Turkish Coffee (ahwa)

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Eeek, two months already and not an entry, and the summer is done. Horrible; just horrible. But on that note, we can ease into the horror that is the fall with a simple item: coffee.

While there are many ways of grouping and dividing people in Egyptian society, one subtle force comes through the drinking beverage of choice: coffee or tea. This being Turkish coffee, or black tea.

My family for instance is pure coffee. My aunt still cannot understand why someone would want a cup of tea over a nice cup of coffee. When a guest asks for tea, she resorts to the two boxes someone gave her years ago and adds “I’m not sure what they are; but I think they are some kind of tea” In fact, even as a child she hated drinking tea so much that when my grandmother would make her a nice cup of tea when she was sick, my aunt would graciously accept it and quickly dump it into an old shoe; a lot easier apparently then going through the tortuous event of sipping it.

My best memories of my grandmother was sitting on her lap as a child and dipping a petit beurre biscuit into her Turkish coffee and relishing the taste of buttery sugar with a hint of bitterness from the coffee, almost like a hot chocolate. For fun, she would then flip over her cup and wait some time and try to read her future. Many women still do this when they get together and have an afternoon coffee and try to figure out what’s in store for their future. I still do this with the hopes I can read something; normally it’s just a big coffee grind mess which makes me a little worried.

Both my dad and my aunt have kept the ritual and routine of Turkish coffee every day. My father has one right after his breakfast, and then again later in the day after his dinner time nap. He never skips a beat. My aunt starts the morning with an espresso and then switches over to a Turkish one before heading out. You can’t beat routine of these two. As a teenager, my dad was the one who taught me how to make Turkish coffee; which oddly enough, is different to my aunt’s method. But they both work out equally fine.

My mother’s family tends to be more on the tea side, which is odd given that she is the one with the Turkish lineage. My mom is the one who taught me about tea making. She makes her tea as if it’s a strong cup of coffee; it’s a very typically Egyptian way of making tea: boiling the hell out of it. Her morning routine is also set in stone: small stove top pot with water and black tea. She boils this for about five to ten minutes, until it is pretty much black. Egyptians don’t add milk or cream to their tea, they add sugar. Lots and lots of sugar. To the strong black tea some will then add mint leaves, and this is the Egyptian mint tea. It’s not as ritualistic or complicated as the Moroccan green tea; but it is a nice way to end a heavy meal.

If you wander around the markets in Egypt, stop into a store downtown, or take a faluka ride along the Nile, you will always see people sipping tea. When it’s hot, you drink tea to cool down. And when it’s cold you also drink tea to warm up. But the hot tea on a hot day does work. Many neighbourhood cafes will make tea or coffee and then send out one of the younger workers to distribute the tea to other stores or people working away from cafes. You will see these boys running around with a tray filled with tea; and sometimes coffee. Tea is the drink of choice during the day, whereas coffee is more when you can sit and savour it. Of course, as a shopper, it’s the first thing you are asked when you enter a store and are about to settle into some bargaining: “would you like a tea, coffee or a coke?” Even when taking a boat ride in Nubia, people are running around making sure everyone has tea or coffee. When I was there, the guide we had shared his tea with me on the boat. Generally, making tea quickly like that outside of the home, an instant tea is used; it has the consistency of instant coffee granules, but it’s tea. Hot water is added and some sugar.

Mint has been cultivated in Egypt since the days of the Pharaohs. The mint oil itself was revered for its medicinal properties. But it wasn’t commonly used as a daily tea until the British arrived in the 1800s and brought with them tea from China and India. There are essentially two types of tea served in Egypt: that from Lower Egypt (Koshary) and that from Upper Egypt (Saidi). Koshary tea is made by simply steeping tea leaves for a few minutes then adding sugar, and sometimes some mint. Saidi tea is made by boiling the tea leaves for a few minutes, then adding lots of sugar (my mom’s tea).

As for the Turkish coffee, the history behind it is what makes the drink rather interesting. The initial story behind coffee comes from Ethiopia in the 11th century and the red cherry-like fruits that their goats would eat. After eating the fruit, the goats would get very energetic. Soon enough, the fruit was thought to have medicinal properties and it was picked, boiled and drunk. With time, and trade quite heavy in that area, the drink soon spread throughout the Arabian Peninsula, especially in Yemen where the climate was perfect for growing the fruit. Bear in mind, that it was still the fruit that was being drunk.

With the spread of the Ottoman Empire, Yemen became just another province. The governor of Yemen, Ozdemir Pasha, introduced the drink to Sultan Suleiman in the early 1500s. Apparently it was here in the Ottoman palace that a new way of drinking the fruit was discovered: roasting the beans of the fruit over a fire, grinding the beans and adding it to boiling water. And that is the same recipe used today for Turkish coffee.

