Coffee has created its own “culture” in Turkey are the famous words of the great Turkish 20th century poet, Yahya Kemal. A little bit more than a casual visit to Turkey would convince anyone that this is the case. Coffee for Turks is not simply a drink, but has its own history, its institutions (coffeehouses), its rituals, its own rules of when and how to drink it, and even a tradition of fortune-telling by reading the coffee grinds deposited at the bottom of a traditional Turkish coffee cup… Most Turks would find it superfluous to call it Turkish coffee: coffee is Turkish coffee.
Turks were introduced to coffee over four and a half centuries ago. A short while after a governor to Yemen brought back to Istanbul and introduced to the Ottoman capital beans of Coffee Arabica, the metropolitan city was teeming with coffeehouses. Within a century, first Venice, than London and Paris were introduced to coffee via the Ottomans, which naturally acquired its epithet “Turkish” to become “Turkish coffee”. In some Western countries Turkish coffee is also known as Greek coffee as they were introduced to this type of coffee and coffee-making via the Greeks.
Shortly after coffee was introduced to the Ottomans in 1543, it became so popular so quickly that coffeehouses were opened and small shops opened specializing in roasting coffee. Coffee roasting is called “tahmis” and to this day there is a street called Tahmis in the Eminonu neighborhood in Istanbul where the so-called Egyptian spice bazaar is located. Its name derived from the coffee shops located on this street 460 years ago.
Let’s go back to what the poet said: What would a “culture” created by coffee mean (“kahve medeniyeti” in Turkish, which is hard to translate since the expression denotes something that extends beyond the more restrictive term “culture”)? Is there such thing as “culture” when it comes to coffee? We cannot answer this question directly without going into the whole experience of coffee. We will therefore approach it from various angles. First its ritualistic element:
Why would coffee be associated with rituals or ceremonies? In its first aspect, this refers to the special way of making Turkish coffee. The etiquette that has developed around coffee-making, even though it has changed somewhat from former times, constitutes a set of rules coffee lovers still try to adhere.
A second aspect of the ritualistic element in Turkish coffee refers to certain traditional elements that have been woven into it. One strong tradition dictates the typical (and also, to some extent, stereotypical) situation where the family of a young man visits the family of the bride-to-be to ask for their permission for their marriage. The girl whose hand is sought is supposed to bring coffee on a coffee tray, and traditionally this is the only time she has a say in the whole affair. The vote she casts is expressed in terms of how sweet the makes the coffee, ranging from extra sweet (a definite yes) to “no sugar” (a definite no), and at times to salty coffee, a step shorter than not appearing at all.
This tradition notwithstanding, to sweeten coffee with sugar is a relatively new usage (“new” considering a tradition of about four and a half centuries.). Turks used to drink their coffee without any sugar. Instead, it was customary to eat or drink something sweet either before or after the coffee, sweetened fruit juices known as sherbet, fruit preserves, Turkish delight, sultan’s paste, halva, or other confectionery.
How to make Turkish Coffee
Centuries ago, when people devoted more time to attend to the demands of their earthly pleasures and less time to the demands of business and corporate life, coffee making developed some rituals that exist in ‘lite’ versions in our days. In old times, connoisseurs expected their coffee to be heated slowly over charcoal embers for 15 to 20 minutes, the copper coffee pot being frequently taken away from the fire to prevent overheating.
A connoisseur can easily tell the difference between a properly made Turkish coffee and one prepared the way cheap restaurants would do, basically boiling the coffee quickly, degrading thus the taste and producing little if any froth that needs to cover the cup of coffee.
Although to this day there are still a few people who either do or at least know the days when coffee was heated on charcoal, for all practical purposes modern electric or gas stove tops became the heating equipment of choice. To make proper Turkish coffee you need Turkish coffee beans, a Turkish coffee pot (“cezve”), and Turkish coffee cups (“fincan”), and optionally, if you want to grind the beans, a Turkish coffee grinder (“kahve degirmeni”). Note that Turkish coffee requires extra fine ground coffee which some electrical grinders fail to produce. To make Turkish coffee:
1. Pour in cold water in the coffee pot. You should use one cup of cold water for each cup you are making and then add an extra half cup “for the pot”. Add a teaspoonful of the ground Turkish coffee per cup in the water while the water is cold and stir. The amount of coffee may be varied to taste, but do not forget, there will be a thick layer of coffee grounds left at the bottom of your cup for properly made Turkish coffee. Don’t fill the pot too much. If you need to add sugar this is the time to do it.
2. Heat the pot as slowly as you can. The slower the heat the better it is. Make sure you watch it to prevent overflowing when the coffee boils.
3. When the water boils pour some (not all) of the coffee equally between the cups, filling each cup about a quarter to a third of the way. This will make sure that everybody gets a fair share of the foam forming on top of the pot, without which coffee loses much of its taste. Continue heating until coffee boils again (which will be very short now that it has already boiled). Then distribute the rest of the coffee between the cups.
Since there is no filtering of coffee at any time during this process, you should wait for a few minutes before drinking your delicious Turkish coffee while the coffee grounds settle at the bottom of the cup.
Turkish Coffee Cups (Fincan)
Finally, the experience of Turkish coffee is not complete without the proper cups. About the size of espresso cups, Turkish coffee cups nowadays have a handle and their designs have a narrower bottom. In the past Turkish coffee cups had no handles, and were put in beautiful filigree or jeweled holders. Even the coffee trays are specially designed for the purpose, having an arched handle by which the tray is suspended. Porcelain coffee cups were produced at the Iznik or Kutahya potteries for the Turkish market. Sets of Turkish coffee cups were subsequently produced for local European markets and known as “a la turque” coffee sets. Carved wooden containers for cooling the roasted coffee beans and others for storing them were once part of the equipment in every household, as were the decorated wooden coffee grinders made in Istanbul. Each household in Turkey is likely to have at least one coffee set and one can buy anything from garden variety, inexpensive porcelain cups, to gold-rimmed and very expensive or antique coffee cups in Turkey.