Taste of Arabia: The Art of Making Arabic Coffee
Arabic coffee (gahwa) and dates are a symbol of Arabian hospitality and generosity. Coffee and dates are offered to greet guests everywhere from homes to restaurants and hotel lobbies to airplanes.
Bedouins brewed their coffee over a simple fireplace dug into the ground. Over time, this was replaced by the kuwar, which is a clay pit with a stove made from pebbles and stone plates. Most Saudi homes have a sitting room with carpets on the floor and cushions against the wall for social gatherings called majlis. Usually there is a stove or fireplace on the ground for preparation of coffee and tea.
Coffee is made in front of the guests whenever possible and elegantly served in copper coffee pots called dallah, then poured into small cups called fenjan. In Saudi Arabia, coffee beans are only lightly roasted and the coffee is of golden color, different from the darker cardamom-flavored coffee served in other Arabic countries. Saudi coffee does not have a strong coffee flavor and tastes almost like strong cardamom tea. However, it has a higher caffeine level because the beans are less roasted.
Traditionally, Arabic coffee is made in front of the guests by the host and sometimes the son of the host is given this important task. The green coffee beans are first roasted, lightly and evenly. While today, there are electric coffee roasters, the traditional method uses a large ladle, mahmasa, to roast the beans in and a small ladle to move the coffee beans around for even roasting. The mahmasa has a long handle that helps when placed over an open fire.
The roasted beans are then poured into a wooden slipper called mubarrah to cool them down.
The next step is the manual grinding of the coffee beans in a copper mortar and pestle, making a musical ting-ting sound of pestle striking mortar. At the same time the dallah is filled with water, placed on the fireplace and brought to the boil. This process takes about five minutes.
The coffee powder is poured into the boiling water and the pot is placed back on the fire to boil. At this stage some cardamom seeds are lightly crushed with the mortar and pestle and then added to the coffee. A pinch of saffron and/or cloves can also be added.
A bright and shiny dallah is now brought into use and the coffee is poured into the clean dallah. A piece of palm tree fiber is placed into the spout to keep the coffee powder from getting into the coffee cups when pouring.
In the old times the host poured a small cup of coffee for himself and drank it to demonstrate that no poison had been added.
The hosts walks around holding the dallah in his left hand and a few cups in the right, filling the cups for the seated guests. He serves the most important guest first and then the others.
The small coffee cups are filled only half way. It is impolite to refuse the coffee. The cup is held between the forefinger and a thumb of the right hand. When the guest gives the cup back to the host, it is immediately refilled. To show that you are done, the cup is to be shaken rigorously several times.
With gahwa, dates are served to balance the bitterness of the Arabic coffee. Arabic coffee is never sweetened with sugar.
The best coffee beans for Arabic coffee come from Yemen, but coffee is also brought in from Kenya and Sumatra. It is widely believed that coffee drinking in Arabia goes back to the 9th century AD when a Bedouin shepherd in Yemen noticed that while he was feeling sleepy in the hot sun in the desert, his livestock was happily hopping around in the sunshine after nibbling the berries of a certain evergreen bush.
The tradition of making Arabic coffee in United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Qatar was inscribed in 2015 on the Representative List of the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.