The first public coffee houses opened in Cairo in the 16th century, and although Starbucks and modern chains serving Italian brands such as as Illy have invaded, the aH'wa, or traditional neighborhood cafe, still dominates local tastes—take a peek inside one…
Vintage Arabic coffee making contraptions like this one (photographed at a coffee shop on the corner of Al Gumhoria and Mohammed Sabry Abu Alam streets, near Al Abdin Palace) remain in operation.
The aH'kwaggi, or man who makes the coffee, showed me the system. He adds cold water from the spigot on the left to ground coffee and sugar in a single serving-sized brass pot, which he then places on hot sand above a charcoal brazier. The brazier also sends steam up into the cylindrical boiler, from which hot water can be drawn for making tea or Nescafé. Waiters use tongs to extract coals for customers who want to smoke flavored tobacco paste from water pipes, known in Cairo as sheesha.
The beans used in most neighborhood aH'was still come from Yemen, whose Red Sea port of Mocha was coffee expor-central from the 15th until the 17th century. In Cairo, Yemeni beans are locally roasted and ground, often blended with a bit of cardamom. I was struck by the visual echo of Yemen in the shape of the boiler, which resembled intricately decorated silver cylinders worn as jewelry, and into which verses from the Koran are inserted as good luck.
Individual coffee servings take a few minutes to bubble and must be watched so that the liquid doesn't boil over. Once served, you need to wait a few minutes for the glass to cool and the coffee grounds to settle. If you order Arabic coffee (also called aH'wa), you will be asked what degree of sweetness you'd like.There are four degrees:
• Ziada: extremely sweet
• Mazbout: allegedly medium, but in my experience still very sweet
• AriHa: a touch of sugar (my favorite, just enough to take the edge off the coffee's bitterness and brighten the cardamom)
• Sadda: black and so bitter you will be nursing your coffee for a long time
As in Paris, coffee shop owners don't mind if you bring food from outside to consume with your coffee. If a bakery or sweet shop is nearby, hot, rose water-flavored rice pudding makes the perfect aH'wa ariHa accompaniment.
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