Monday, 8 October 2012

The coffee menu

Spot the difference. Read on for the answer ...

The word قهوة | ʔahwa has another use alongside meaning a coffeehouse, and that is the strong, grainy coffee that in English we call Turkish coffee. It is prepared by boiling بن مطحون | bunnə maṭḥūn | finely-ground coffee grains in a تنكة | tanaka or kanaka | small metal pot with a wooden handle, and decanted into a glass or cup at the table.

The coffee comes with three levels of sweetness, as I've experienced it:

سادة sāda sweet
مضبوط maẓbūṭ sweeter
زيادة ziyāda even sweeter

The national sweet-tooth has meant that سادة | sāda, which should be unsweetened, seems always to have a little bit of sugar chucked in out of sympathy, as you wouldn't drink plain coffee unless you were mourning. A useful rhyme I've learnt to counter this annoying phenomenon is:

السادة للسادة
issāda li-ssāda
Unsweetened coffee for gentlemen

which is used jokingly like the phrase "no sugar, I'm sweet enough" is used by English-speakers who don't like their tea tasting like cat piss. Despite the fuss, relatively little of a Turkish coffee is drinkable, because once it's settled it hides between a frothy, grainy surface and the thick, muddy dregs, either of which, if sipped, will result in something like GloZell's Cinnamon Challenge.

وش wišš frothy head of a coffee
تنوة tanwa sludgy dregs of a coffee
قرأ الفنجان ʔara_lfingān to read (the future in the dregs of) a cup

I noticed an old man in a coffeehouse chewing spoonfuls of dregs having finished a glass of tea, and asked an Egyptian friend why. I was met with a look of confusion, not at the man's actions but at my question, and only later did I learn that tea dregs are referred to with a different word to coffee dregs. This surprising linguistic richness has managed to both propel and stall my discovery of Egyptian culture.

تفل tifl dregs of tea
شاى فتلة šāy fatla (lit. string tea) tea made with a teabag
شاى كسرى šāy kušari tea made with tea-dust or tea-leaves
بالنعناع ... bi-lnaʕnāʕ ... with mint

The variety of tea made with tea-dust is thus named because the bits of tea resemble the mess of a bowl of كشرى | kušari, a carb overload of noodles, rice, macaroni, black lentils and chickpeas with a dollop of tangy tomato sauce and fried onions. (The dish probably has its origins in a similar Indian dish called "khichri", which British colonialists then spread to various parts of the world. It managed to evolve into kedgeree back in Britain, so I guess only the Egyptians can be blamed for its disastrous manifestation here.)

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