Middle Eastern woman enjoying coffee

Middle Eastern Coffee Culture - From Dallah to Modern Day

1. The Middle East

Coffee, a beverage enjoyed by billions worldwide, has its roots firmly planted in Middle Eastern soil. The rich tapestry of coffee culture in the Middle East goes beyond the mere act of drinking a cup of joe - it encompasses centuries of tradition, social rituals, and cultural heritage. While the tradition of coffee drinking flourished in the Middle East, the earliest known coffeehouses, called 'qahveh khaneh,' actually emerged in Yemen in the 15th century. These establishments quickly became popular across the Arabian Peninsula and the Ottoman Empire, serving as vibrant hubs for social and intellectual exchange. In this article, we'll take you on a journey through the fascinating world of Middle Eastern coffee culture, exploring its origins, customs, regional variations, and global influence. So sit back, grab a finjān of your favorite brew, and let's dive in!

2. The Historical Roots of Middle Eastern Coffee

Origins in Yemen and Ethiopia

The story of coffee began in the region around the southern Red Sea, in what is now Yemen and Ethiopia. According to legend, an Ethiopian goat herder first discovered the energizing properties of coffee beans in the 1200s when he noticed his goats becoming unusually lively after eating the berries. Coffee cultivation and brewing soon spread throughout the Arabian Peninsula, with Sufi monks adopting the beverage to help them stay alert during long hours of prayer and meditation. The port city of Mocha in Yemen, a major hub for the coffee trade, lent its name to the term 'mocha.' However, today's mocha coffee-chocolate beverage doesn't directly originate from this city's name. The association likely stems from Mocha's reputation for exporting high-quality coffee, which made its name synonymous with exceptional coffee beans.

The Spread of Coffee Culture

As coffee gained popularity in the Arab world, its trade and cultural practices spread beyond the Arabian Peninsula. Through a network of trade routes and the expansion of the Ottoman Empire, coffee and its accompanying culture reached new lands, including Persia, North Africa, and eventually Europe. Coffee's introduction to the Arab world turned it into a cultural phenomenon, with the Arabic word "qahwa" becoming the root for the word "coffee" in many other languages as the beverage gained international fame. By the 16th century, coffee had reached the Ottoman Empire, Persia, and North Africa, becoming an integral part of social life and hospitality in these regions. From there, it was only a matter of time before coffee made its way to Europe and beyond, forever changing the global beverage landscape.

3. The Traditions and Customs of Arabic Coffee

The Central Role of Hospitality

In Middle Eastern culture, coffee is a symbol of hospitality, generosity, and social connection. Serving coffee to guests is an essential act of welcome and respect, often accompanied by an elaborate ritual that demonstrates the host's attentiveness and care. The coffee is prepared in front of guests and served in small cups called finjān, often alongside dates or other sweets. Refusing a cup of coffee when offered is considered impolite, as it is seen as a rejection of the host's hospitality. This deep-rooted tradition of coffee hospitality can be traced back to the Bedouin culture of the Arabian desert, where offering coffee to visitors was a vital way of showing kindness and generosity in a harsh environment.

Unique Brewing Methods and Tools

Arabic coffee is prepared using traditional methods and tools that are central to the coffee ritual:

  • While Arabic coffee is commonly prepared with lightly roasted beans and spices like cardamom, the specific methods and ingredients can vary widely across different regions of the Middle East. These variations reflect the rich tapestry of local customs, tastes, and traditions that make Middle Eastern coffee culture so diverse and vibrant.
  • Spices like cardamom, saffron, and cinnamon are often added to the coffee, giving it a unique and aromatic twist. The addition of spices is believed to have originated as a way of masking the bitterness of lower-quality coffee beans.
  • The coffee is boiled in a special pot called a dallah and served without filtration, allowing the grounds to settle at the bottom of the cup. The dallah is often made of brass or copper and has a distinctive long spout for pouring.
  • The coffee is poured into small, handleless cups called finjān, which are typically adorned with intricate designs and patterns. The small size of the cups encourages sipping and savoring the coffee slowly.
  • Guests sip the coffee slowly, and the host refills the cups until the guest signals they are finished by slightly tilting the cup or placing the hand over it. This gesture of continuously refilling the guest's cup is a way of showing ongoing hospitality and generosity.
Coffee in Social Settings

Coffee plays a vital role in social life throughout the Middle East, serving as a lubricant for conversation and a catalyst for human connection. The concept of the coffeehouse, as a center for social, intellectual, and creative activity, has its roots in the Middle East. The tradition of these communal spaces spread to Europe alongside the beverage itself, profoundly influencing the cultural and intellectual landscape of European cities. These early European coffeehouses owe much to the Arabic 'maqha' tradition, emphasizing the role of coffee as a catalyst for social interaction and community building. In these traditional coffeehouses, patrons sip coffee, play games like backgammon and chess, listen to music and poetry recitals, and engage in spirited discussions about politics, religion, and current events. Sharing a cup of coffee is also an important part of doing business in the Middle East, with many deals and partnerships sealed over a steaming finjān. In some cases, coffee is even used as a tool for conflict resolution, with disputing parties coming together over a cup of coffee to work out their differences and find common ground. This social centrality of coffee in the Middle East highlights its role as a unifying force that transcends class, age, and background.

