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In Turkey, coffee is more than a beverage. It has traditions going back centuries, to the earliest coffee houses in the world. The coffee houses of the Ottoman Empire were such notorious hotbeds of revolutionary thought that there were several attempts to close them down. Making coffee over a charcoal fire in an ibrik became an art as highly regarded in coffee circles as the art of today’s barista. There developed rituals and traditions for making coffee, along with customs and folklore developed around pouring and serving coffee.
Just as it is in many cultures, coffee has long been a symbol of hospitality in the Turkish culture. It was at one time considered to be so vital to life that a wife could divorce her husband if he could not provide her with coffee. Interestingly, coffee figures into one betrothal custom in traditional Turkish culture. When the two families meet to discuss a betrothal, the prospective bride is expected to serve coffee. This is the one time during the entire proceedings that the bride is consulted about her own wishes for the marriage, but she doesn’t use words to express her opinion. Instead, she delivers it via the coffee. If she is pleased about the marriage being discussed, she sweetens the coffee. The sweeter the coffee, the happier she is. If the coffee is served with no sugar at all, her answer is an unequivocal no. And there is the occasional bride to be who is so adamantly against the suggested marriage that she salts the coffee instead.
The rituals that have grown up around making coffee in an ibrik are designed as much to preserve the flavor of the coffee as they are to show respect for those being served. Because boiling coffee destroys its flavor and makes it bitter, the process of brewing coffee in an ibrik involves repeatedly bringing the coffee in the ibrik just to a boil, and then removing it from the heat to let it cool. The foam that forms as the coffee first reaches boiling temperature is considered the best of the coffee, and is poured off equally among all of those who will be drinking from the pot each time that the ibrik is removed from the heat. It takes skill and experience to time the brewing precisely and avoid the bitterness that accompanies boiled coffee.
True connoisseurs will tell you that it is impossible to grind coffee for Turkish coffee in an electric coffee grinder. Instead, they favor a coffee grinder that looks rather like a pepper mill. These Turkish coffee grinders range from simple wooden affairs to elaborately jeweled and decorated coffee mills that are treasured family heirlooms. The ibrik, the pot used for making Turkish coffee, is a brass pot with a wide bottom and a narrow neck. It has a long handle, and a lipped rim used for pouring off the coffee.
Making Turkish Coffee with an Ibrik
Fill the ibrik with clear, cold water. Use one cup of water for each cup of coffee plus an extra half cup to allow for loss of water to condensation. Traditionally, this is ‘half a cup of water for the pot’.
Add one heaping teaspoon of very finely ground Turkish coffee to the cold water and stir well. Coffee ground for an ibrik should be powder, even finer than espresso.
Add sugar to taste before heating the water.
Hold the filled ibrik over low heat and bring to first boil. This can take as much as fifteen or twenty minutes. The idea is to keep the coffee just below boiling for as long as possible. Watch carefully so that the coffee doesn’t boil over when it does boil.
At the first boil, pour off the foam on top evenly into each cup. This foam holds a good deal of the coffee flavor, so it’s important that everyone get some. Return the ibrik to the fire and bring it back to a boil.
Pour out the remaining coffee evenly among all the cups.
Turkish coffee made with this method uses no filter, so there will be grounds in the cup. Let the coffee settle and cool slightly before drinking. It’s customary to accompany Turkish coffee with a sweet dessert or sherbet to cleanse the palate.