Arabic Coffee – How to make and serve it the traditional way

Coffee served in Finjaan4

Arabic Coffee, or Gahwa as they are colloquially called, is the favorite recreational drink of the Arabs. Though the term Arabic Coffee encompasses Turkish Coffee as well, Gahwa is specifically the coffee made according to Arab traditions. The Gahwa has been popular in the Arabian peninsula for hundreds of years.

The names vary further with dialects. In Egypt, it is pronounced ‘aweh, changing the ‘qa‘ to a glottal stop. In some Arab speaking countries, it is Gahweh.

Usually, Gahwa is brewed from Arabica coffee beans, which accounts for 80 percent of the world’s coffee production. 

History of Arabic Coffee

Arabica coffee beans

Legends have it that the coffee was first discovered by the shepherds of Arabia. Their goats which chewed certain berries were found to be more active. Later, the Arabs started using these to make energy drinks.

The coffee culture of Arabs predates that of the west by centuries. In fact, the English word ‘coffee’ itself was derived from the ‘koffie’ in Dutch, which was from Turkish ‘kahve’ which in turn has its roots in the Arabic word qahwah.

According to UNESCO, gahwa was originated in the Arabian peninsula. Emphasizing the importance of preserving these traditions, UNESCO added the Arabic Coffee and Majlis to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritages in 2015.

How to make Arabic Coffee

Arabic coffee beans and ground

Before starting, you need these things to make the coffee. 

  • A stove for the fire.
  • For the best Arabic Coffee, grinding it fresh is essential. So, get a grinder. Even a mortar and pestle is usable but means slightly more work.
  • A pitcher vessel to brew. 
  • Cups to serve. Traditionally, it is served in small handleless cups.
  • Good quality coffee beans.
  • Though spices are not necessary, that’s how it is usually made. Depending on your taste you can add cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, cumin, saffron, etc.

The taste of the coffee is dictated to a great extent by the roast of the beans along with its freshness and quality. The degree of roast varies from region to region. It can be light, medium, or dark. In the UAE, the coffee is made with lightly roasted beans.

Because the coffee is served unfiltered, grinding the beans to fine particles is essential to make it drinkable. So if you are grinding by hand, spend enough time and effort to make them fine.

Now that everything is ready, next is the most important part; the brewing.

1. Prepare the coffee powder and spices

For a great cup of coffee, the quality of the beans and fineness of the ground is essential. Grind the beans to an extremely fine powder. One serving (about 60 ml) requires a spoonful of coffee powder. Grind the spices as well to a fine powder and keep them separate from the coffee powder.

Freshly grounded coffee

2. Heat the water

Fill water in Dallah and boil it. When the water boils, remove it from the stove and let it cool down for about 30 seconds.

3. Add coffee

Put the coffee powder in Dallah and heat it again without stirring the contents. Once the water starts boiling again, lower the flame and let it simmer for 10 minutes. When you see the foam rising to the top, remove the pot from the stove.

4. Add the spices

Now add the ground mixture of spices to Dallah and put it back on the fire. Heat until foam is formed on the top of it.

Arab holding coffee cup

5. Serve the coffee

Let the coffee sit still to allow the foam to disappear and grounds to settle to the bottom of the pot.

Okay, you are ready to serve now. Serve the coffee to finjan through a strainer. Traditionally the coffee is served without sugar, but there is no harm in lightly sweetening the coffee if you like so. But, milk and cream are definitely a no-no.

The coffee is cooked after adding sugar and spices rather than adding them later. So don’t forget to specify your preferences before it’s brewed. Also, sip slowly to avoid taking in the grounds with the coffee.

The right way to serve Gahwa

Qahwa in Dubai

Drinking coffee in Khaleej is more of a social affair than anything else. Gahwa is an inevitable part of family gatherings, business meetings, and Arabic Majlises. And preparing and serving them is an art.

The person serving the coffee to guests is called Muqahwi. A Muqahwi should be mature and at least 15 years of age so that he won’t spill the coffee on the guests and is able to interact gracefully with them. He has to hold the coffee pot (Dallah) in the left hand and the Finjaans in the right.

In a Majlis or gathering, coffee is served first to the most important person around, like a religious scholar or a Sheikh. Next, the person sitting to his right is served, and so on. When the guest has had enough coffee, he would gently shake the Finjaan to show the Muqhawi that he is done.

In Middle Eastern culture, drinking with the left hand is considered rude. One should use the right hand to receive the coffee as well. Dates and sweets are often served along with Gahwa.

Arabic Majlis

Arabic Majlis

We cannot miss out Arabic Majlises when talking about Arabic Coffee. Gahwa is ubiquitous in every Majlis in the Arab world. Majlis literally means a council or an assembly. They have been part of Arab customs and a sign of their hospitality for thousands of years. These gatherings are usually headed by tribe chieftains or scholars and are held in large rooms with facility to make coffee. 

Majlises helped build social ties and were the venues for finding resolutions to problems. Arabs have kept this custom alive to this day. They also served the purpose to educate the young about socializing and leadership. It is customary for those attending the Majlis to wear traditional clothes.

Arab men in a majlis with Arabic coffee served with dates

Health benefits of Arabic Coffee

Arabic coffee is originally served without little to no sugar. But depending on one’s taste, sugar can be added. And for that reason, Arabic Coffee is usually free of any calories. Moreover, the spices carry many health benefits. But because of the caffeine content, it should not be taken in excess. 

The more the coffee beans are roasted, the less will be the caffeine content. Variety of spices in Arabic Coffee enriches it with antioxidants which prevent infections and diseases.

How is Arabic Coffee different from Turkish Coffee

Turkish Coffee

The term Arabic Coffee encompasses Turkish Coffee as well. But Gahwa Arabi is different from Turkish Coffee in some minor ways. 

Both these coffees are served without milk or cream and are prepared with freshly ground beans. Apart from the coffee pots and customs, the significant difference is that cardamom is not used in Turkish Coffee. Arabic Coffee typically contains cardamom along with other spices.

Both Arabic Coffee and Turkish Coffee can be sweetened and be made of beans of different origins and be roasted to varying degrees. 

Where to find Arabic coffee

Traditional Arabian coffee, nuts and sweets

There are many restaurants and cafes that serve Gahwa. There are even special places dedicated to the region’s coffee heritage in the UAE. The Coffee Museum in Dubai and Bait Al Gahwa in Abu Dhabi are just two of them.

Your next best option to enjoy a traditionally prepared Arabic Coffee is to go on a desert safari. Besides the coffee, they also let you explore the local Bedouin lifestyle and take part in some of the most amazing desert activities.