Arabian Coffee: The Welcoming Cup
Written by Kate Lord Brown
The Arab tradition that ‘one’s guests deserve the very best’ lies at the heart of the coffee ritual.
On the Corniche in Doha there is a large sculpture of a dallah, or traditional Arabic coffee pot. The dallah is a symbol of welcome, and for centuries the preparation and sharing of coffee has played an important part in Arabic hospitality. It is believed that the Arabic gahwa gave rise to the name ‘coffee’ as the taste for the drink spread west.
In the majlis, coffee is traditionally served by a male member of the household, and the quality and quantity offered to guests is a direct reflection of the wealth and generosity of the host. Just as there are ancient rituals involved with the tea ceremonies of Asia, in Arabia there are several stages to the preparation and serving of coffee.
First, the beans are roasted, releasing a wonderful aroma of fresh toasted coffee. They are then ground in a brass pestle and mortar. Water is boiled in the dallah – the Arabian coffee pots are traditionally brass, though some of the finest are made of gold and silver.
If desired, at this point cloves, saffron, or cardamom can be added to the water. The pot is taken off the heat, and the freshly ground coffee added (a good tablespoon per 250ml of water is recommended for a medium strength). The coffee is then simmered gently for two minutes before being served piping hot in delicate finjan (glass or porcelain cups, without handles).
Arabic coffee is at once light but rich, and the spices add depth and variety to the flavour.
It is a great honour to be offered the first cup of coffee by your host, and it is polite for a guest to suggest that the host himself should have the privilege before graciously accepting. The coffee is served in small quantities, and the generous host will go on refilling your cup until you indicate that you have had enough by gently shaking your cup from side to side. So do not be surprised if you are only offered a small amount.
The person serving holds the pot in their left hand, filling each finjan in turn, and they will not sit down to join the group until the last person has had enough coffee. After the coffee is poured, if a guest has something they wish to discuss, they put their finjan to one side – once the matter is settled, the coffee is drunk as a sign of accord.
Dates or halwa are sometimes served with coffee, and etiquette decrees that a guest should stop after their third cup, however tempting it is to take more. It is a delightful ritual that embodies the spirit of Arabian hospitality.
Coffee lovers will find branches of their favourite shops across the city, but head to the spice market of Souq Waqif for some beans, and choose from the fragrant barrels of cardamom and cloves. Buy a dallah from one of the antique stalls, and you can even take a little Arabian hospitality home.