A cup of tradition

Seeking out the best authentic Turkish coffee on the Midpeninsula

I grew up with the delectable smell of Turkish coffee. My mother made it every evening in the kitchen of my childhood home in Istanbul.

I had my first romance when I fell in love with coffee after tasting the highly fragrant, strong, bitter-yet-smooth flavor of a cup of foamy Turkish coffee. It was the first thing I learned to cook at age 9, and when I came to the United States, the traditional coffee set was the first thing I put in my suitcase. Now, if I ever attempted to simplify this complex, aromatic delight into a couple of words, I would say Turkish coffee is a wealth of tradition squeezed into a tiny porcelain cup.

Coffee was introduced to Europeans by Turks during the Ottoman Empire in the 17th century, and the word "coffee" derives from the Turkish word, "kahve." Turkish coffee (Turk kahvesi) is a cultural hallmark and an example of Turkey's complex and flavorful cuisine.

From the way its coffee beans are ground to the elegance with which it is served, Turkish coffee requires great care in its preparation. Galip Vural, owner of Olympus Caffe & Bakery and Ephesus restaurant on Castro Street in Mountain View, said it is crucial that the coffee beans are ground to a very fine powder. Turkish coffee brand Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi is one of the essential ingredients of making traditional coffee, he said. Vural orders it from international stores in the area to make his Turkish coffee ($2.95) at Olympus.

To brew the coffee, Vural uses a traditional copper pot, or "cezve," that he brought from Turkey. He uses one teaspoon of coffee per person. He then adds one Turkish-coffee cupful of water (about 2.2 ounces) and stirs the mixture. Sugar is often added before brewing Turkish coffee, Vural noted, and the beverage can be made plain, medium-sweet or sweet. For medium-sweet, he adds one Turkish-teaspoon (equivalent to a demitasse spoon) of granulated sugar and stirs it in before putting the pot on the stove.

The key to the recipe is to make sure the water is at room temperature, said Ibrahim Ulas, the owner of Galata Bistro, a Turkish restaurant in Menlo Park. In order to make quality Turkish coffee, all that's needed is to put sugar, water and coffee into the pot, stir it and put it on the stove at a very low temperature, Ulas said.

"When the coffee starts boiling, it starts rising up. When it comes to the top, it means it's cooked, and you just take it off the fire immediately, otherwise it just overflows and ruins the coffee," he said.

The foam on top of Turkish coffee is what makes it special, he said.

"When someone brings you Turkish coffee, if there is no foam on top, it means it's not good," Ulas said. "You tell them, 'You know what? I want to have another one.'"

Galata Bistro's Turkish coffee ($3.75) comes with a thick layer of foam on top. It's served in a white porcelain cup that's placed in a traditional Ottoman coffee set with metal-capped cups and plates. The drink is accompanied by a piece of Turkish delight (lokum) -- a sweet confection traditionally made of syrup and nuts -- that compliments the strong and bitter flavor of the coffee.

Although this ornate metal equipment is not necessary (porcelain cups made for Turkish coffee should suffice), it's popular in Turkish restaurants. Anatolian Kitchen, a Turkish and Kurdish restaurant in Palo Alto, serves Turkish coffee ($4) using the same type of elegant coffee set. Owner Dino Tekdemir, who is originally from Diyarbakir in southeastern Turkey, said he brought it from his hometown.

Like many Turkish chefs, Tekdemir prepares Turkish coffee in two phases. After the coffee boils once, he takes it off the heat and scoops the foam into the coffee cups. Then, he returns the pot to the stove and waits for it to boil again. The trick, Tekdemir said, is to take the pot off the stove at the moment that it boils and starts rising.

Several other local establishments serve authentic Turkish coffee, including Cafe 220 in Palo Alto ($2.75) and Cafe Nur in Los Altos ($2.95).

Traditional Turkish coffee rarely includes any spices. However, in some Middle Eastern countries, there are variations, such as Arabic coffee with cardamom. The resulting brew is often more bitter and stronger than traditional Turkish coffee. Among the Midpeninsula spots that serve Turkish coffee with a twist are Mediterranean Wraps on California Avenue in Palo Alto, which uses Arabic coffee brand Najjar ($2.75); Mediterranean Grill House on Castro Street in Mountain View ($3.25); and Sufi Coffee Shop, also in Mountain View, which offers Persian-style Turkish coffee ($4.95).

In Turkish culture, making foamy coffee and serving it without spilling is seen as a test of one's culinary skills. In a ritual during which the suitor asks the woman's father for her hand in marriage, the bride-to-be must offer Turkish coffee to all of the guests. A more subtle test applies to the prospective groom, who might be served coffee made with salt instead of sugar. If he can drink it without complaining, it's an indicator of whether he is worthy of the lady's love.

Another Turkish coffee tradition involves fortune-telling. Inside the coffee-stained porcelain walls of the tiny cups lies a wealth of information, according to tradition. Those who want learn their fortunes put the coffee plate on top of the cup and flip it over. Once the residual coffee grounds are dry, the fortune can be told.

Vural said that every weekend, Turkish regulars come to Olympus Caffe & Bakery and hold fortune-telling sessions. One of the regular guests is known to tell fortunes that eventually come true, he said.

Whether or not one believes in the power of Turkish coffee to predict the future, such fortune-telling offers a way to bond on a deeper level -- one of the many factors that make drinking Turkish coffee such a rich and unique experience. As Galata Bistro's Ulas points out, a famous Turkish proverb states that "one cup of Turkish coffee is to be remembered for 40 years."

Sevde Kaldiroglu is an editorial intern at Palo Alto Weekly.

We can't do it without you.
Support local journalism.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Don't be the last to know

Get the latest headlines sent straight to your inbox every day.

Downtown Palo Alto gets new Vietnamese eatery
By Elena Kadvany | 2 comments | 3,840 views

More Stupid Plastic Food Things
By Laura Stec | 13 comments | 2,151 views

Operation Varsity Blues
By John Raftrey and Lori McCormick | 8 comments | 1,604 views

Couples: Write a Personal Ad . . . to Your Partner . . .
By Chandrama Anderson | 2 comments | 1,514 views

Composting Works
By Sherry Listgarten | 2 comments | 1,348 views