Coffee is so much more than a wake-up beverage

From sharing a cup with a friend to sizing up a prospective spouse, coffee for Turkish people has a broader role to play than just the “wake up” beverage it is widely known as in the West. The thick, dark, sweet elixir comes with more than just a layer of fine coffee grounds in the base of your cup.

“For Turkish people, coffee is more than just something to drink,” says Saziye Kaya, 39, from Victoria. “In a culture that embraces family, friends, guests and visitors, it’s about sharing, giving and enjoying one’s company.”

Coffee and connections

Although thought to originate in Ethiopia, and now drunk all over the Middle East, North Africa, Caucasus and the Balkans, the traditional Ottoman brew is known as Turkish coffee because of the zeal and dedication with which it is prepared and served in that part of the world. Its role in Turkish life, and the lives of Turkish people all over the world, is as a beverage as well as a social and cultural connector and facilitator.

“Turkish people don’t use coffee as a wake-up drink, but we do love it later on in the day,” says Sevtap Yuce, 45, owner of the Beachwood Café in Yamba, NSW, and author of Turkish Flavours, a meze cookbook published in November 2013. In fact, qahwah, the Arabic word from which our word for coffee is derived, literally means “after breakfast”.

For others, like 43-year-old Billur Karabenli from Istanbul, it is something they cannot live without. “I am a Turkish coffee addict; if I don’t drink coffee, I usually have a headache,” she says.

Despite feeling addicted to her favourite drink, Karabenli says it’s really the social aspect that drives up her daily tally: “I normally drink two [cups] when I am alone, but as I am not alone most of the time, it goes up to five in a day.” As she explains, “In the morning, my neighbour calls me after breakfast or we have breakfast with coffee about four times a week, but we also have coffee and read a cup every morning to begin our day.”

By “reading a cup”, Karabenli is referring to the tradition of reading each other’s fortune in the coffee grounds at the bottom of their cups. “It feeds our imagination and chat every day,” she says of the ritual that proves irresistible to many Turkish coffee drinkers.

“After you finish your coffee, the remains are called telve. We take the cup and put the upside-down saucer on it as a lid. We say neyse halim çiksin falim, which means “my situation will appear in my cup”, and turn it counter clockwise, before turning the cup upside-down and revealing the telve in the saucer again, while waiting till it is cold. We open the cup and start to read the other person’s fortune,” Karabenli smiles.

“Mostly, it is for fun and we are saying mostly nice things, like a [kind of] therapy for the day,” she reveals. “Can you believe someone can look at your cup and tell you your whole future? That is quite something,” offers Yuce, concluding, “We all believe that coffee is a very healthy and social thing.”

“Turkish coffee is perceived as healthy,” agrees Kaya. “It is believed to help with digestion when taken black, hence the tradition of coffee after a meal.” She isn’t the only one with a belief in the healing powers of her preferred cuppa. According to Karabenli, “If we have diarrhoea, we take one spoon of dry Turkish coffee and eat it.” But, regardless of its claimed health benefits, she is quick to counter with a smile, “Like other coffees, it is not very healthy for the body but healthy for our soul.”

A question of taste

Unlike the Western brew, which is guzzled on the go or drunk as an afternoon pick-me-up, Turkish coffee has a special role to play in upcoming nuptials. “In the old days, the girl made the coffee for the man and his mama and papa when they came to ask for her hand,” explains country café owner, Yuce.

On a planned trip to assess the suitability of his chosen one, the groom would arrive with his parents to sample his future spouse’s coffee-making skills. On the surface it’s the bride that is being tested — she has to remember how each person takes their coffee and is being graded on her ability to create a lot of “froth”, or “cream”, as it is known (“the more cream the more talented the girl,” confirms Karabenli). However, by adding excess sugar — or even salt — to the groom’s coffee, the bride is assessing his potential as a kind and patient husband, says Yuce. “If she likes the boy she may add extra sugar or loads of salt and watch his face.”

One sugar or two?

As with any prized culinary tradition, it goes without saying that making Turkish coffee is an artform involving the particular tastes of whomever you are making it for.

“You always ask how they like it,” explains Karabenli and it seems that the amount of sugar is the key differentiator. “A little sugar is half a cube, medium is one cube, and sugary is with either one-and-a-half or two cubes per cup.” After that, it’s the timing, quality of the coffee and utensils that determine the perfect flavour. Getting it just right requires tremendous skill and knowledge.

On making the perfect Turkish brew, Kaya says the secret is using good-quality coffee and either cold or iced water. “You need a special Turkish coffee pot (cezve) and a small cup and saucer (fincan). Measure one cup of water together with one tablespoon of coffee and one teaspoon of sugar. Let it boil slowly as you stir, putting some of the froth into the cup and pouring the rest of the brew into the cup to serve, once gently simmered again on a slow heat. Accompany with Turkish delight.”

Although the traditional preparation is done over hot coals, a method that continues to this day throughout most of Istanbul, the preparation of Turkish coffee has kept up with evolving technology. “Now, in our houses we have electrical Turkish coffee machines, much like a plastic kettle. About four years ago, our one of biggest suppliers of electrical appliances — a brand called Arçelik — made a machine called telve. Many people now use this because it is easy; you don’t have to wait for a slow fire to make your coffee. I have one in my house, too,” smiles Karabenli.

Whether drunk for pleasure, alone or with friends, as a digestive tonic or to predict the future, Turkish coffee continues to inspire with its rich history and its unique flavour and preparation. From the enjoyment of the thick foam at the start, to the remaining sludgy sediment at the bottom, this is every bit the taste of Turkish history and culture in a cup. More than just a drink, Turkish coffee connects the present to the past, and people to each other.

