No visitor to the Middle East can claim to have experienced the traditional welcome until he or she has been offered a tiny cup (or three) of gahwa — a light, aromatic coffee — and a platter of sweet, mushy dates. But there’s more to this ritual than meets the eye. Chef Imad Boukli, Pastry Chef at Four Seasons Hotel Riyadh, gives us a guide on serving — and accepting — the perfect cup of gahwa.
What sort of coffee beans are used to make gahwa?
Imad Boukli: Fresh Arabica beans are used to make the most authentic Saudi gahwa. Fresh beans are green, not brown, and should be roasted just prior to making the coffee for the best flavour.
What spices are added to the coffee and how is it prepared?
IB: For every 2 to 3 tablespoons of light Arabic coffee we use 2 teaspoons of ground cardamom. We boil this with 2 cups of water before pouring it into an Arabic coffee pot. Just before serving, we add a pinch of crushed cardamom and saffron for added flavour and to enrich the coffee’s golden colour.
How does one traditionally serve the coffee?
IB: Hold the “dallah” (coffee pot) in your left hand and a stack of small cups with no handles called “finjan” in your right. The coffee is then poured out in small portions, never right up to the brim.
Why is the cup never filled?
IB: There are several theories. One is a matter of etiquette: that it is more comfortable to drink a cup that isn’t filled to the brim. The other is practical as it allows the coffee to cool quicker. The third is cultural: it allows guests to be offered several refills over the course of their stay.
What other interesting points of etiquette should we keep in mind?
IB: The traditional rituals of preparing and serving Arabian coffee come from Bedouin generosity and hospitality. Serving coffee is an indication that a guest is welcomed and honored. Make sure to serve the gahwa in front of your guest. The host usually tastes the coffee first to ensure that it is perfect then pours the gahwa into the finjan of his guests. The most important guest is served first. If there is any doubt, age generally takes precedence.
Traditionally, men were served first but this custom tends to be reversed today. If you are offered gahwa, always accept the first cup. It is an insult to your host to refuse it as it is a sign of welcome. It is generally considered polite to accept odd numbers of cups, either one, three or five. Your host will continue to refill your cup until you indicate that you have had enough. This is popularly done by shaking your cup rapidly from side to side. And never ask for sugar with your gahwa! The coffee is almost always served with dates and the natural sugar in the dates sweetens the palate and brightens the flavour of the coffee.
What are the best varieties of dates to serve with this coffee?
IB: There are so many different kinds of dates but the best ones to serve with gahwa are “Al Khalass” and “Al Sukkari” dates because they are very sweet and complement the coffee.
Do you use gahwa in any innovative way at FS Hotel Riyadh?
Yes, we use gahwa in our special Arabian Coffee Cake — I hope you’ll make it and enjoy!
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