If coffee is the wine of the bean, we say: “Drink on!”

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Who can resist the tempting, rich and strong aroma of a steaming cup of fresh and delicious coffee? Well, I know that some dedicated tea drinkers who won’t touch the “stuff’, but the rest of us not!

SO WHERE DID IT COME FROM?

The first person to discover that the little green bean when roasted, crushed, added to hot water and drunk is highly discussed. Among the finalists for this achievement are:

  • some energetic 13th century sheep (well, not the roasting part…)
  • an exhilarated shepherd (who tested out the bean while watching the energetic sheep)
  • some disapproving monks (who threw the beans into the fire)
  • and an exiled healer (who had nothing else to eat)

… and this was all happened in Ethiopia during the 13th century (although the only credible evidence is from the mid 15th century on.)

AND HOW DID IT SPREAD?

The story of this little bean is quite a whirlwind:

it moved from Ethiopia, to Egypt, then Yemen and onto the world! Due to its strangely energizing effect, it was forbidden and banned at various stages of its life by both the Church (Ethiopian and Catholic) and some Imams in Mecca. Over the years, it did become known as the “Muslim drink”, and wherever Islam spread, so did the delicious bean beverage!

AND TODAY, COFFEE IS A HOUSEHOLD WORD!

The origins of the word “Coffee” seem to be in the word:

  • qahwat al-bun (wine of the bean). This was shortened into the arabic word:
  • Ahwa
  • The Turks called it Kahve
  • the Dutch turned it into the word Koffie
  • the Italians Cafe
  • and of course the English Coffee

THE EGYPTIAN COFFEE HOUSES:

Today on every street corner, in most alleys, in each community, you will find at least one “Ahwa”. This word is used for both the actual coffee, and the meeting place where coffee is drunk.

These coffee houses can vary in style, service, and price! But all have the common theme of being a central hub or gathering place, traditionally for men. Chairs and tables are always present, some rather wobbly, and the tables precarious…. but the welcoming waiter will put you at ease.

When you enter (if there is a room to sit in) you will be accosted with great billows of smoke (the coffee houses always have shisha available, in a variety of flavours) and loud voices! These houses are a place where men can congregate to discuss the problems of the world: usually politics, soccer and family matters. There will usually be a TV blaring in the background and most men there will be the “regulars”, the ahwa is almost like their sitting room away from home!

The coffee, usually strong, sweet and in tiny cups (accompanied by a glass of water to wash away the residue and dilute the strength once it hits your stomach!) will be delivered on a silver tray. Although you may only take a few minutes to drink it, you will not be rushed away: this is a place to sit, relax and chat. Some ahwas are directly on the small pavements, so you can watch the people, traffic and life pass you by, literally a few meters in front of you.

ARE WOMEN WELCOME?

Although the ahwa is a traditional place for men, in recent times a few women will be seen in these ahwas. As a foreigner you will always be invited to pull up a chair! However, depending on the area, some ahwas have a long history and tradition, and you will hardly ever see a woman in any of those!

A fairly recent change in Egypt is that there are more trendy (and pricier) versions of the ahwas popping up, and the younger, modern Egyptians will head there in their throngs.

And for those of you who cannot survive without your  “brand name” coffees, don’t panic, you will find some big name coffee shops in Alexandria and Cairo.

AND THERE IS ALWAYS INSTANT….

There has been quite an upsurge in the variety and availability of little individual sachets of instant coffee: you can find:

  • plain black
    • black with milk (2 in 1)
      • black with milk and sugar (3 in 1)

and then there are flavored varieties as well!

When you are in a restaurant, there will usually be the option on the menu for either:

  • Turkish coffee (thick, sweet and in a small cup)
  • Nescafe (instant) which you can have with or without milk!

BUT WHICHEVER WAY….

when that rich, velvety aroma of fresh coffee lingers and floats towards you, follow it…… take a seat (however rickety it appears) and allow the ahwa to reveal the history, the heart and the modern tradition of the people of Egypt….

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