I recently dined at local Lebanese spot Nicholas Restaurant, where I ordered a classic Turkish coffee. The server presented us with a small, beautiful gold coffee carafe on a tray with two servings of cream and two espresso cups. It was my first time trying this coffee and I was stunned by how good it tasted. Hints of cardamom wafted up into my nose, transporting me. How is it possible, I wondered, that I’d never had this beverage before?
Turkish coffee, while popular in countries like Syria, Lebanon, Greece, and Turkey (hence the name), is less prevalent on the American west coast, where I live. However, in the Midwest and eastern part of the United States, where large Middle Eastern communities reside, Turkish coffee is virtually as common as Starbucks. But unlike Starbucks, Turkish coffee’s history and mode of preparation is more unique than what people realize.
To find out more, I reached out to Hilda Dibe, owner of Nicholas Restaurant, whose food and coffee are some of the best I’ve ever tasted. What Dibe told me about this amazing beverage involved stories of family, tradition, and superstition, each as unique as the coffee itself.
What is Turkish coffee?
“Turkish coffee is believed to have originated in Turkey,” says Dibe, “although you have to consider the region surrounding the country, the Mediterranean, as having influence on its cuisine.” Lebanon, Cyprus, Syria, Egypt, and Greece are all adjacent to the Mediterranean Sea; thus, the cuisines of those countries tend to be “borrowed” or shared amongst one another. Coffee is no exception.
While it’s generally known as Turkish coffee, it’s also called Greek or Cypriot coffee—the history of that goes back to the invasion of Cyprus in 1974. Regardless, the coffee itself remains the same.
When drinking Turkish coffee, you might inhale hints of spices and herbs common to Middle Eastern cuisine, such as cardamom or cinnamon. With an emphasis on authenticity, Nicholas Restaurant imports its coffee from Lebanon, a brand called Najjar whose grounds are as fine as baby powder. “That’s what makes Turkish coffee so unique,” Dibe says.
Aside from the extra fine, flour-like coffee grounds, it’s the addition of spices that make the flavor so aromatic. Its rich, dark, thick foam, along with bold flavor—the kind that you’d get from drinking a very strong cup of espresso—is why this coffee is usually prepared and served in small metal carafes called cezve or ibrik. From experience, I can tell you that drinking one of these cups was roughly equivalent to drinking five of my regular Starbucks K-cup pods at home. It’s that strong.
Coffee’s role in family tradition
In Middle Eastern societies, coffee is more than just coffee. It’s a way of life, an invitation to a home.
“Every visitor that comes to your house, it’s customary to offer them coffee,” says Dibe. In many homes, young women often serve their guests Turkish coffee while the elders sit and chat. The drinks continuously arrive in small cezves and are a source of connection for many.
Traditionally, women have been judged on how they make the coffee, Dibe told me. A sign of domesticity, knowing how to make a good cup of Turkish coffee can indicate that a young girl is capable of cooking for her future husband. Arranged marriages can even occur from these exchanges.
Because the coffee grounds are never filtered out, they remain at the bottom of the cup. The saturated grounds can form into certain shapes, each of which is believed to carry meaning. If one presents their cup to a fortune teller, they might be able to find out what the grinds mean for their future. According to Dibe, it’s a fun way to express oneself; whether the grounds mean anything is up for debate.
In America, the tradition still reigns for some families, particularly within larger and more traditional Middle Eastern communities. Subconsciously, first- and second-generation women and young adults serve the coffee to men and elders, the same way it is done in Lebanon and beyond.
How to make Turkish coffee at home
Turkish coffee is generally served in Middle Eastern restaurants for an affordable price (at Nicholas, it costs $4.50 per cup) and depending on where you live, you may be able to find it at a Middle Eastern café. But if it is not available in such places, you can always make it at home.
Making Turkish coffee requires a cezve, which can be found at international grocers or Russian grocery stores (or online). As for the coffee itself, look for labels that say “Arabic” or “Turkish coffee” and make sure it is as finely ground as possible. You can do this by buying your own coffee grinder or grind it at your local coffee shop or grocery store.
To make the coffee, pour the grinds into the cezve (which can come with distinct designs and is generally in an 8-oz. or 12-oz. size) and fill 2/3 of the way with cold water. Place it directly on the stove. Right before coffee boils over, take it off the heat, pour into tiny espresso cups, and serve with sugar cubes and cream, if desired.
You can stir the coffee gently while it’s on the stove, but in general, coffee grounds remain in the cezve, never to be filtered out. After all, you never know what the future holds as you sip on this deliciously fragrant coffee.