Serving ‘kahwa’ is an important part of Arab hospitality in rural areas, and plays an even more prominent role during Ramadan, says Aftab H Kola.
Serving ‘kahwa’ is a key part of welcoming guests in small towns and villages throughout the GCC region. And Oman is no exception.
The serving of ‘kahwa’ (called ‘gahwa’ in Saudi Arabia and the UAE) has a long tradition throughout Arabia. It is not just a drink, it brings people together.
In Oman, ‘fowala’ constitutes succulent dates with freshly-prepared ‘kahwa’, or Arabic coffee, served to guests. Over the years, the delectable Omani halwa has become a part of fowala.
With kahwa, dates are served with it to balance the bitterness of the Arabic coffee.
At every Muscat festival, a segment is created to showcase how kahwa is prepared, using traditional tools. Tourists are often offered a free taste of kahwa – flavoured intensely with cardamom – served in tiny, eggshell-shaped cups.
I can vouch for Omani hospitality based on the experience of numerous visits to the Omani countryside. It is quite commonplace, when simply asking your way in a village, to be invited into a house and to be offered kahwa. Refusing the offer is sometimes taken as an insult to the host.
My first taste of kahwa was a disappointment but rather like my initial dislike of hummus, I slowly developed a taste for it.
Arabs always carry a flask of kahwa made traditionally with them and keep sipping it throughout the day.
Kahwa in the office is also available. And even some of the expats working in them have also become used to drinking it.
Let’s take a look at some of the unique aspects of this time-honoured beverage
The origin of Arabic coffee
It is widely believed that coffee drinking in Arabia had its beginning in the 9th century AD when a Bedouin shepherd in Yemen named Khalid noticed that, while the noon sun in the desert was making him drowsy, his flock was lively and were scampering around in the sunshine after nibbling the berries of a certain evergreen bush.
Eager to find out more about the berries, Khalid ground and boiled them. The usually exhaustible Khalid became active and energetic as soon as he sipped the invigorating brew.
Khalid’s wife suggested that he share his miraculous discovery with the local holy man. It is reported that the holy man, rejecting Khalid’s claim, flung the beans into the fire to discard them lest they should bring any misfortune.
After a while, a pleasant aroma, as described by Khalid, filled the room and a gentle breeze wafted the scent in. It produced such an aroma that it drew curiosity from other men wanting to know what the pleasant smell was. They soon discovered it was from roasted beans. Thus, Arabic coffee had arrived.
When US President Donald Trump visited Saudi Arabia in 2017, he was first treated to kahwa at the airport in Riyadh.
King Salman, who also enjoyed a cup of coffee with the American president, taught him the traditional technique of asking a server to stop pouring.
Arab hospitality demands that the host should serve his guests, although a servant may assist by holding the tray. Kahwa is served in small china cups, which come without a handle. The host first serves the most important person in the room. The cups are only half-filled but guests may have several refills.
Custom demands that it is polite to accept an odd-numbered cup — one, three or five. Juggling the empty cups from side to side is an indication that the person has had enough kahwa. Refusing the first cup is considered a bad sign of etiquette.
Kahwa tastes a little bitter and is never sweetened with sugar. lnstead, fresh succulent dates are offered as the standard accompaniment to the exotic concoction.
During Ramadan, in Saudi, UAE, Oman, Kuwait and other parts of the Arab world, kahwa and dates are offered at mosques for fast breakers.
In 2015, UNESCO included ‘gahwa’ (kahwa) in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, underscoring the importance of cultural traditions that need to be preserved. UNESCO has ascribed the origins of ‘gahwa’ to the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Qatar.
Preparing the aromatic brew takes considerable time and effort. In the past, Bedouins brewed their coffee over a simple fireplace dug into the ground. Over time, this was replaced by the kuwar, which is a clay
pit with a stove made from pebbles and stone plates. A coffee pot, called a ‘dellah’, is kept close to the open hearth.
The coffee beans are poured into a ‘mahmasa’, a shallow iron pan with a long handle that is held just above the flames.
The roasting beans are stirred regularly with a ‘yardal at mahmasa’. After the beans are cooked, they are left to boil for some time.
They are then pulverised with a pestle on a mortar board called a ‘mahbash’.
When pounding the beans, you must firmly tap the side of the mortar occasionally with the pestle so as to free the granules from sticking together.
The freshly-ground coffee is then transferred to the ‘dellah’ (coffee pot) containing the required proportion of water. The dellah is now kept over the fire for boiling.
Meanwhile, cardamom seeds and sometimes a pinch of saffron is powdered in the mahbash and added to the boiling coffee. The coffee is transferred to a pot and is ready to serve. Nowadays, although instant kahwa powder is available in the market, Arabs still prefer the traditional homemade kahwa.