The Bedouin hospitality of brewing, serving and drinking “gahwa” (Arabic coffee) is an experience in itself – cool and enthralling like the beaming crescent that rises up above the world and showers blessings on all earthlings.
As I sit sipping my gahwa this Ramadan season, it narrates to me a tale that takes the tradition back to almost 12 centuries, attributing it to goat herder Khalid who invented this drink, which is part and parcel of Arab life today.
The story goes thus: Khalid, tending to his goats one day, noticed that while the afternoon sun made him drowsy, his flock leaped joyously after nibbling at the berries of an evergreen bush nearby. The creative goat herder plucked a few of those berries, ground and boiled them. And thus gahwa was born.
Well, ask me how it tastes, I would say bland – but I believe once used to the habit, gahwa lives up to the root meaning of the word – blandus – mild, smooth, flattering, alluring…
Serving gahwa is an art – the ritual that starts from roasting the coffee beans, cooked and cooled, ground and pound, until it is poured into the gahwa cups from the della (pots). The process with all its noisy activities is music and the host expects the guests to appreciate it, while sniffing in the aroma of spices like cardamom and saffron.
The host takes the privilege of serving the guests in person, with many following strict etiquette even today, like tasting it before serving, most important to be served first (age / rank), while customs have given way to imitate the West in following ‘ladies first’, of late.
The cute tiny China teacups are ever half filled and unlimited refill is on offer! It is impolite to refuse the first cup, even to the extent it is considered bad manners of insult, while it is the opposite to accept an odd number of cups, say one, three or five.
The charming part of the whole tradition, is the way one communicates that he/she is done and needs no more refills. One should “wiggle” the empty China, from side to side, to communicate to the host that he / she has had sufficient!
I find it a sweet way to say enough to a non-sweet beverage – no sugar is added to gahwa. The drink is not naturally sugar-rich, and the Arab soil’s very own fresh dates are offered to sweeten the palate between each sip of the drink.
Four sets of della, varying in size, are used to brew the gahwa. Mahmasa, the long handled and shallow pan, are used to roast the beans, which are the cooked and left to cool. Once cool, they are ground in a mahbash.
Tradition has it that ground coffee are kept in the largest della and water is added from the next della. This is then boiled over fire. Spices like cardamom seeds, and sometimes a pinch of saffron, are added and cooked in a third della. The boiling continues till the gahwa is ready to be poured into the fourth and smallest pot, from which it is served.
So, it is time to say “Ahlan Wa Sahlan” (welcome). Take a coffee break and the sip the wonderful hospitality of the Arab world. I’m sure you wouldn’t “wiggle” after just one cup!