Turkish coffee, a 500-year-old tradition

Tucked in a narrow alley in the middle of Taksim Square in Istanbul, Turkey, is a tiny cafe that proudly proclaims to serve coffee "so thick even a water buffalo cannot sink in it". That term can be simplified in one Turkish word Mandabatmaz, which incidentally, is the name of the cafe.

The cafe's name may be given in jest, but its message is no joke. Turkish coffee (Turk Kahvesi) is incredibly thick and dense, and it has a consistency similar to hot chocolate.

It is not unusual to hear the locals describe the beverage as "black as hell, as strong as death, and as sweet as love" and you'd be surprised to know that for a tea drinking country, Turkey, and its people, is fiercely passionate about coffee.

"To us, tea is just a beverage... but coffee? It's a culture," says attache at the Turkey Embassy Tourism and Information Office in Kuala Lumpur, Kaan Yilmaz.

And if you're in Turkey, don't say no to an invitation to have coffee as it is considered rude to turn down the offer. That's how serious they are about their coffee culture.

Turkish coffee is recognised by Unesco as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, and this year, Turkey proudly celebrates the 500th year coffee made its way to Istanbul - all the way from the tip of the Arabian Peninsula.

In 1555, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent learned of the beverage from the Ottoman governor of Yemen, and unofficially made it the official drink of the government. It became an integral part in ceremonies in the Ottoman court as well as among commoners.

"This was the birth of Turkish coffee. Coffee became the shining star of the court's social life, and the sultan appointed his own kahvecibasi to prepare the imperial cup of Turkish coffee," adds Yilmaz.

It is reported that the kahvecibasi (coffee maker) had over 40 assistants to prepare and serve coffee for the sultan and his court. The equipment used to make the coffee was on display at the A Drop of Pleasure: 500 years of Turkish Coffee exhibition organised by the Turkish Coffee Culture and Research Association at the Topkapi Palace.

The exhibition, which ended earlier this month, included pieces such as cups and grinders from the palace's collection and from private collectors.

"In the olden days, coffee was the centre of political and social interactions. Women socialised over coffee and sweets at home while men socialised in coffee houses to discuss politics and to play backgammon.

"Coffee houses also played host to 'shadow theatres' where puppets were used to convey satirical, political and social criticism. Turkish coffee houses became social institutions to meet and talk," explains Yilmaz. Scroll down for a video on Turkish coffee

There is a saying in Turkish which goes "One neither desires coffee nor a coffeehouse. One desires to talk with others, coffee is but an excuse", so naturally, coffee shops sprouted within the city to meet demands. And half a century later, folks still congregate at coffee houses for their caffeine and gossip fix.

"There are many traditional and modern-style coffee shops all around the country which serve Turkish coffee and other coffees. In big cities like Istanbul and Ankara, you can find coffee shops in every corner. Even international coffee franchises like Starbucks and Gloria Jeans serve Turkish coffee in their outlets here - although they do not make it the traditional way," says Yilmaz.

Coffee is, however, still an inherent part of tradition in Turkey. Even today, marriage customs include the old-fashioned custom of brides-to-be making and serving coffee to their prospective husbands. The groom-to-be judges a woman's merits based on the coffee she makes.

"There's one traditional practice for this ceremony. The female candidate puts salt, instead of sugar, into the coffee for her future fiance and expects him to drink it without complaining. If he doesn't complain, then she assumes that he loves her as he drank the salty coffee without a fuss," explains Yilmaz about the age-old tradition.

"This is just in jest, and is not taken as seriously as it was before. We still do it just for fun."

There is another coffee-related custom that the Turks still follow today - fal or fortune telling.

Yilmaz explains that once the coffee is finished and the cup has cooled down, it's turned upside down onto its saucer. The drinker rotates the cup clockwise three times, and lets it cool down a little longer. When the cup is slowly lifted, the fortune teller will read the coffee drinker's future from the patterns the grains leave on the inside of the cup and saucer.

"Although most people do it for fun, some take it very seriously, especially those seeking good fortune or a potential mate."

Although children are not encouraged to drink coffee, it naturally becomes their preferred beverage when they hit their teens.

Breakfast only ends when coffee is had, although coffee is also consumed at any time of the day. No meal in Turkey is complete without a serving of the thick and frothy beverage, and Yilmaz adds that Turks enjoy each other's company too much to say no to an invitation for coffee.

"Coffee will always be part of the Turks' life," says Yilmaz. "It has been for the last 500 years, and it will be for another 500 years and more."

Making coffee the Turkish way

It takes a little time, patience and lots of love to make Turkish coffee.

The most important part of Turkish coffee is its preparation. But Turkey doesn't grow its own coffee beans and relies on imports from Arabia, in particular, Yemen.

Traditionally, the Arabica coffee beans are ground using mortar and pestle which produces fine coffee powder, but one can also use burr grinders.

Sometimes, folks also grind cardamom and star anise with the coffee beans to add flavour and aroma to the coffee.

Storebought Turkish coffee powders can also be used for convenience, although nothing beats homemade coffee.

"Turkish coffee is best made from freshly roasted beans, ground just before brewing," says Kaan Yilmaz, attache at the Turkey Embassy Tourism and Information Office in Kuala Lumpur.

Each cup is prepared individually in a cezve (small hand-held kettle) and served in elegant demitasse and saucers - which hold about 30ml coffee.

To make the coffee, coffee powder, sugar and cold water are added into the cezve.

"The sweetness of the coffee is determined even before it reaches your table, so it's best to inform the coffee maker just how much sugar you want in your drink," advises Yilmaz.

There are three levels of sweetness to Turkish coffee - sade (no sugar), orta sekerli (medium sweet), and cok sekerli (very sweet).

"Normally, Turkish coffee is enjoyed without sugar, but many people find it too bitter. Therefore, sade is generally served with a sugar cube or Turkish delight.

"You can eat the delight or sugar cube first before drinking the coffee. Some coffee shops also serve mint chocolate with sade," explains Yilmaz.

Coffee and sugar are then stirred until the coffee sinks to the bottom of the kettle and the sugar dissolves.

The pot is removed from the heat just as the coffee comes to the boil. It is usually kept off the heat for a few minutes, and then brought to boil a second and a third time.

If the heat is too high, the coffee comes to the boil too quickly and that would give off an unpleasant burnt aftertaste.

The coffee is not stirred after the second boil, as it would dissolve the foam produced by the coffee powder.

"Well-prepared Turkish coffee has a thick froth on the top. It should be filled right to the brim. No spillage is allowed, especially when you carry the cups," says Yilmaz.

There is an unwritten rule in the Turkish coffee ceremony which dictates that if foam is absent from the surface of the coffee, it is not a good cup of coffee.

"Getting the thickest possible layer of foam is a great achievement and the host takes pride in that cup of coffee," says Yilmaz.

"When done right, Turkish coffee is black, intense, and possibly the best cup of coffee you will have in your lifetime."