Friday, September 17, 2010

Coffee break

The magic of coffee for two
I make a mean cup of Arabic coffee, even if it sounds like I am blowing my own trumpet. I enjoy it so much that I dubbed my Blog “MichCafe.”
With so many friends who are coffee aficionados, my claim is not to the coffee bean – about which I know little – but to the ritual of making it and savoring it in good company. Unlike other coffees, I rarely have it alone. It needs to be shared and always tastes better when prepared diligently at home.
Arabic coffee preferences include sada (black), wasat (medium sugar), helweh (sweet), meghliyeh (well boiled), m3 ashweh (not very boiled and with a rather thick head of foam), with cardamom, without cardamom, and the gamut of bean and roast varieties.
I like mine wasat, with cardamom, ashweh, and a sprinkle of orange blossom water before serving. Even the coffee cups have their own varieties, starting in size with the finjan shaffeh (or small cup for a single shot)...
My dad, Esa
I learnt Arabic coffee making first hand from The Master -- my dad, Esa. He was the chief coffee maker at home from as far back as I can remember. My mum, Vicky, was left-handed and invariably used that as an excuse to shun preparing coffee and ironing.
While growing up in Tunis, our home there was more of a roadhouse. It was the gathering place for all our local friends, the foreign and Arab expat communities, as well as individual travelers missing their families -- like those working at the oilfields on the Libyan side of the border, members of the French Coopérants and US Peace Corps, Belgian teachers (one of whom became my brother-in-law), backpackers, lost souls…
We were rarely alone at the table or at teatime, (the latter being a Vicky specialty calls for a separate post!). And whenever a meal moved to desert or fruits, Dad would disappear into the kitchen to prepare el rakweh (the coffee pot), with me at his heels.
Dad used to grind the coffee beans in a small square manual coffee grinder, that I still have somewhere, but I don't remember what beans he used. I do remember that as he turned the little lever of the manual grinder, the aroma would permeate the kitchen. We had different size rakwehs, from one for the shaffeh to one that served 10 cups. Even the coffee-making spoon was special. It had a long handle to better stir the coffee.
Dad’s rule of thumb for a wasat cup of coffee was one heaped teaspoon of ground coffee (plus what we call zodit el bayya3, literally the vendor's extra), and half that amount of sugar. So for two cups:
    • Put two heaped teaspoons plus a little extra of coffee and half that amount of sugar in the relevant size rakweh
    • Add water to just before the rim
    • Bring to a boil on a high fire, stirring just once or twice until the coffee starts rising 
    • Remove from the fire and with the teaspoon, skim some of the foam and pour into the coffee cups (to get the ashwe) 
    • Bring to a boil three times (that's maybe the secret!) on the lowest fire level. Remove from the fire as soon as you see the coffee starting to rise and before it spills over (which it does with me nine times out of 10)
    • Let it rest for a few seconds, add a sprinkle of orange blossom water and serve
    Coffee for two has always been a very special ritual for me. You sit and wait for it to cool a bit and then sip it while chatting.
    If in a large group, you will probably find a lady who can “read” your future in your coffee cup. Everyone will then follow suit. I've never heard of a good fortune-teller, but again the fun is in the ritual and the person reading the cup turning it over and pointing to different patterns she sees in it and interprets. At the end of a coffee reading, you press the inside base of the cup with your thumb, as if to stamp your fate!
    Time for me to take a break and go make myself a good cup of Arabic coffee...