Despite my love of Africa and the Middle-Eastern culture, I had never dreamt about travelling to such an exclusive-sounding place like the United Arab Emirates, always setting my sights not further than Egypt or Turkey – but then, out of the blue, an opportunity arose for me to experience the Arabian high-life in the capital of one of the richest countries in the world. I did not hold any preconceptions about Abu Dhabi, so every part of the Emirati life I found captivating – even despite questionable (from a Westerner’s perspective) women’s rights which meant I had to be careful what I wore and what taxi I got into. However, having studied my travel itinerary, I had my sights set on pearls, yachts and Formula 1 – and never thought about coffee, until I reached my destination and was greeted by it upon arrival to the hotel.
In the Middle East coffee has a greater meaning than to serve as a stimulant for work or an accompaniment for a desert; it is an integral part of the Arabic culture, and a means of showing hospitality and courtesy. There are two brewing methods that are common in these parts; and although my visit to the UAE only lasted four days, I was lucky enough to experience both.
Saudi coffee, or Al-Qahwa, is characterised by the use of either very light or dark roasted beans and the addition of cardamom in the brew. As experienced at the Abu Dhabi Ritz Carlton and later on a pearl-diving boat during a trip with the local culture-guru Ali al-Saloom, it is served from a special coffee pot called dallah into small handle-free cups called fenjan.
As it was in my case, it is often used to greet guests, and served only in small portions at the time to allow the drink to cool down and be drunk quickly. The host will then refill the guest’s cup unless they see them shake the fenjan upside-down, indicating they are finished with it. It is often served with dates, from the selection of more than 400 varieties grown and sold in the region.
In both cases the coffee tasted more like a tea in its lightness, and the spice notes were very subtle, if at all noticeable. It went nicely with the sweet date if you were after an aperitif – but on its own it was a refreshing, palet-clensing little drink. I can see how it is served universally to guests – you can’t really go wrong with this delicate offering which I doubt would upset anyone’s sleeping patterns even if consumed late in the evening. It certainly tasted of Arabic culture, even if it wasn’t exactly “my cup of coffee”.
The clue is in the name: this method of preparation is actually a trademark of Turkey, protected as its Intangible Culture Heritage by UNESCO. However, it was neither a UAE household or a Turkish venue that I was served it at – I actually ordered it at a Lebanese restaurant.
Whenever you buy beans at your local coffee shop and ask for them to be ground, you might need to also advise the barista on the type of grind you are after: from coarse, used for cafetieres, to – yes – Turkish. It is a very fine grind, usually of dark roasted coffee, which is then boiled in a pot called cezve, often with sugar, and then poured also in a small cup. Because there is no filtration at any stage of this process, the coffee needs to be set to settle for a short while, for the coffee grounds to sink to the bottom of the cup. With the cezve presented with the cup of coffee, the drink is also to be refilled – because you don’t really want to get through the whole contents of your cup, unless you like to chew on grainy coffee grounds (not the nicest experience, I vouch for that).
Since it was also my first time to try Turkish coffee, I sought recommendation from the waiter on how to enjoy it best – and he definitely disregarded the addition of milk if I wanted to preserve the true characteristics of the cup. He did ask me whether I would like my coffee prepared or served with sugar or other sweeteners, but I decided to have it straight. I have to say, this was the opposite spectrum to the Saudi brew. Being used to dark roasts, I did not find it overwhelmingly strong, but it certainly had a good kick to it – every time I refilled my cup. The portion for one lasted for 3-4 refills and I guess the main reason I quite enjoyed it – despite the lack of milk or chocolate – is that it balanced up perfectly a rather sweet panna-cotta-like desert. For this one it would be a thing of preference, however – a brew for strong coffee lovers who don’t mind a bit of grind between the teeth.
My verdict on the Arabian coffees overall? It’s a tough cookie and I would prefer to approach the topic from a cultural perspective. The two types of brew, and more importantly, their presentation and serving, certainly say a lot about the importance of the drink in the interpersonal relations in the region. I find it particularly mesmerising that so much thought and – more often than not – splendour goes into making this already special brew even more distinct and celebrated. For that reason, I would not mind partaking in the Arabic life more often… although probably running the risk of straining my hosts’ hospitality by asking for numerous refills.