4. Regional Variations in Middle Eastern Coffee

Saudi Arabia

In Saudi Arabia, Arabic coffee is a treasured symbol of the country's heritage and hospitality. Saudi coffee, known as qahwa, is made with lightly roasted beans, cardamom, and other spices like cloves and cinnamon. It is typically served in homes, at special events, and during business meetings as a gesture of welcome and respect. The preparation and serving of Saudi coffee is a ceremonial process, with the host or a designated coffee server roasting, grinding, and boiling the coffee in front of the guests. The coffee is then poured from a dallah into small cups, often in multiple rounds, with guests expected to accept at least one cup. Saudi Arabia's love for its traditional coffee is so strong that it even has a presence at the country's United Nations Heritage Pavilion, where visitors can experience the rich culture and history of Saudi coffee.


Turkish coffee is perhaps the most well-known style of Middle Eastern coffee, famous worldwide for its strong, rich flavor and unique preparation method. Very finely ground coffee, almost to the consistency of powder, is boiled in a small copper pot called a cezve, sometimes with sugar, and served in small cups called kahve finjanı. The coffee is left unfiltered, with the fine grounds settling at the bottom of the cup, creating a thick, almost muddy texture. The drinker is meant to sip the coffee slowly, leaving the grounds behind. Turkish coffee is so integral to the country's culture that it has been recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Turkey. It is a staple in homes, workplaces, and social gatherings, with the phrase "let's have a coffee" serving as a common invitation to sit down and chat.


Lebanon is known for its vibrant cafe culture, and coffee plays a central role in the country's social fabric. Lebanese coffee is traditionally made with a mix of light and dark roast beans that are ground into a fine powder, giving it a unique flavor profile that balances smoothness and intensity. The coffee is boiled in a long-handled pot called a rakwe and served black in small cups, often alongside a glass of water to cleanse the palate between sips. Lebanese coffee is a staple in homes and at social gatherings, with the act of preparing and serving coffee considered an essential display of hospitality. In recent years, Lebanon has also embraced the global trend of specialty coffee, with a growing number of artisanal cafes and roasters popping up in cities like Beirut and Tripoli, offering a modern twist on the country's rich coffee traditions.

5. The Modern Middle Eastern Coffee Scene

The Growth of Coffee Shop Culture

In recent years, Western-style coffee shops have gained popularity in many Middle Eastern cities, especially among younger generations who are drawn to the modern, globalized atmosphere and menu offerings. Global coffee chains like Starbucks and Costa Coffee have established a significant presence in the region, particularly in Gulf countries like the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. These cafes offer a wider range of coffee drinks, including lattes, cappuccinos, and iced beverages, as well as a more casual, laptop-friendly environment. However, despite the growing popularity of these modern cafes, traditional Arabic coffee and coffeehouses still maintain their central cultural role, particularly among older generations and in more conservative areas. Many people in the Middle East continue to prefer the strong, bitter flavor of Arabic coffee and the social rituals surrounding its preparation and serving.

Specialty Coffee and Third Wave Trends

The Middle East has not been immune to the global rise of specialty coffee and the so-called "third wave" coffee movement, which emphasizes high-quality, single-origin beans, lighter roast profiles, and alternative brewing methods like pour-over and cold brew. In recent years, a growing number of artisanal coffee shops and roasters have emerged in major cities across the region, catering to a new generation of coffee enthusiasts who are looking for a more refined and diverse coffee experience. These specialty cafes often feature beans sourced from around the world, as well as expertly trained baristas who can prepare a wide range of coffee drinks. Some notable examples of specialty coffee hotspots in the Middle East include Cafe Younes in Beirut, Qahwah in Kuwait City, and Raw Coffee Company in Dubai. While still a niche market compared to the ubiquity of traditional Arabic coffee, the specialty coffee scene in the Middle East is growing rapidly and adding a new dimension to the region's rich coffee culture.

Coffee Festivals and Competitions

As the Middle East's coffee scene continues to evolve and expand, the region has embraced the worldwide trend of coffee festivals and barista competitions. These events provide a platform for coffee professionals and enthusiasts to showcase their skills, share knowledge, and celebrate the region's vibrant coffee culture. One of the most prominent examples is the annual International Coffee & Tea Festival, held in Dubai. This multi-day event brings together coffee lovers, industry professionals, and exhibitors from across the Middle East and beyond, featuring workshops, tastings, and demonstrations of the latest coffee trends and technologies. Other notable coffee events in the region include the Beirut Coffee Festival, the Saudi Barista Championship, and the Kuwait Coffee Festival. These gatherings not only highlight the Middle East's passion for coffee but also serve as a testament to the region's growing influence in the global coffee community.

