A couple of years ago, my dad took my sister and me out for Turkish coffee in Houston. We happily sipped tiny mugs of the thick, foamy, potent brew all the way down to the bottom, where a layer of thick dregs stuck to the cup.
“Now flip it over onto your saucer, quick,” my dad instructed, demonstrating with a flip of his wrist. We dumped our cups and peered curiously down at the streaks and patterns left behind on the inside walls and dirtied saucers. Was that a veil-covered bride etched into my sister’s clumps of coffee grounds? Or a combatant wearing a gas mask?
Tasseography, or the practice of divination through patterns in coffee grinds and tea leaves, is actually much more complex and specific than what we achieved giggling in the café that day. It’s a cool part of Turkish coffee culture, and an ancient practice that has separate roots in Asia, the Middle East, and Greece.
It’s made possible by boiling finely-ground coffee in a pot of water without filtering it, and allowing the grounds to settle in individual cups before serving. This method of stovetop coffee brewing is itself called “Turkish,” although it applies to similar, slightly varying methods used throughout the Middle East.
To make Turkish coffee, grind your beans as fine as possible and add about one teaspoon per cup of water to a saucepan (or a traditional cezve, if you have one!). Add sugar (and spice) to taste at this point, as well.
Bring the coffee to a boil very slowly, remove from heat, and spoon the tasty layer of foam evenly into each cup. Return the coffee to a second boil and pour into cups. In some countries, they even go for a third boil. Allow to settle for a few minutes before sipping.
I have equally fond memories of another stovetop coffee preparation, Mexican Café de Olla, which is traditionally made in a clay or earthenware pot with cinnamon sticks, piloncillo, and anise seed.
The grounds are filtered out from the liquid before serving so it doesn’t come with a peek at your future, but the warm, sweet spiciness of it sure makes you appreciate the present moment.
Café de Olla really should be made in a clay pot, which affects the flavor, but you can cheat with a saucepan if you don’t have one. Unlike the Turkish tradition, the grounds should be coarse so as to be easily strained and not left behind.
Bring the water, a couple inches of cinnamon stick, piloncillo to taste, and a pinch of anise seeds to boil. You can use brown sugar plus a spoon of molasses if you don’t have piloncillo, but the flavor won’t be quite the same.
Once boiling, stir in your coffee grounds (roughly an ounce per cup), remove from heat, and allow to steep for five minutes.
Strain through a fine sieve or cheesecloth and into cups. You can also pour it into a French press at this point and filter it that way.
A quick note that, as mentioned in the above-linked post on pressed coffee, stovetop coffee similarly retains more of its essential oils and acids than that made in a drip machine, making it a bit harsher on the stomach.
Filtering the Café de Olla reduces the amount of cholesterol-stimulating substances cafestol and kahweol, but both it and Turkish coffee contain higher levels than their drip-brewed counterparts. While downright delicious, both should be enjoyed in moderation.
Turkish coffee. In Wikipedia. Retrieved on November 4, 2011 from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turkish_coffee
Turkish Cultural Foundation . (n.d.). Your future in a cup of coffee. Retrieved from http://www.turkishculture.org/lifestyles/turkish-culture-portal/coffee-fortune-telling-205.htm