KAHWA, OR ARABIC COFFEE
Beijing, 14 March 2014
As I mentioned in my last posting, during our stay in Dubai my wife and I visited a small remnant of the old town saved for the tourist trade. Bastakia, it’s called. Though small, it’s a pleasant quarter, worth a couple of hours of strolling.
As we sauntered from lane to lane, we stumbled across the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, housed in said Sheikh’s old residence. The Centre was about to hold a talk and guided tour of the quarter, so we decided on the spot to sign up. We were led upstairs and invited to take a seat on divans. We then had a discussion with a pleasant young Emirati woman, during which she invited us to ask her any questions we might have about life and culture in Dubai. As we talked, a young fellow silently padded around filling little cups for each of us with a small amount of a clear brown liquid
and offering dried dates to go with it.
While the others talked, I took a sip of the liquid. It was … strange. OK, let me be frank, it was unpleasant, tart and bitter. It reminded me of the cough medicines which Matron would give us in the school dispensary as we queued up, coughing and hacking, on winter mornings. I always thought that she suspected us of malingering and trying to skive classes, so made the experience of coming to the dispensary as disagreeable as possible. The drink could also have been the non-alcoholic version of one of those herbal liqueurs which Italians imbibe after a copious meal to help digestion and which are aptly named Amari, Bitter drinks: Fernet Branca, Amaro Meletti, Ferro-China Bisleri, Ramazzotti, … I’ve always been amazed that Italians actually enjoy drinking this stuff. I silently thanked the Lord that the dates were being served. Their sweetness helped offset the drink’s bitterness.
I finally could contain my curiosity no longer and asked our hostess what it was that we were drinking. Kahwa, she said, Arabic coffee.
Coffee??! I’ve drunk coffee in many forms,
Viennese coffee, with its dollop of cream and its glass of water (I have really come to appreciate a glass of water with my coffee)
café au lait served, as my French grandmother used to serve it, in a nice big bowl, with a croissant to dunk in it
Turkish coffee, which always gives me the impression of drinking liquid mud
Nescafé or other instant coffees (I’m not fussy), which in my youth seemed to be the only way the English drank their coffee
Irish coffee, which seems a sad ending for a good whiskey
of course the variety of coffees (well, more milk than coffee) that one comes across in Starbucks, Costa Coffee and places of that ilk – who can avoid the global invasion of these coffee shops?
I have even stooped so low as to drink this Chinese version of Nescafé, which is a pre-mix of white, sugared, instant coffee to which you just add hot water.
All in all, these coffees were good, or at least palatable. Kahwa is most definitely neither. A little more discussion brought to light the fact that cardamom is added. Cardamom … I have only the vaguest notion of this spice. Wikipedia states that it “has a strong, unique taste, with an intensely aromatic, resinous fragrance”. That’s certainly true. Its origins are Indian, Wikipedia continues, and in fact I can’t think of a single European dish which I’ve tried to which it is added (I understand that the Scandinavians use it in some of their breads, but who – apart from Scandinavians – eats Scandinavian bread?). A little research has unearthed the fact that sometimes saffron is also added to kahwa, presumably to colour it, as are cloves or cinnamon or even rose water, but cardamom is the main spice that is used.
A little bit more research suggests that cardamom was added because it was so expensive. At first glance, that seems a strange reason to turn a perfectly good drink into an undrinkable one. But I read somewhere else that in traditional Bedouin cultures (which of course Dubai originally was) it was de rigeur to always serve kahwa to your guests.
So of course you could show them that you had money in your pockets by putting cardamom in the coffee. Still not really a good reason to ruin a perfectly good coffee.
For those of you who might be tempted to try it, here’s a recipe which I picked up on the web:
Bring 3 cups of water to boil in a saucepan. When the water boils, add 3 tablespoons of ground coffee. Boil for 10 to 12 minutes.
Add 1 tablespoon of crushed cardamom, along with 5-6 whole cloves if you are using them. Stir once and boil for another 5 minutes.
Remove the saucepan from heat, cover, and let the coffee grounds settle to the bottom for a minute. Do not stir.
If you use them, add 1 teaspoon of rose water and small pinch of saffron to a coffee pot. Strain and pour the coffee into the pot. Allow to seep for 5 to 10 minutes before serving.
As for me, I left my kahwa undrunk, nibbled at some more of the dates, slipped on my shoes, and joined my wife as she followed our guide for the tour of Bastakia.
Café au lait et croissant: http://us.123rf.com/400wm/400/400/shawnhempel/shawnhempel1005/shawnhempel100500087/7075391-cafe-au-lait-with-butter-croissant-over-white-background.jpg [in http://www.123rf.com/photo_7075391_cafe-au-lait-with-butter-croissant-over-white-background.html%5D
Caffé Nero and Starbucks: http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Money/Pix/pictures/2011/9/22/1316705313267/Caffe-Nero-and-Starbucks–005.jpg [in http://www.theguardian.com/money/blog/poll/2011/sep/23/store-wars-caffe-nero-starbucks%5D
Nescafe ready-mix: my picture