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Introduction to Turkish Coffee

"Coffee should be black as hell, strong as death, and sweet as love." - Turkish Proverb

In the words of the famous 20th century Turkish Poet Yahya Kemal, coffee has created its own “culture” in Turkey. 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 simply 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 metropolis was teeming with coffeehouses. (To read more about Turkish coffeehouses click here). Within a century, first Venice, then London and Paris were introduced to coffee via the Ottomans, which naturally acquired its epithet “Turkish”. 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 (many times in spirit if not to the letter. See section How to make Turkish Coffee for more information.  

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 water 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 Beans

The first step in making delicious Turkish coffee is to make the right coffee bean choice. Turkish coffee is made by using beans of Coffee Arabica from a variety of coffee producing countries, but a majority of Turkish coffee beans have been imported from Brazil beginning as early as the 18th century, when it became clear that the Yemeni production was not going to be sufficient to meet the demand in the Ottoman lands. Coffee beans are judged based on characteristics such flavor, aftertaste, aroma, taste balance and degree of sweetness. You should try different beans of Coffee Arabica from different countries and choose the one you like best. Ignore any consideration of taste with milk, as adding milk to Turkish coffee, under any circumstance, is a no-no and may even offend a purist!  

Turkish Coffee Pots (Cezve)

Turkish coffee pot is designed specifically to make Turkish coffee. The long handle is particularly useful to avoid burning hands, and the brim is designed to serve the coffee. Please note that the most important element in choosing the coffee pot is its size. You should neither use a too big nor a too small pot. Depending upon how many servings you need, you need to choose the appropriate size. Please note that many Turkish households do have a variety of sizes for different occasions.  

Turkish Coffee Grinders (Degirmen)

This specially designed grinder helps you grind the beans appropriately. Note that to make Turkish coffee, beans must be ground very finely. If you are not a heavy coffee drinker or prefer to grind your coffee upon demand to maximize freshness and taste, a coffee mill is required to grind the beans as necessary. A traditional coffee mill has a particular design, with a two piece moving handle and with a pot underneath to collect the ground coffee. The following mill that we would recommend also carries traditional Halep (Aleppo) designs.  

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.  

Turkish Coffeehouses

Turkish coffeehouses must be divided into two: old coffeehouses and new coffeehouses. The latter cannot even be called a distant cousin of the old coffeehouses. The first coffeehouse ever was opened in 1554 during the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent. Two people, one person from Aleppo and another from Damascus have opened this coffeehouse jointly in the Tahtakale district of Istanbul, a vibrant commercial center even today. The first people to attend this first coffeehouse were people pursuing the mundane pleasures of idly enjoying the moment (there is a specific word for this in Turkish called “keyif”), but also the educated class of the society. Some would come to read in the coffeehouse, other would play backgammon or chess, some would delve into conversations on art and culture. As other coffeehouses mushroomed, however, the unemployed, troublemakers, and the retired became regulars of coffeehouses. Imams, muezzins (those who sing the call to prayer), and high ranking officials would regularly go to coffeehouses.  

This sparked a movement by the conservative sections of the society whereby they tried to discourage youth to attend coffeehouses. During the reign of sultan Murad the Third coffee and therefore coffeehouses were banned. However, the ban was lifted during the reign of subsequent sultans.  

There were also a number of coffeehouses with decorative pools that opened during the Ottoman period, as Ottomans believed on the soothing power of watching water. These coffeehouses were built at places with the best panoramic views of the city. The porch was covered with kilims and rugs and there was a decorative pool at the center. The walls were covered with cups of all kinds and nargiles with silver or gold caps.  

The coffeehouses were subsidized by the local rich people. The introduction of tobacco has increased these places’ popularity tremendously. Canaries were considered “good luck” for janissary coffeehouses. In a big coffeehouses there would be as many as thirty to forty birdcages. The tradition of big and highly ornate coffeehouses has suffered a big blow along with the abolishment of the janissary order.  

However, today the entire city of Istanbul and the entire country are filled with coffeehouses numbering probably hundreds of thousands. They are different from their predecessors, with TV sets, card games and backgammon providing the entertainment in addition to the friendly conversation. The life of the coffeehouse revolves much less around drinking coffee, which has been replaced by tea as the beverage of choice. Still, coffee is consumed in large amounts and coffeehouses continue to form the center of social interaction for a lot of Turkish men, who can stop by in their favorite coffee shop with the knowledge that they will almost certainly find a friend to chat away some part of the day. Fortune Telling by Reading the Coffee Grounds!  

Finally, for the sake of completeness we cannot ignore a psychic reading tradition that has developed around coffee drinking. Although we are far from being able to give anyone guidelines about how to read coffee grinds, as it seems to be driven by inspiration rather than science, we can give you a few guidelines about how make the cup ready for reading in case you do have a coffee cup reader at hand.  

So we assume waited for several minutes for the coffee grinds to deposit to the bottom of the coffee cup after you served your coffee and enjoyed it with your favorite sweet. You have almost finished your coffee but not quite since that last sip would fill your mouth with coffee grinds. So with a tiny little bit of coffee and lots of coffee grinds still left in your cup, put your coffee cup holder on top of your coffee cup, make three horizontal circles with your cup, and then with a quick movement turn the coffee cup with the cup holder upside down. This will slowly bring down the coffee grinds along the coffee cup down to the coffee holder, but in the meantime will form all the patterns that the coffee grind reader needs to tell you about your future. An expert coffee cup reader will interpret the shapes for you and give you your reading and advice about life decisions and problems.  


