Qahwa (also known as kahwa or Arabic coffee) is a traditional method of preparing coffee in the Middle East – with each country generally having its own unique recipe.
As a brewing method, qahwa has long since been an integral aspect of Arab culture, and it is symbolic of a number of cultural and religious principles that are commonplace in Middle Eastern countries.
I spoke with two local coffee professionals to explore the cultural background of qahwa, as well as how it should be used. Read on to find out what they told me.
You might also like our article on the origins of coffee in Africa.
A brief history of qahwa
Turki Alsagoor is the owner of Flat Wardo, a specialty coffee shop in Saudi Arabia. He explains that “qahwa” is the Arabic word for coffee.
“Usually when you order qahwa, you are asking for an Arabic coffee,” he says.
Qahwa is prepared and served similarly to Turkish coffee, but there are a number of differences between the two brewing methods.
Traditionally, qahwa is brewed in a dallah, which is a traditional Arabic coffee pot. The coffee is boiled for around 20 minutes, before it is poured into fenjals: small cups with no handles.
When pouring qahwa, a dallah is held high above a fenjal. Traditionally, the server should be standing while the guests are seated – usually on the floor.
“The host who prepares the ceremonial qahwa traditionally conducts the process very carefully,” Turki says. “This is because [it helps to make the guests feel more welcome].”
He also tells me that the process of pouring qahwa is particularly significant in Middle Eastern culture. The sound of the coffee being poured into a fenjal is an indication for the guests to relax.
In 2015, UNESCO added qahwa to its Intangible Cultural World Heritage list. But why is this brewing method so culturally significant in Arab countries?
Khalid Al Mulla is the National Coordinator of the Specialty Coffee Association United Arab Emirates (UAE) Chapter, which is based in Dubai. He is also the curator of a coffee museum in the Al Fahidi historical district of Bur Dubai.
He explains that the qahwa ceremony is a sign of hospitality for people from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds in the Middle East.
“Even though [the person may not have anything of great value to offer their guests], they can still serve coffee,” he says. “It’s a sign that the guest is welcome in their house.”
During Islamic religious holidays, including Eid and Ramadan (except during daylight fasting hours for the latter), preparing and serving coffee can be a significant social aspect of celebrations. Arabic coffee is also served on special occasions, such as at weddings or to celebrate a birth.
Khalid adds that it is common to see qahwa being served by street vendors and other public places in Arab countries. “It is now being served in a variety of venues, from government offices, to five-star hotels, to airports,” he says.
However, Turki tells me that it is rare to find qahwa in coffee shops in the Middle East, even though most people prepare it at home.
He says that there are places called “mohaila” which serve Arabic coffee and tea, mainly as a “replication of at-home hospitality”.
The significance of the dallah
Since the 1970s, the dallah has been printed on Arabic currency, notably on the United Arab Emirates dirham coin.
Typically, a dallah is a rounded coffee pot which tapers in the middle. The handle is thin so that it can be comfortably picked up, and often the pot has a lid to keep the coffee hotter for longer.
The dallah is usually made from brass or stainless steel, but more expensive pots can either be gold-plated or even made from gold.
The design of the dallah can vary, but is largely dependent on where it was manufactured. Countries such as Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Qatar, Yemen, and Ethiopia all have their own unique designs of the traditional dallah coffee pot.
Khalid tells me that over the years, he has collected more than 150 dallah from different countries, all of which are displayed at his museum. He adds that the design of a dallah is comparable to a coat of arms – seals and flags that were commonly used in Europe and North America to identify heritage and ancestry.
In earlier times, dallah were generally designed to be bigger, and two or three pots would be brewed at one time. One dallah was used to brew concentrated coffee, while another would include a filter made from date palm leaves. This would be placed around the spout of the dallah to filter out any coffee grounds.
Regional variations of qahwa preparation
It’s believed that coffee has been consumed for centuries in the Middle East. Since coffee was first introduced to the region, tribes such as the nomadic Bedouin people (Bedwai in Arabic) have chewed roasted beans as a form of consumption. Some Bedouin tribes still consume coffee in this way today.
Historians have largely concluded that coffee consumption in Arab countries began in the 7th century, but only on a small scale. It was not until the 1500s that coffee consumption became much more widespread in the Middle East.
There are a number of regional differences from country to country that must be noted when discussing qahwa. Adding spices or flavourings is common – including cardamom, rosewater, ginger, cloves, and saffron. However, as saffron can be expensive, it is usually only added on special occasions.
Khalid explains that the addition of these spices and flavourings is generally down to individual preference and familial traditions.
Roast profile also plays an important role in qahwa, and can vary depending on the country.
In the UAE, the roast profile used for qahwa is known as “cinnamon roast” or “Saudi-style”. The beans are generally roasted until first crack takes place.
“In southeastern Arab countries, however, roast profiles are generally lighter and are roasted to just before first crack,” says Khalid. “Because of the lighter roast profile, it doesn’t taste like traditional Arabic coffee.”
Turki tells me about “mazboot”, which is a way of preparing qahwa from memory with no precise measurements – such as dose or yield.
“You cannot say what is right or wrong [when preparing qahwa],” Khalid says. “It always goes back to personal taste.”
How to prepare qahwa
Turki tells me about his qahwa brewing recipe.
Firstly, he suggests using a lighter roast profile, but also notes that it’s important to focus on having a good body.
To begin, Turki measures out one fenjal of coarsely-ground coffee. However, he adds that the final brew weight is down to personal taste. He suggests using around three cups of water for every two to three tablespoons of coffee, but emphasises that it’s important to experiment with ratios.
He then adds boiling water to the dallah and brings the mixture to a simmer. Typically, this should be done for about 20 minutes, depending on the brew temperature.
Once boiled, Turki adds spices to the qahwa. He tells me that he always adds crushed cardamom, but because it has a very strong flavour, it’s best to add a tablespoon at a time. Traditionally, similar amounts of ground coffee and cardamom are added to Arabic coffee, but this may not be to most peoples’ taste preferences.
Turki also suggests a pinch of saffron, a teaspoon of cloves, and one or two tablespoons of rosewater.
The coffee mixture is then transferred to another dallah, which is specifically used for pouring into a fenjal. He lets the coffee rest for about five minutes before serving.
Qahwa is traditionally served with dates, figs, or other dried fruits, which can help to sweeten the coffee if it’s too bitter. Honey can also be added, too.
For people who don’t own a dallah, Arabic coffee can also be prepared in a pot on the stove. The coffee should then be filtered before pouring into a teapot or other server.
In Arab countries, qahwa represents much more than a brewing method. Its traditional significance has made it a staple of Middle Eastern culture.
But despite its deep roots, there is room for innovation and experimentation with this brewing method. Ultimately, this creates the potential for qahwa to theoretically become more popular around the world, and potentially play a role in wider coffee culture.
Enjoyed this? Then try our article exploring coffee culture in Iran.
Photo credits: Isabelle Mani SanMax
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