While coffee is now enjoyed in almost every part of the world, the beverage first gained popularity in the Middle East. Some food historians trace its origins back more than 1,000 years, when legend has it a ninth-century Ethiopian goat herder noticed the energizing effect that the bright red berries of a certain bush had on his flock. (For the uninitiated, what we call a coffee bean is actually the seed of a cherrylike fruit). So he chewed on the fruit himself. In his euphoric state, the herder decided to bring the berries to a nearby monastery. But the monk to whom he gave the berries disapproved of their use as a stimulant and threw them into the fire. This, in turn, released an enticing aroma, which attracted the other monks in the monastery, who quickly salvaged the roasted beans from the embers, ground them and dissolved them in hot water, and the rest is, well, history.
Coffee eventually made its way to Makkah and Egypt, then to Turkey in the mid-16th century, and finally to Europe. Perhaps because of its long history in the region, coffee is a symbol of hospitality throughout the Middle East. “It is the first beverage offered to any Saudi guest,” says Majed Al Muhanna, a heritage food documenter. It is served at events, social gatherings and weddings, and in private homes, offices and, of course, cafés.
Arabian coffee — or qahwa, as it is known in Saudi Arabia — generally (though not always) refers to coffee made of arabica beans. Although it’s often compared to Turkish coffee, Arabian coffee is known less for its thickness as it is for its “richness in taste because of the use of spices,” Al Muhanna says — and the manner in which it’s served.
Arabian coffee is made from coffee beans that may be roasted very lightly or heavily. While coffee brewing methods vary, Arabian coffee is usually boiled and served unfiltered (read: black). Sugar is not typically added, but depending on where you are in the kingdom, your coffee may be brewed with saffron, cinnamon, cardamom or cloves. As for the service, a coffee pot called a dallah is used to serve a small amount of coffee at a time, just covering the bottom of the cup (which is called a finjal). Unless you gesture to the contrary, your host or waiter will continue to pour you small amounts at a time. To balance its bitter flavor, coffee is usually served with something sweet, such as dates, nuts or candied fruit.
“The further north you go in the kingdom, the darker the color of the coffee becomes,” says Al Muhanna, referring to the roasting preferences of each region. The spices can influence the color of the brew, too. “In the southwestern regions, they use a spice mixture that’s different from the center and north of the country,” he adds. There is even a type of coffee produced from the shells of coffee beans, which is served in the southern regions of the kingdom. “This coffee tends to be greenish brown because of the use of the coffee bean shells and ‘nakhwah’ spicing,” Al Muhanna says.
Yes. That said, you’re apt to drink small amounts at a time. “The coffee produced in the southern regions tends to be lower in caffeine,” Al Muhanna says. And while many coffee-drinking nations focus their consumption in the early part of the day, Saudis may drink coffee late into the night. “The optimum time would be in the afternoon before sunset, to re-energize after a long day,” Al Muhanna says.
The rich history of coffee in the kingdom has given rise to dessert cafés, which pair the brew with sweet treats.