Monday, February 3, 2014

How to Make Arabic Coffee, or Boiled Coffee with Cardamom

Nothing takes me home like the sight of my father standing over the kitchen stove, making a pot of Arabic coffee.  He stands over the stove, heating water in a small metal pot, waiting for the right moment to spoon in the mounding spoonfuls of coffee.  Then he stirs the boiling coffee down, and lifts the pot, stirring again, then returns to the pot to the flame.  It's a little dance, to boil the coffee without overflowing the pot.  The rich smell of coffee fills the house, scented lightly with the sweet aroma of cardamom.  He pours the little cups, as small as a child's play teacup, and carries one to my mother. They sit and sip in the afternoon sun, reaching for a bowl of chocolates.This is the daily afternoon ritual in my family home, and it is a ritual repeated all over the Middle East.

Qahweh Arabiyya,  The Original Cup o' Joe

It is no wonder that coffee holds such a central place in our culture, as coffee originated in the Middle East, starting in Yemen and working its way to Egypt, then the Ottoman Empire, then through the rest of the Levant.  In fact, the English word coffee comes from the Arabic word for coffee, qahweh.  In our local dialect, we drop the first consonant and call this 'ahweh

The Arab nomadic Bedouin tribes, many of whom you can still find today (nestled in tents and makeshift shacks, driving old trucks and herding sheep) have preserved and still practice many of the old ways. As part of a ceremonial welcome for honored guests, Bedouin men and women roast the coffee beans on a tray over a fire, and then crush the coffee beans by rhythmically beating them with a mortar and pestle.  They brew their coffee much in the way my father does today, and pour it out for their honored guests. 

Because of this, perhaps, serving coffee has deep cultural meaning, which goes far beyond the pleasure of a good roast or even the company of good friends.  Preparing and serving coffee is a ceremonial act of extending hospitality and kindness, which both honors the guest and brings honor to the host.  Before I had really acquired the taste, my mother instructed me to always simply drink a little politely, whenever offered.  It is very rude to decline, she said.    

Today, coffee is still served at every important event, from births, to engagements, to weddings and funerals.  Coffee plays a role in traditional courtship, as it is customary for the girl to serve coffee to the family of her beloved, if she is willing to accept his proposal.  Every social call and every meal is concluded with coffee and a tray of sweets or fruit.

Usually, the more bitter the occasion, the more bitter the coffee.  At funerals, family and friends prepare the coffee the night before, and it is served very dark and very bitter. A swallow or two is all that is taken by guests.  It is customary to close the time of coffee drinking with the blessing daymi, which means, always, as in, may we always drink coffee like this.  At a funeral, though, these words are soberly omitted. 

And while today you can probably find a Starbucks-style coffee shop in almost every Middle Eastern city, the coffee houses of our world are far more austere, fitted with plastic chairs and tables, and lit with fluorescent lights.  You will hardly see a woman in there, but instead, clusters of men, often smoking tobacco water pipes or cigarettes, chatting on cell phones or with each other, sometimes playing a quick game of backgammon and talking politics.  In between the tables, little boys weave with trays of cups of coffee, occasionally running out of the shop to deliver a tray to a nearby shop keeper. 

The Makings of Arabic Coffee

Arabic coffee, or qahweh arabiyya, is defined by its method of preparation and its flavoring, rather than the type or roast of bean.  Arabic coffee is an unfiltered boiled coffee, served black, and if sugar is added, it is added only during preparation.  It is boiled in a small pot, called a briq, and then poured into small delicate cups without handles, called fenjaan.  Sometimes, the coffee is transferred to a larger and more beautiful pouring jug to serve in front of guests, called a dallah.  More often, though, the host prepares the coffee in the kitchen and brings out a tray of the small glasses of coffee.  Coffee is always served to oldest to youngest, with men first. 

Unlike its Turkish counterparts, traditional Arabic coffee, with its roots in Bedouin tradition,  is usually unsweetened (qahweh saada), but now many drink it lightly sweetened.  Still, this is never a syrupy sweet coffee, but rather robust and bitter.  To offset the bitter flavor, coffee is usually served with something sweet--the traditional accompaniment was dates - but now other sweets are often served alongside the tray of coffee cups.   