Health benefits of the bean

Turkish coffee may appeal for its traditions and the way it can bring people together, but it’s still coffee. So just what impact does coffee, that almost universally popular caffeinated brew, have on us?

“Whether coffee is good for us or not depends on the amount you drink,” says naturopath, herbalist and nutritionist Michelle Avedissian, head of naturopathy at Nature Care College (NCC) in Sydney, Australia. “People who regularly drink many cups of coffee may suffer from health issues. In my practice, if someone can’t do without their coffee, I recommend they have a cup daily, but make sure it’s a small cup — not these large takeaway containers — of organic coffee made with organic milk and no sweeteners.”

She also recommends alternatives such as herbal teas, or dandelion root tea, which is often mixed with chicory root, making a tasty drink.

It seems even all-knowing naturopaths have a passion for this favourite morning brew. “The idea of not being able to have the aroma of fresh coffee permeate my home each morning, or the loss of my coffee-making ritual and the warmth of those first slightly-too-hot sips as I inspect my vegie Garden in the early morning air, is incomprehensible and too much to bear,” confesses Sheila Murray, naturopath and national head of clinics at Endeavour College of Natural Health.

“Some mornings I wake up good, sometimes not so good, but every morning I wake up to good coffee,” says Murray. “My one coffee a day is here to stay.”

Is coffee good for us?

Like many of us, Murray has an emotional connection with coffee, but does she think it’s good for us? “Put in scientific terms, modern-day coffee is the most widely consumed psychoactive drug worldwide,” she says. “Coffee is one of the richest sources of antioxidants and has the potential to confer both beneficial and adverse health effects.

“Ongoing research shows that coffee drinkers may be less likely to develop type 2 diabetes, stroke, depression and neurodegenerative diseases including Parkinsons and Alzheimer’s. Some claim coffee has a neutral effect on the cardiovascular system, but I have experienced too many ‘coffee overload’ heart palpitations in my all-night study days to agree with that one.”

We shouldn’t underestimate the softer benefits of coffee drinking, though, adds NCC’s Avedissian. She suggests there may be health benefits experienced as a result of the social aspect of drinking coffee, such as the joy of getting together with friends and the pleasure derived from the exquisite aroma.

She also warns, though, that coffee can give us a false sense of vitality. “It makes you feel awake and alert when your body may really be exhausted and you should be resting.” Often, when people are stressed and exhausted, they will reach for coffee to keep them going, which “is not healthy for the adrenals — the glands that respond in stress — and the nervous system, as the body is really wanting calming and rest”.

Avedissian lists other negative aspects, which include:

  • Coffee is a heavily sprayed crop. Pesticides in our diet can lead to many health issues, including hormonal problems. If you are drinking coffee, drink only organic coffee.
  • Coffee is acidic in the body and may cause calcium to be pulled from the bones to alkalinise the blood. Research has shown drinking more than 3–4 cups a day leads to a greater risk of osteoporosis in women and may increase the risk of fractures, especially in women.
  • Coffee can decrease absorption of minerals, including zinc and iron.
  • Coffee contains chemicals that are metabolised via the liver. Excessive coffee drinking adds to the liver’s load, explains Avedissian, which is why coffee is usually removed from the diet if you are following a detox. “Caffeine is metabolised in the liver into paraxanthine, theobromine and theophylline. Though the amounts of these chemicals may be small, they may cause damage in some people.”
  • Coffee can trigger migraines in susceptible individuals.
  • Coffee can be a diuretic, leading to dehydration if the fluids aren’t replaced. Hydration of the body is essential for health.
  • Coffee causes stains to the teeth, which we may go on to remove with nasty bleaches and chemicals.

When considering the pros and cons of coffee on our health, Murray emphasises that we also need to factor in the impact the most widely consumed beverage in the world has on the planet. “Coffee beans are one of the most heavily sprayed agricultural crops in the world. Many are from countries that do not have the same rigorous restrictions on chemical sprays Australia does. Fairtrade organic coffees offer one of the best sources of an unadulterated product. Fairtrade shade-grown coffee supports the environment, protects the rainforest canopy and maintains biodiversity of plant and animal species, reduces use of chemicals and supports the indigenous people who grow it.

“Everything in moderation can be good,” she concludes, “just like a good cup of coffee each day. Good-quality coffee — good for the body; good farming practices — good for the planet and the soul.”

Which coffee’s best?

Sheila Murray, naturopath and national head of clinics at Endeavour College of Natural Health, offers some pros and cons of different types of coffee preparation.

Product Preparation Caffeine per average cup Additives Pros Cons
Turkish Slowly heated. Finely ground beans + sugar + cold water 60mg per 60mL serve Sugar Pure coffee No filtration process
Instant Coffee + hot water 76–106mg Chemicals used in drying process Easy to use Chemicals used in process. No aroma in the house
Espresso Brewed under pressure. Coffee + steam + water 77mg per shot None, if organic sugar is selected Full flavour, no flavourings or milk fat Short, sharp hit of caffeine
Cappuccino Brewed coffee + hot milk + foam 144mg (usually two shots) Sugar,flavour shots (if flavoured) Slows the uptake of caffeine in the bloodstream Fat content of milk + enhancements
Latte Brewed coffee + hot milk 144mg (usually two shots) Sugar,flavour shots (if flavoured) Slows the uptake of caffeine in the bloodstream Fat content of milk + enhancements


Make Turkish coffee like a pro

  • Buy it fresh — you can tell buy the richness and depth of its smell.
  • Be strict with your measurements.
  • Use either cold or iced water to start with.
  • Cook it very slowly, maintaining a gentle boil, and keep stirring.
  • Drink water beforehand to cleanse your palate and maximise the fresh coffee flavour.

Stephanie Holland is a writer and blogger with a passion for holistic health and Beauty. She loves to share her discoveries with others. W:

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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