Plate of the Union: A caffeinated Turkish delight

September 26, 2013

I will never forget the first time I drank Turkish coffee.

It was my eighteenth birthday, and that very morning I arrived in southern Turkey, where I was handed off to a Turkish family who would be my family for the next 10 months. They spoke no English, I spoke no Turkish, and, as we zoomed away from the airport in a tiny blue car, dust flying, sun pounding, my heart raced as I thought, “What the hell am I doing here?”

The very first stop we made, about ten minutes from the airport, was at the home of a friend of my host family. I was sat down on a chair in a swelteringly hot living room and asked by the family friend, who spoke a bit of English, “Turkish coffee?”

That sounded like the absolute worst thing possible at the moment. It was hot, I was dehydrated, I didn’t even like American coffee. So I used my one Turkish word, the most useful word I have ever learned, to reply to him with a smile, “Tamam”—“Okay.” This marked the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

So what exactly is Turkish coffee? And how is it made? The answer was revealed to me quite slowly, and by drinking many cups of it in the process. Turkish coffee is created from a very finely ground, high quality Arabica beans. The way they are roasted and ground is a mystery to me, and to many, since each coffee grinder has his own special method.

I did learn about the complex process of brewing the coffee, however. In Turkey, coffee is commonly made whenever guests come over. My host mother, Yasemin, taught me to make coffee within my first few months there in order to show off to the guests, “Look at our foreigner girl make coffee!”

Yasemin taught me the proportions, imprecise by American standards: one rounded scoop of ground coffee, one fincan (small coffee cup) full of water, and a heaping spoonful of sugar for each person. All of those ingredients would be poured into cezve (a small, copper pot with a long handle), stirred together, then placed on the stove. I would let the coffee boil once, then I would pour off the foam that developed on the top, dividing it equally between the coffee cups. Then I would put the coffee back on the stove and let it boil again, before doling it out to fill up the cups the rest of the way. It was very important, Yasemin told me, to make sure that the foam covered the entire top of the cup. The more foam, the better, and the more the guests would be impressed.

Of course, making coffee was a nerve-wracking experience at first. I wanted to impress the guests and reflect favorably upon Yasemin, my host family, and my own dedication to learning the art of coffee making. My first few cups never had enough foam and always looked rather amateur compared to Yasemin’s. Yet over my year abroad, I slowly improved. By the time I was preparing to leave, not only was I making Turkish coffee like a champ, but I was also enjoying the experience of making it—a soothing one that inspired a feeling of belonging to my host family and my community.

When I came back to the States, Yasemin sent me with a cezve and several packets of the best Turkish coffee grounds. I made the coffee for my family back in Alabama, and I made it for my new friends in Harbin’s common room. I loved making Turkish coffee; I loved drinking it; and most of all, I loved sharing it.

On my 21st birthday, I found myself back in Turkey. Three years later, I was sitting in a tiny café in the enchanting area around the Chora Church in Istanbul. I had a cup of Turkish coffee in my hands, but this time I took part in a new ritual with the coffee—reading the grounds on the bottom of the cup.

In the style of Professor Trelawney, after a cup of Turkish coffee is drank, you can turn the cup over in its saucer, let it cool down, and then read your fortune based on the patterns left over. That day, I enjoyed making up elaborate and ridiculous fortunes based on my friends’ cups. Yet the art of reading coffee grounds is a special one, and I was determined to actually learn the skills involved with reading them at some point in my life.

Well, that time has come. I spent this Sunday training to read Turkish coffee grounds so I could volunteer at the Turkish Festival on Sept. 29. Surrounded by a group of men and women with age-old knowledge, I soaked up the true art of fortune telling. Even if you think prophecies only come true in Harry Potter, come visit me at the Turkish Festival this weekend. I see coffee in your future.

Sept. 29, 2013 11am-7pm

Pennsylvania Ave. NW


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