Desperately seeking Turkish coffee

Desperately seeking Turkish coffee

Aylin Öney Tan -
Desperately seeking Turkish coffee “Kahve Yemen’den Gelir!/Coffee comes from Yemen!” chants an old folk song, summing up the history of Turkish coffee. Indeed, the first coffee beans in the Ottoman Empire were brought to the Sublime Porte by Özdemir Pasha, who as the governor of Yemen, discovered this magical taste during the reign of Süleyman the Magnificent, when Egypt and Yemen came under Ottoman rule in 1517. After the 1550s, Istanbul became the hub for coffee culture, and from there, this zesty habit spread to Europe. Though the passion for coffee still continues in Turkey, it is highly doubtful that it tastes exactly the same. Today’s Turkish coffee comes from Brazil, so the beloved song no longer tells the truth. 

Turkish coffee is very finely ground (almost like fine powder) medium-roast Arabica coffee. In Turkey, until the introduction of instant coffee (commonly called Nescafé whatever the brand is), nobody appended Turkish coffee with a nationality tag. Only after the spread of the instant stuff did the traditional coffee get its current name, just to differentiate it from the new trend rather than for patriotic reasons. But long before that, it was the British who added the term “Turkish” to the exotic beverage coming from the East. According to Topkapı Palace Museum expert Ömür Tufan, Turkish coffee is not merely the name of a cup of coffee, but the whole ritual it encompasses; from roasting to grinding, but especially the elegant style in which it is served: with fine embroidery, intoxicating frankincense smoke, refreshing rose water, ornate cups at times studded with jewels, together with a sweet morsel, like exquisite jams made from fruits or flowers, or a piece of Turkish delight. It was a whole ritual developed in the Ottoman court, then spread among the elite circles and given elaboration within time, with syrupy liquors added to the ritual after the 18th century. 

The coffee craze rapidly took over the whole Ottoman world, but there were new rival consumers in Europe. Starting from the early 17th century, coffee houses started to pop up all across European cities; sadly, Yemeni coffee was no longer sufficient to supply the increasing demand. Coffee shortage, together with increasing prices, led the Ottomans to ban the sale of coffee to European merchants in Egypt, the strategic market of coffee. Eventually the coffee plant was smuggled from Yemen by the Dutch, and experimental cultivation began in Dutch colonies as early as the second half of the 1600s. After a global tour, coffee found its ideal climate and soil in Brazil, and by the 19th century, Brazilian coffee was unrivalled in the world market, including Ottoman lands. Though Yemeni coffee remained the exclusive coffee of Ottoman sultans, the masses had to sip Brazilian Arabica coffee. 

There is a Turkish saying: “The memory of a single cup of coffee lasts 40 years!”

Well the original taste of coffee lasted way more than that, but maybe it’s time to go back to the original and acquire a taste for Yemeni coffee making its re-appearance in Turkey after centuries!

Bite of the Week

Cup of the Week: For the first time in centuries, the original Yemeni coffee is now available by Nar Gourmet for coffee aficionados in perfect timing before the Ramadan holiday. Yemeni coffee is grown at an altitude of 2,500 meters and is a product of rare cultivation; it bears a sharp and sweetly piquant taste and an exquisite smell. Due to limited supply, it comes with a hefty price tag, and is available only in Nar Gourmet stores at Armaggan, and online, but it’s definitely worth trying to discover the original taste of Turkish coffee. 

Recipe of the Week: Using Turkish coffee instead of cocoa powder is a great trick of mine. It really lifts the flavor, giving dessert or cake a powerful kick, especially so if you do not have a particularly strong sweet tooth. You can use it wherever you normally use cocoa powder, especially so over a tiramisu. Actually, I find a generous dusting of Turkish coffee powder essential for an excellent pick-me-up, for the famed dessert to stand up to its name! Now this quick fix is another strong pick-me-up. Slice a banana very thinly, spread the slices on a plate like a fruit carpaccio, drizzle your favorite honey over it, and dust the whole plate with Turkish coffee. It couldn’t be easier, and quicker, but it is bliss especially in the morning, more so if you have a hangover. You can also arrange the bananas over your favorite custard or mousse and serve this as a simple yet satisfying dessert. 

Fork of the Week: It is essential to serve a sweet taste along with Turkish coffee. The classic, of course, is lokum, Turkish delight. Among some lesser-known ones in the market are the orange-flavored one of Nar Gourmet, saffron or rose delight of Safrantat (you need to pay a visit to Safranbolu, to my view the Turkish delight capital of Turkey) and the sakızlı lokum, mastic delight of Üç Yıldız Şekerleme, the good-old confectionary shop just off İstiklal Avenue in Çiçek Pasajı, the flower market. 

Cork of the Week: In my childhood, during the Ramadan Bayram (than called cheerfully Sugar or Candy Bayram), my strongly pious paternal grandmother would have several cups of Turkish coffee with small shots of fruit liquor. There would always be a wide selection of liquors to serve to guests, both homemade and from the state monopoly, Tekel. They were all delightful. I think my fondness for alcoholic drinks started by cleaning the tiny glasses with my tongue after being drunk by a crowd off guests. Serving Turkish coffee with colorful sweet liquor came into fashion with the onset of Westernization in the Ottoman court before quickly spreading to the elite. Unfortunately, most of the lovely, all-natural monopoly Tekel liquors were discontinued after privatization, but a few still do exist. The brand Nazen comes with fruity flavors like orange, raspberry, sour cherry, banana or mint, or the essential mastic flavor; while the Hare brand has more earthy flavors like coffee, chocolate, bitter almond, and even a Turkish coffee and cream flavor. They’re all worth giving a try!