Memoir

A Turk’s Coffee in Bohemia

An American abroad discovers the strange art of Turkish coffee.

A Turk’s Coffee in Bohemia

There’s a series of mystical happenstance that occurs when we go about finding what makes up our perfect cup of coffee. Whatever drove early adopters of the bean to toss it into flames and drink it tea-steep style must have involved, or indeed heralded, some intersection of personal and cultural introspection. One such coincidence occurred while visiting the Czech Republic during a bout of couch surfing. I was anticipating some kind of deep immersion into the less storied half of my heritage. This was understood by my father to be the result of some confusing migration throughout Bohemia, the haphazard accuracy of Ellis Island transcription and many tight lips in between.

On a lazy morning in the city of Brno, what sat before me wasn’t an oversized Pilsner but a small cup of Turkish coffee. A total novice to coffee drinking, I picked up the habit while traveling because it was often cheaper than ordering tea. I ordered it on a whim, assuming it was a novelty or kitsch, the way you still see hip cocktails from the 1980s on menus at tourist-driven cafes throughout Europe. I did what everyone does when they have this espresso impostor for the first time. I downed it in its entirety. My mouth was filled with this disgusting texture of muddy coffee grounds. I reached for the water immediately, not without first having a flashback to something curiously familiar.

The rush of sugar and bitter was just like a Cuban coffee, a Cordatito, the kind my mother’s father would have had in Little Havana after playing dominoes. But he, an Armenian Arab, didn’t drink this stuff, did he? Why hadn’t I heard mention of it, not even in passing, growing up in a household full of Middle Eastern cooking traditions? I was at a referential loss. Mostly because of the strange juxtaposition of memories and place, but also because the sugary foam topping off that cup was so delicious and now it was gone. I ordered another.

I didn’t return to the States without first picking up a tin of ‘authentic’ Turkish coffee, whatever that was. It simply looked like finely ground, very brown espresso. I hadn’t a clue how to prepare the stuff. Given an extended stay in Central Europe (especially in Germany) you’ll inevitably be exposed to a vast diaspora of ethnic Turks who have been carving out a unique cultural presence since the 1960s. Back in the States, it wasn’t so easy to find an expert on preparing Turkish coffee.

I asked around at several Middle Eastern bakeries, seeking someone who carried the same brand of coffee I brought back with me. Most Lebanese and Syrians will drink a similar variety of coffee, flavored with cardamom, but nothing I tried was as indulgently rich as the coffee I remembered. I found some luck with a family friend who runs a bakery and kitchen. She took to my interest with such enthusiasm that she gifted me an Ibrik, the crucial tool to recreate authentic Turkish coffee. It’s also called a Cezve, Ghallāye, Kanaka, or Zezwa, depending on who you ask. The Greeks will call it a Briki, but they will also call the drink itself Greek coffee. Don’t make the mistake of arguing where it originated first.

The process is all ceremony, as holy and zen-like as our contemporary pour-over coffee bars and craft espresso wizardry. Some grounds, half as much sugar, and enough water to fill your Ibrik halfway should do it but the heat is key. It’s heated to just about boiling, where it’s given a minute to rest before returning over the fire. A rich, almost caramelized foam will rise to the top. Meant to be served in small ceramic cups, they’re also meant for slow sipping. A keen eye will keep watch on how close you are to reaching the grounds that settle on the bottom. It’s always a winking reminder of that first time crossing paths with serendipitous history.

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