A CURL OF SMOKE from a hookah makes an arabesque in the air as you enter the coffeehouse. You stumble through the door, remove your travel-caked shoes and slump to the cushion on the ground, weary-eyed and weary-boned from your journey. You are in the center of the known world now, in the heart of the Ottoman Empire, in a year that those who count have said is the 1600th-and-something since … who knows. You’re tired.
And thirsty. Both of which can be solved in the same way. Because in short order, the waiter brings you a tiny ceramic cup containing a dark, hot, aromatic liquid that, the moment you sip it, will hook you for the rest of your life.
That drink is Turkish Coffee. The beans, you’re told, come from Africa originally, although they are grown other places now. As a drink, it first became popular in a place called Yemen. But it is in Turkey, crossroads of the trading universe, that the world’s finest spices were added to the mix to create the heady, perfumed, sweet-bitter elixir you are now sipping.
You smell it before it hits your tongue: a sinuous dervish of scent twisting from the cup like a genie unleashed. It is earthy and meaty and fruity all at once. The taste is first harsh, like a slap, but immediately followed by a perfumed explosion of spices.
Because you are smack dab in the middle of the Silk Road, at the crossroads of the world, all the spices that the traders and florid markets can offer are fair game. Cardamom is the most forward and the most quintessential, but you might also sip a cup flavored with such exotic substances as cinnamon, nutmeg, mastic (an aromatic resin from a tree, also used as glue), salep (a sweet powder made from the tubes of orchids) or even ambergris (a greasy, pungent residue produced in the guts of sperm whales to trap the hard chitin beaks of the giant squid on which they feed).
To prepare Turkish Coffee, you must first grind the coffee absolutely to powder. Here, that is achieved with a stone mill (one day, perhaps, there will be machines, and when there are, the finest setting on this coffee grinder — the one that turns the coffee to powder — will be the Turkish Coffee setting). Any coffee will do, but use a dark roast, something rich and chocolaty and robust. Also, grind your spices (whichever you are using; up to you) in said stone mill or spice grinder or, if you are strapped for time, buy the spices preground.
You then boil the water in a pot (traditionally a little coffee pot called a cezve or ibrik, but any small saucepan will do). Four ounces of water per serving will suffice. Once the water boils, remove it from the heat, and add six grams of ground coffee, your spices (a pinch per cup of whatever blend you’ve concocted) and sugar to taste.
Stir, breaking up any chunks of sugar or coffee. Then tell a story to your friends, something shortish, an anecdote perhaps, about two minutes long, while you do not touch the coffee, allowing it to steep. Then put it back on the heat, and bring it almost to a boil, stopping when it foams. Remove from the heat. Allow the foam to settle for a moment. Place back on the heat. Bring to a foam. Turn it off again. Some do this twice, some thrice. Your mileage might vary, taste-wise, depending on your coffee, but some claim that doing this too many times makes the coffee bitter.
When you have finished, allow the coffee to settle for a moment, but not too long. The grinds should sink to the bottom, but there should still be foam in each cup when you serve. Then you drink it black. Turkish Coffee is meant to be sipped, and you’ll feel the grit of the suspended grounds between your teeth, washing over your tongue. While other brewing methods might give you only the soul of the bean, the vaporous essence, Turkish Coffee insists you take in its body as well.
When the drink is gone, that which remains has one more gift for you. Every cafe has its fortune teller — for a few coins, have him come to your table, peer into the bottom of the cup, and read your future in the little squiggles and rivulets of what’s left. Armed with this new information, and a mysterious, almost-divine burst of energy you’ve somehow acquired just by sitting down and having a drink, you continue on your journey, with a newly purchased bag of beans and spices — and a little copper cezve of your own — now tucked into your bag, for the road.