This new beverage soon spread from the palace to grand mansions and then to the public. Coffee was purchased, roasted at home and then brewed in coffee pots known as a ‘cezve’, though in Arabic its called the ‘kanakah’.

Coffeehouses began to spring up throughout the city and those stopping through got their first dose of coffee. In due time, coffee spread throughout Europe and then over to the Americas. The Turkish word for coffee was ‘kahve’ and obviously over the years its made its way into other languages as coffee or café or other similar variations.

But, back to Egypt. The Ottomans conquered Egypt in the early 1500s, around the same time that coffee was starting to get recognized in Turkey. Undoubtedly, like many other foods that have made their way into Egyptian culture, Turkish food and habits soon became common in Egyptian households.

The Turkish were fairer in colour and thus seen as the aristocrats of Egyptian society for some time. Therefore marriage amongst the Turkish community was not something that was taken lightly between families as the bride to be had to be well chosen in order to maintain the same socio-economic level. One way of testing out the potential of a bride-to-be was when the groom’s family was invited to meet the bride’s family, the bride-to-be would be the one to prepare the Turkish coffees. If her coffee came out perfectly; meaning with a little cream foam on top and perfectly sweetened, then she was seen as a good match and the groom’s family would then give its blessings.

My aunt used to remind me this as a joke growing up, so that to this day when I prepare coffee for guests, I’m a little concerned if there isn’t enough of a cream foam on top; that could spell the end of a friendship.

Throughout the cities in Egypt, you have the old tradition still of men-only coffee houses. Even to this day many of them are going strong and men go in there to play backgammon or chess, smoke a shisha, talk to friends and sip coffee. Women still haven’t cornered this market.

But when you order a Turkish coffee in Egypt, or someone offers you one, there are four ways of having it prepared and all of it have to do with the amount of sugar. The more popular preparation is ‘Mazbootah’, meaning correct, so it has just one sugar. ‘Ziadah’ is with additional sugar, and ‘Areehah’ is a little less sugar than mazbootah. ‘Saddah’ is with no sugar at all. Apparently our last name ‘bissada’ was popular on the play grounds during recess because it rhymed with ‘saddah’. So clever…

At funerals, regardless of religions, there is also a tradition to only serve ‘saddah’ coffee because you don’t want the occasion to be viewed as anything but a sad and bitter ordeal. Also, any floral motif cups are not used as it might lift the spirits of the guests. Funerals in Egypt are generally taken very seriously and are not viewed with any optimism, such as celebrating one’s life. So everything surrounding the event has to be just as serious, including the coffee.

In terms of preparation, it’s the easiest thing in the world. I often make this coffee when camping because all it takes is a pot, ground coffee and sugar. In the mid-east food stores, you can find pre-ground Turkish coffee, or you can get it ground to a fine powder in any coffee store. It’s much finer than an espresso grind.

espresso grind:

turkish coffee grind:

Also, variations coming from the Persian Gulf include cardamom pods ground into it which gives the coffee a wonderful flavour; though it’s not as popular in Egypt. The coffee itself is usually a short shot really and served in a small tea set and always, always served with a glass of water to drink afterwards. But my cousin and I agree that you can throw tradition aside and cheat when you want a big cup of coffee and not a little tease.


Total preparation time: 6 minutes
Yield: 1 person



1 small teaspoon of sugar

2 heaping teaspoons of coffee



1. If using a kanakah, fill it with water just to the bend in the pot.

2. If you are using a regular pot, fill the tea cup you are using with water and add that to the pot.

3. Add one small teaspoon of sugar to the pot. Stir it and set it on the burner.

4. Ideally, for the best cup of coffee, you set the burner on low to medium heat. I have little patience for that so I put it on maximum.

5. When the water starts boiling, take it off the heat, add your coffee to it, mix it and bring it back to the heat source.

6. If you have electric burners, then you can put the pot back on with the heat off. If you have a gas burner, keep the heat on low.

7. Now you want to watch for the coffee to rise. When you see the coffee foam rising and about to spill over, take it off and pour it into a cup. If it just begins to boil again then you should probably start all over, because it is too hot to have a proper foam.

8. Now you can sit back and enjoy your coffee. Because the coffee grinds are still in the cup, it’s not a coffee you can drink fast, otherwise you end up with grinds in your mouth. You need to sip it slowly and when you start getting more grinds than coffee, it’s over. You can flip your cup over and hope someone can read your future.

9. There is another way of preparing the coffee, and that is you add everything right from the beginning and watch it rise immediately for the foam. Both methods are used.