Arabic coffee is traditionally flavored with green cardamom, the expensive and exotic aromatic spice native to India, which passed through the Levant with rise of the Silk Road and the spice trade. The coffee beans and cardamom pods are roasted separately and then combined and ground together finely before being brewed.  My father, however, has a little secret for superior coffee.  Instead of purchasing coffee with ground cardamom pods, he requests that the cardamom is shelled first, so that only ground cardamom seeds are in his coffee.  I have to say, I much prefer this.  Since Arabic coffee is unfiltered, most of the time the coffee is flecked with floating pieces of cardamom shell.  My father's coffee, though, is thick and smooth and most delightfully shell-free.  To make this coffee at home, you would need to shell your cardamom seeds first, before grinding them finely and mixing it with any espresso-grade roasted coffee bean.

How to Make Arabic Coffee

For every (small) serving of coffee, you need:

1 HEAPED spoonful of finely ground coffee, with ground cardamom seeds
1/2 tsp sugar
1 1/2 little cups of water

Note:  we use the little cups as a measuring tool.  For example, if you want to make four servings of Arabic coffee, fill your little cup six times and pour it into your pot.

STEP ONE:  Fill pot with water and heat water on stove top. 

STEP TWO:  Once the warm is warm, but before it boils, add sugar and stir to dissolve.

STEP THREE: Add heaping spoonfuls of coffee.  And I mean HEAPING.  See how my father does it?  Add one heaped spoonful per serving of coffee.

STEP FOUR: Bring coffee to a rapid boil, and stir down the foam, lifting the pot from the heat source to control boiling.  Continue to boil and stir until (this seems like a miracle to me), the foam suddenly dissipates.  Then stop stirring and remove from heat. 

STEP FIVE:  Cover the pot, and let rest for two minutes so that the coffee grounds settle to the bottom of the bot.

STEP SIX:  Pour the coffee slowly, and do not fill one cup at a time, but rather move from cup to cup, filling each one just a little, so that you distribute the (tastiest) top layer of coffee into each cup.  

Now it is time to sit back and enjoy!  Sip slowly, and savor the flavor.  Remember to not drink the last couple of swallows, as they will be grainy with coffee sediment (tiffel).  

My parents, Gregg and Rhoda, enjoying their afternoon qahweh.

Daymi, always.  

May we always sit and drink coffee like this.  


  1. I love this, Jessica. This is how we do coffee in our house too. I buy ground cardamom in bulk and use it for all sorts of things including 'ahweh. I just made some today with cardamom (but I add milk) and it was amazing ... after a long day of shoveling! Your parents look so cute by the way! :)

  2. No idea how to make that... let alone make decent coffee using K-cups.

  3. Great post!

    What brand of coffee do your parents use to make the coffee with?

    1. Really, any coffee that you enjoy will do. We use a dark roast, finely ground.

  4. Hello. I really want to make this. Can you please tell me the ratio of cardamom to coffee? Thank you so much for all the delicious recipes. I especially love the history and culture you add in.

  5. hi bint e Rhoda,i am very thankful to you for posting such a beatiful love story recipie with pictures of your beloved parents.i got a gift from my brother a pack of ARABIC COFFEE,seelani with cardamom,i searched on google how to make arabic coffee,i found great recipie,i will try it like your father do,and i will also make a cup for my wife too as we are in the age if your parents now.thank you so much,i will give a post after i try with my wife...

  6. hi bint e Rhoda,i am very thankful to you for posting such a beatiful love story recipie with pictures of your beloved parents.i got a gift from my brother a pack of ARABIC COFFEE,seelani with cardamom,i searched on google how to make arabic coffee,i found great recipie,i will try it like your father do,and i will also make a cup for my wife too as we are in the age if your parents now.thank you so much,i will give a post after i try with my wife...

    1. Thanks for your note! Enjoy the coffee and thanks for stopping by! Let me know how it turns out!

  7. Thank you for this post! I work in a coffee shop, and a customer came in who said that he made coffee in a similar way, only he said that the cardamom and coffee grounds formed a sort of thin crust that was cracked with a spoon before pouring the coffee into separate cups. It sounds like a sort of variation on this method? Anyway, thank you very much for sharing this.

    1. You are welcome! I have never heard of this variation, but if you try it, let me know how it works!

  8. Thanks for this guide! I have been missing Arabic coffee ever since I got back from a work trip to Palestine earlier this year and this post was super helpful.

  9. I am very thankful to you for posting such a beautiful love story recipe. last i i try with my mom. We enjoyed that moment. But i am confidence to Best coffee maker . it is very good use things for your

  10. REaly beautiful post! May God bless you all

  11. Can you please tell me the ratio of cardamom to coffee?

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