Thursday, March 31, 2011

Qahwa, Kahve, Coffee.

If you are like me–one of those people who roll out of bed in the morning groping their way to the coffeemaker before you can open your eyes, let alone think, you may be surprised to know that you owe your daily path to consciousness to a mob of curious goats. 

Once upon a ninth century, an Arab goatherd Khalid tended to his herd somewhere in the mountains of the Kaffa region of Abyssinia (Ethiopia.) He noticed that his goats seemed to become incredibly energetic after grazing on a particular wild berry, and, perhaps being slightly worn out by chasing them around, decided to try the wondrous fruits himself. He felt the same kick that generations of coffeeholics would be dying for every single morning and many afternoons, and thus the foundation for the addiction was laid.

Monks from a nearby monastery adapted Khalid’s discovery because the berries helped the monks to pray and meditate longer. Ethiopian tribesman rolled the ripe berries in animal fat, forming round balls, and packed the magic doughnuts for long tiring journeys to provide energy and sustenance. People mixed the crushed berries with cold water and left them to brew, similar to how sun tea is made today. Making coffee as a hot drink didn’t happen until the Arabs learned to boil water, but shortly thereafter they also discovered that roasting the berries gave the drink an intricate zest. They called the mighty liquid al-qahwa (or kahve) which is where the word coffee came from (not from the Kaffa region of Ethiopia.)

In the 12th century, people began to cultivate coffee trees and Arabia saw its first coffee houses, qahwa kaneh, which served as gathering places where music was played and various discussions took place. Shahs and caliphs didn’t like the free exchange of ideas that happened in qahwa kanehs and made numerous attempts to close them. In Ottoman Turkey, coffee houses were banned and people could be arrested for possession of the “devil’s berries”, which is where the saying “to spill the beans” came from. Still, underground coffee houses continued to exist.

As the popularity of coffee grew, the Arabs became very protective of their energy drink. It was prohibited to take coffee plants out of the region. Coffee exporters made sure the seeds they sold were sterile and impossible to cultivate. Nonetheless their secret escaped. Historians established that coffee’s first European appearance took place in Venice, when a shipment of aromatic beans arrived from Mocha, a Yemen port.

The Venetians learned to brew the beverage and even distributed the berries to pharmacies for medicinal purposes. In Rome, the clergy at first condemned “the drink of the devil,” but then Pope Clement VIII blessed it–after one sip. After that, coffee houses began to spread in Europe as well, eventually reaching England. Dutch traders from New Amsterdam (later renamed New York) brought coffee to America.

Since then, the world has embraced coffee. The first espresso machine was designed in 1822 in France. Italians perfected it later with high pressure. Shortly after, the first coffee percolator was invented. The increasing life pace of the 20th century produced instant coffee, invented by chemist Satori Kato. Later, came Brazilian Nescafe - freeze-dried coffee.

I don’t know if I should mention Starbucks as a great invention, although it certainly is a part of coffee history. An anti-Starbucks fan, I pledge my allegiance to the charming Italian cafés and Moroccan coffee houses. My favorite coffee is Turkish kahvesi, made in a special pot called jezver with a wide bottom and a narrow top. The recipe is simple: one third coffee, two thirds water, sugar to taste. Bring to a boil three times while skimming off the foam into your cup. Pour, let it settle and sip. It can shake a dead man awake.

So, what’s your favorite coffee and how is it made?


  1. I'd heard that coffee came from the Arab world but I didn't know about the goatherd! Poor guy, I'll bet he didn't think to get a patent? His discovery truly changed the world. Love the recipe--Turkish coffee is my favorite as well. I make mine using the Mehmet Efendi brand. Mmm...

  2. I'm something of a coffee snob. I admit it. I'll drink Starbucks if there's nothing else, but normally I buy German coffee in an online store for my morning cuppa Joe.

    But Turkish coffee is my favorite afternoon pick-me-up. I buy that in Iran when I can. That's where I first had it, back when the only coffee choices there were Turkish and Nescafe in little orange packets. I have three jezvers in different sizes, but none are as lovely as the ones in your pictures, Lina.

  3. No, I don't think the guy got a patent, otherwise his family would've been sooo rich by now. LOL!

    Yes, I'm also an afternoon Turkish coffee person, it really wakes me up so fast but doesn't make me hyper. That silver jezver has a story - it was the best Grand Bazaar bargain I ever did! It took me a long time to learn it, but that day I definitely mastered the art of it. I got the price down from a hundred dollars to thirty bucks. Hand-made, blackened silver and all that. The weird thing was - the seller didn't hate me afterward, I even think he respected me to a certain extent rather than view me as a dumb American tourist. Funny, isn't it?

  4. Lina, I'm sure he did respect you more. Bargaining is not just about the price (although that's important). It's also a social interaction, and I bet he appreciated the fact that you were respecting his customs by seriously bargaining.

  5. Fabulous, Lina! Kahvesi is a favorite of mine but I'm too lazy to make it myself. What a very intersting history and I had no idea goats were behind my addiction. Awesome!

  6. Fascinating Story and History, Thanks for sharing, I must try the Turkish Coffee