6. The Global Influence of Middle Eastern Coffee Culture

The Coffeehouse as a Cultural Export

The concept of the coffeehouse as a hub for social activity, intellectual exchange, and creative expression originated in the Middle East, later spreading to Europe and the rest of the world. The first coffeehouses, known as kaveh kanes, emerged in the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century, quickly becoming popular gathering places for people from all walks of life to drink coffee, play chess, listen to music, and engage in lively discussions. As coffee spread to Europe in the 17th century, so did the coffeehouse concept, with the first European coffeehouse opening in Venice in 1645. These early coffeehouses played a crucial role in the development of European culture, serving as centers of political debate, scientific inquiry, and artistic innovation. Today's cafes, from the trendy specialty coffee shops of New York to the cozy neighborhood hangouts of Paris, owe a great debt to the Arabic maqha tradition and its emphasis on coffee as a social lubricant and catalyst for human connection.

Ongoing Popularity of Middle Eastern Coffee Preparations

Despite the globalization of coffee culture and the rise of new brewing methods and styles, traditional Middle Eastern coffee preparations remain beloved in the region and have also gained appreciation worldwide. The iconic dallah pot, with its distinctive long spout and ornate designs, has become a symbol of Arabic hospitality and is often used as a decorative element in homes and restaurants. Arabic and Turkish coffee can now be found in specialty coffee shops from London to Los Angeles, with baristas adapting the traditional methods to suit modern tastes and equipment. Many coffee enthusiasts around the world have also embraced the ritual of preparing Middle Eastern-style coffee at home, using small cezves or ibrics to brew strong, flavorful cups. The ongoing popularity of Middle Eastern coffee preparations is a testament to the enduring appeal of these ancient brewing methods and the rich cultural heritage they represent.

7. Outro

From its ancient origins in the mountains of Yemen to its modern expressions in the trendy cafes of Beirut and Dubai, coffee in the Middle East is a beverage steeped in history, tradition, and cultural significance. The region's unique coffee customs, from the elaborate preparation rituals to the social centrality of the coffeehouse, have shaped coffee culture worldwide and continue to evolve and inspire new generations of coffee lovers. Whether sipping a small cup of cardamom-infused Arabic coffee or savoring a single-origin pour-over at a specialty cafe, coffee enthusiasts in the Middle East are upholding a legacy that has connected and sustained people for centuries. In a region where so much has changed over the years, coffee endures as a timeless ritual, a social glue, and a daily source of comfort and pleasure. As the Middle Eastern coffee scene continues to grow and innovate, it is clear that the region's love affair with this beloved beverage is far from over - in fact, it may just be brewing up something even more exciting for the future.


Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1. What is the difference between Arabic coffee and Turkish coffee?

While both Arabic and Turkish coffee are prepared using similar methods, there are some key differences. Arabic coffee is typically made with lightly roasted beans and often flavored with cardamom or other spices, while Turkish coffee uses a very fine grind of medium to dark roast beans and is usually served plain or with sugar. Additionally, Arabic coffee is traditionally served in small cups without handles, while Turkish coffee is served in small cups with handles and saucers.

2. How do you prepare Arabic coffee at home?

To prepare Arabic coffee at home, you will need a dallah (a traditional Arabic coffee pot), finely ground Arabic coffee beans, water, and cardamom pods or ground cardamom. Boil the water in the dallah, then add the coffee and cardamom. Allow the mixture to boil briefly, then remove from heat and let it settle for a few minutes. Serve the coffee in small cups, leaving the grounds behind in the dallah.

3. Is Arabic coffee stronger than regular coffee?

Arabic coffee is typically stronger than regular drip coffee, as it is made with a higher ratio of coffee to water and is often boiled multiple times. However, the strength of Arabic coffee can vary depending on the specific preparation method and the preferences of the person making it.

4. Why is coffee so important in Middle Eastern culture?

Coffee is deeply ingrained in Middle Eastern culture as a symbol of hospitality, generosity, and social connection. Serving coffee to guests is considered an essential act of welcome and respect, and the rituals surrounding coffee preparation and serving are an important part of social interactions. Additionally, coffeehouses have long served as central gathering places for people to socialize, exchange ideas, and conduct business.

5. What is the best way to experience authentic Middle Eastern coffee culture?

The best way to experience authentic Middle Eastern coffee culture is to visit a traditional coffeehouse or maqha in a Middle Eastern city. There, you can observe the rituals of coffee preparation and serving, interact with locals, and immerse yourself in the social atmosphere. Alternatively, you can seek out Middle Eastern restaurants or cafes in your city that serve traditional Arabic or Turkish coffee and try to recreate the experience at home by preparing the coffee using authentic methods and equipment.



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