Not just your ordinary bean (part 1)

December 16, 2009

Hello again! Well, after a relatively long hiatus I have returned to brighten up your collective days with more information on our very favorite bean (well, actually it’s a the pit of a cherry, but “coffee pit” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it). On today’s menu is a bit of the history behind this “magic” brew:


A landlocked country (since the independence of Eritrea) in the Eastern part of Africa, this country is considered the birthplace of coffee. Aside from the legends of Kaldi the goatherder who found that his goats became excited after eating the berries of the coffee trees, the exact discoverer of coffee’s stimulating properties is unknown. However, it is generally accepted that Ethiopians were cultivating and using the coffee berry as far back as the 9th Century AD. Even to this day coffee trees grow wild in the Kaffa highlands where they were first discovered. For Ethiopians, coffee not only provides around 2/3 of the total exports for the entire country but it is also a source of heartfelt pride. The Ethiopian people have developed an elaborate ceremony for coffee preparation and consumption (which can sometimes take as long as a few hours to complete) and they perform it at least three times a day. This ceremony is considered to foster strong familial bonds as the entire family is gathered together during this ritual. Only the youngest female of the household is allowed to roast and brew the coffee and the eldest member of the family is always served first. The beverage is poured from a height of approxamitely a foot to allow the aroma to permeate the room, and then flavored with sugar or salt. If a guest is invited to coffee in an Ethiopian household, it is considered an insult if the guest does not drink at least three cups as the third cup is considered to bestow blessing.


By the 10th Century, coffee had spread to Sudan and across the Red Sea to Yemen where it was called “qahhwat al-bun” (wine of the bean), or qahwa for short. The first coffee trees cultivated in Yemen are believed to have been of the Arabica species, one of the oldest and most respected for it’s flavor and aroma. Coffee was welcomed by Yemeni authorities because it was seen as a better alternative to Qhat. Qhat is a slow-growing shrub, who’s leaves were actively consumed by residents of East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula as a narcotic. The leaves contain the alkaloid Cathinone which, when chewed, produce an amphetamine-like response lasting for around an hour followed by a nauseating “come-down” . Qhat was widely considered to cause lethargy, aggression, various stomach problems, tooth decay, as well as sexual impotence. Coffee however was associated with religious devotion as it was important to the Sufis (aka the whirling dervishes) for them to stay awake during their long nighttime ceremonies where they hoped that by spinning rapidly for hours they could enter a trance-like state and make contact with the divine. The sufis, after gathering in Yemen for their devotions, would return to their homes and they would bring the knowledge of coffee back with them, thus spreading coffee farther to the Middle East, Persia and Turkey.


It was in Turkey that coffee was raised from just  a mere stimulant to a passion. As the Arab Empire was expanding in the Middle East, Turkey became the epicenter for the coffeehouse and coffee culture. According to the historian Ibrahim Peçevi Efendi, the first coffeehouse in the world was built in the Tahtalkala district of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) in the Ottoman Empire (Modern-day Turkey) around 1554 AD. The importance of the coffeehouse to the history of the world can not be exxagerated. The coffeehouse represented something that had never been seen anywhere before; it was a place where men (women were strictly prohibited due to segregation of the sexes), nobles and commoners alike, could gather and play games, hear the latest gossip, and most importantly they could have educated discussions. This fact would later give coffeehouses a reputation as a den of dissidence and revolution. Coffee in Turkey was never to be questioned until Sultan Murat III who, after hearing about people in coffeehouses drawing lewd and humorous pictures of him, placed a ban on coffee. Murat’s justification for the ban was that Turkey is a muslim state, and alcohol  as well as all stimulants (i.e. coffee) are strictly forbidden according to the Qur’an. The punishment for using stimulants is immediate execution. Murat III’s ban would be in effect until 1595 when he died and the following sultan reversed it, and coffee has thrived in Turkey ever since. The Turks prepare coffee over an open flame in a long-handled pot called an Ibrik. The coffee is finely ground and put in the Ibrik along with water and a healthy dose of sugar and heated repeatedly before being poured, grounds and all, into cups. The result, aptly named Turkish Coffee, is thick, strong, sweet and complex. Turkish Coffee was popular in its homeland as a dessert drink.  It was not until 1573 (when the German Physician and botanist Leonhard Rauwolf made note of a “noxious” drink which he called Chaub) that Europe would be introduced to this intoxictating beverage.


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