What’s brewing in Bahrain


THE tradition of ‘gahwa’ or coffee drinking has long been an integral part of Arab hospitality and culture.


There is no spot in the Arab world without a coffee house and no occasion is complete without serving the deliciously aromatic freshly brewed coffee.

From the quaint ‘qahva khanas’ of yesteryears to the fashionable coffee houses of today, the popularity of this tantalising hot beverage has not waned.

In fact, coffee has gained such considerable importance over centuries that now it is the second most actively traded commodity after petroleum standing above coal, meat, wheat and sugar.

However, the origin of this dark and fragrant brew is shrouded in mystery. Some coffee historians believe that the coffee bean is as old as man. The first coffee beans were harvested from wild coffee plants in Ethiopia.

Coffee was introduced to the West hundreds of years later than the East, where, it was a popular beverage since earlier times at every level of society.

African cultures used the coffee bean as a solid food where the ripe beans were crushed by mortars, combined with animal fat and shaped into round balls. These could be carried and eaten on long journeys.

African warriors also ate the coffee balls before going into battle as a source of energy.
Coffee was also used in ceremonies by the mystic Sufi religions in Yemen. The drink helped the Sufi mystics to stay up late in the night for their prayers.

Coffee houses or ‘qahva khanas’ flourished as people flocked to sip the invigorating brew.

Coffee was considered a threat to the Ottoman Empire because the ruling class thought that when people gathered together in coffee houses they questioned the political doctrines of the time and hence banned such places in 1656.

Hence coffee not only played an important role in lives of intellectuals and politicians in Arabia, Asia Minor, Turkey, Syria and Egypt but was also regarded as an essential trade commodity.

Arabian traders tightly controlled the lucrative coffee trade by exporting roasted or boiled coffee beans only. They forbade the export of beans that could germinate.

Using this strategy they successfully monopolised the coffee trade for two centuries, enjoying highly profitable exports to the Middle East and Europe.

Coffee aroused interest not only as a ‘refreshing infusion’ but also for its healing powers so that some physicians gave it credit as a ‘cure all’.

Eighteenth Century men of culture loved coffee so much that they called it the ‘intellectual beverage’.

As coffee houses and coffee cultivation prospered so did the trends and trade surrounding it. In Germany after the Second World War, coffee became a symbol of economic reconstruction and prosperity. Coffee drinking became synonymous with being able to afford things again.

The fine art of preparing and serving Arabic coffee

The art of brewing the thick translucent yellow coloured drink or ‘gahwa’ varies in the Arab world and is considered an important ritual in Arab hospitality.

Purists in the art of making Arabic coffee agree that the best gahwa is prepared from freshly roasted or ground beans.

Now many people buy roasted coffee beans and have them ground according to their preference while others procure the already prepared powdered coffee from specialty shops.

Some connoisseurs like the Mocha beans from Yemen because of their delicate flavour and rich aroma. Others prefer the beans of Brazil that are said to have the richest flavour of all while some prefer coffee beans from Nepal. Usually several kinds of beans are blended together.

I roast the coffee beans at home before each preparation of gahwa. Initially I used to grind it in a traditional hand-held stone contraption called the ‘raha’ but ever since Moulinex came into the market I have done away with my old apparatus,” says 80-year-old Fatima Ahmed Mansoor who takes great pride in preparing the perfect pot of gahwa.

Some Bahrainis like to have cardamom ground with the coffee beans while others like cardamom and cloves added while the gahwa is being prepared.The proportion of cardamom and coffee varies according to individual taste.

As for myself I prefer a few strands of saffron in the gahwa. It takes anywhere between 10-15 minutes for me to prepare gahwa. The coffee should be allowed to settle in the pan for a minute or two before pouring it in the coffee pot,” she says.

Gahwa is never sweetened with sugar. Instead fresh dates or Arabic sweets are offered as a standard accompaniment to the aromatic brew.

Gahwa is served in a special coffee pot known as a Dallah and then poured in small, handle less finjan’s that are always half filled. More coffee is ordered the minute the cup is empty.

An average Bahraini drinks anywhere between 10-15 cups of gahwa a day, depending on the kind of venue and company.

Mustafa Habib, administration manager at a regional consulting firm in Bahrain, said: “I drink about 10 cups of gahwa on a regular day. But when I go to the desert I consume much more gahwa than I usually do because I spend long hours in the tent with company.

For both men and women in Bahrain, gahwa is the centre of social interaction. In almost all Arab homes, women socialise with each other over gahwa and sweets.

Gahwa is the mainstay of every occasion in my house,” says Najla Muhammed, a housewife residing in Hamad Town.

Whether it is a festive occasion or a solemn one I serve gahwa to all my guests. I don’t remember a day in my house when gahwa has not been prepared and served,” she points out.

Numerous coffee houses dot all corners of Bahrain. Although many conventional coffee houses have been replaced by the more glitzy ones, the practice of drinking gahwa while socialising continues untainted.

Coffee facts

● Coffee (coffea) is the major category of the Rubiaceae family, which has over 6,000 species.
● More than 60 different varieties are found in the coffee family, but only two have economic significance, Coffea Arabica and Coffea Robusta.
● Coffee has been an object of trade and commerce through centuries. Approximately 20 million people worldwide earn their livelihood from the coffee industry.
● Around 70 countries worldwide produce coffee and to these countries coffee is a major means of foreign exchange.

The taste of her coffee

In ancient Turkey, women received intensive training on the proper technique of preparing Turkish coffee. Prospective husbands would judge a woman’s merits based on the taste of her coffee.

In the Ottoman court, coffee makers with the help of 40 assistants would ceremoniously prepare and serve coffee to the sultan.