish delight and a glass of fruit liquor
Fortune telling is one of the rituals that is associated with Turkish coffee culture. Reading the fortune off the coffee grounds left in the serving cup is a very popular lore. The topic really deserves a separate article but I will suffice by mentioning a few of the interesting tidbits. After drinking the coffee, a person wishing to have his/her fortune told must leave an appropriate quantity of the grounds at the bottom of the cup the coffee is served in. This is easy as you do not consume the grounds anyway. Nevertheless, for a proper read, the remaining grounds should not contain too much liquid nor should the sediment be too dry. It is said that the more sweet the coffee the more interesting are the shapes formed by the coffee grounds. When you are done with the coffee, you take the saucer under the serving cup, turn it upside down, place it over the cup, hold the cup and the saucer between your thumb in the bottom and your next two or three fingers on the top. Now turn the cup and the saucer over again, holding them firmly together to avoid any coffee spilling out between them. Next, still holding them together, swirl the cup and the saucer around softly to get the grounds to coat the inside of the cup. You then put the saucer and the cup down and wait the cup to cool down. This takes about two or three minutes. Test the warmth of the cup by touching its bottom with your finger. Once the cup has cooled down, it’s show time for the reader. She (and yes, rarely, he) lifts the cup off the saucer, turns it over and starts closely inspecting and interpreting the shapes formed by the coffee grounds on the inside of the cup. When the reading of the shapes inside the cup is finished, the reader moves on to interpreting the shapes formed in the saucer. To go further into the details and the ritual of reading and interpreting these shapes is well outside of the scope I have set for this piece. For those interested in tasseography (which is the fancy name for divining the patterns in tea leaves, coffee grounds, or wine sediments) associated with Turkish coffee, here is one source of information on the topic.
Reading the fortune of the drinker is a popular ritual associated with Turkish coffee culture.
I believe no article on Turkish coffee would be complete without mentioning its role in the cultural ritual of asking for a girl’s hand in marriage. Traditionally, when a young man wishes to marry a young woman, the parents of the prospective groom visits the parents of the girl. This is often all symbolic since modern couples usually have already decided to bring their lives together before this ritual takes place. The young man also tags along during this visit and the young woman is also present to greet the guests. The purpose of the visit is for the boy’s father to ask the girl’s father for the hand of the young lady in marriage as well as his blessings for the matrimony. Again, there is much to write about this traditional ritual but I will briefly talk about the part when the young lady prepares and serves coffee to the party in attendance. Now, the idea is to gauge the skills of the bride-to-be. If she is successful in preparing and properly serving the coffee it would be an indication for the groom-to-be that she would be successful in domestic tasks. However, when she is preparing the young man’s coffee, instead of sugar she usually adds salt, or even hot chili powder, to the beverage. This is to see if the young man will be tolerant and forgiving towards his future mate as he is expected to drink the foul tasting brew to finish without complaining. All of this, of course, is a stunt executed in good nature as part of the ritual. Never the less, I must note that the custom of asking for the hand of a girl is still considered a very serious matter by certain parts of the Turkish society. In such circles it is quite possible for one family to formerly ask the hand of a girl without previous agreement between the two young persons. Under such circumstances serving coffee prepared with salt would be the young woman’s unspoken response that she does not favor the considered match.
Serving salt-laced coffee to a prospective groom is a ritual where all participants are aware that it is a stunt executed in good nature.
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