Fortune telling with Turkish Coffee

Fortune telling with coffee followed tea leaf reading, Tesseography, which began many centuries ago in China. Originally the Chinese took omens from the shapes seen on the inside of used bells, which had become irregularly indented with patterns and shapes through use in religious ceremonies and rituals. The handless tea-cups they used, when inverted, looked like small bells, thus tea cups gradually replaces bell omens by the patterns formed by the tea leaves.  

Since fortune reading from the residue of drinks is largely the result of both personal and random factors, the residue of any drink can be used. The ancient Romans read their fortunes from lees, left by wine in goblets.  

Other methods used for fortune telling utilising shapes similar to tea leaves or coffee grains, is the use of molten lead or tin dripped into cold water. On contact the molten metal instantly solidifies into the characteristic shapes. This method known as Molybdomancy was widely used during the middle ages, and is said to have been a by-product of alchemists experiments which attempted to transform base metals into gold. In Turkish and some middle-eastern cultures this same technique is used to dispel 'fright' from children and adults.  

Anyone who is suffering from persistent nightmares or inexplicable fears, is taken to a occult practitioner to have the ‘fears' captured, identified and disposed. The 'patient' is usually prepared with prayers and his head covered with a cloth; a small container of cold water is held above his head and the molten lead quickly poured into it. The resulting shapes are removed from the water when they have cooled. The patients fears are reputed to take a form in the metal, enabling the 'reader' to analyze the problem and make recommendations. More often than not the patient is given the shapes to throw across a river or other natural waterway, thus throwing-away-for-good the captured fears.  

A safer alternative to using molten lead or tin is melted wax called Ceremony. The procedure is the same as for metal. This technique was very popular in the 18th century when melted wax was frequently used for sealing letters.  

Reading Coffee is basically the same as for tea.  

After drinking the coffee, cover the cup with the upside-down saucer and swirl it three times in a clock-wise direction. Put it down and allow a few minutes for the coffee to settle.  

Before proceeding with the reading there are a few simple rules to remember. Positions of symbols seen in the cup:  

The handle represents you (the 'querant').  

Symbols positioned near the handle means something is about to happen near your home.  

Symbols pointing to the handle - from the left or right - means something is approaching you (a letter, visitor etc).  

Symbols pointing away from the handle - from left or right - means departure (someone or something will leave).  

Symbols in a vertical, top to bottom or visa versa, position indicates a time span. Those near the top (the rim) are the future; mid-way represents the present; and bottom the past. But the actual circular very bottom is unlucky. Traditionally the querant is asked to crush the bottom symbol seen after it has been interpreted.  

Symbols should never be interpreted in isolation. The overall picture combining all the symbols in relation to each other, with due consideration to the size, clarity and position of each symbol in the cup will give a much more rewarding reading.  

Should you find it difficult to see anything in your coffee cup in the beginning don't worry. The images will not be like a photograph, in fact they may appear incomplete, blurry and downright unintelligible. Relax! Let your mind and imagination scan the cup once or twice, turn the cup, tip it toward you or away looking at the coffee grains as you do so. Soon you will make out one image then another and before you know it they'll be leaping out at you in their dozens.  

Symbols and their meanings:

Angel: Good news and happiness approaching.
Ant: Determination in an activity will bear fruit.
Baby or Cot: Minor worries will occupy you.
Ball: Someone known to you involved with sport or short periods of luck and misfortune.
Beans: Financial difficulties.
Bear: Facing handle - Think carefully about new decisions. Looking away from handle - You will go on an important journey.
Bee: You will make new friends and hear good news. Near handle - old Friends gathering. Going away from the handle - Old friends are               seeking you. Swarm of bees - You will make an impact in a largegathering.
Beetle: A difficult task will test your mettle.
Bell: Surprising news. Near top of cup - Career advancement. Near bottom of cup - Upset, disappointment. Two bells - Heartfelt joy.      
Candle: Another person will help you succeed. Knowledge and learning.
Cat: A quarrel will disrupt your life but only for a short time.
Chain: A legal union, a marriage or business partnership.
Chair: An unforeseen guest.
Circle: Success coming around. Circle with a dot near - A new addition to the family (baby). Circle with lines nearby - Your efforts are   being hindered.
Claw: Enemy.
Knife: Enemies plotting. Danger ahead.
Devil or horns: Beware of influential people around you. Danger approaches.
Dog: Good, reliable friends. Faithful partner. Near bottom of cup - Friends needing help.
Eagle: Great improvements in your life.
Ear: Surprising news will reach you.
Earring: Careful explanation needed.
Egg: Wealth and success.
Eye: Envy, jealousy.
Face: Concern for you by a loved one.
Fish: Life will become richer, happier and more attractive to you.
Flag: Danger-in-wait.
Fruit: Prosperity in your endeavors.
Gate: Opportunities for success.
Hand: Friendship and family.
Heart: Love, faith and trust.
Horse: Strength, independence.
Key: Doors opening for you.
Letter: Good financial news coming.
Lines: Straight - Trouble free progress. Wavy - difficult progress - Slanting means failure.
Man: Near handle and distinct - visitor with dark hair. Blurred image - A fair haired visitor. Arm outstretched - he brings a gift.
Moon: Full - Love. Crescent - religious calling.
Owl: Disreputable person. Scandal.
Pear: Financial security.
Ring: Marriage. Broken ring - marriage in trouble.
Scissors: Arguments in the home.
Spider: Unexpected money on its way.
Sun: Power. Success.
Sword: Enemies will fall.
Tree: Changes for the better on there way.
Triangle: A change coming. Pointing up - change is good. Pointing down - bad.
Wheel: Fortunes will change.

"Coffee should be black as hell, strong as death, and sweet as love." - Turkish Proverb

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