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By Benan Kapucu
If any aroma were especially associated with the East it would be that
of coffee. In coffeea journey westwards over the centuries it has
taken many different forms and acquired a unique symbolic role in the
etiquette of hospitality. Coffee culture has thus become an
inextricable part of social life.
Bitter coffee known as mirra, a word deriving from the Arabic mur
meaning bitter, is a speciality of the southeastern region of Turkey,
above all of Urfa. Here mirra is an important part of daily life, and
at every step you come across street vendors carrying samovars of
coffee. If you think of coffee as an ordinary beverage to be quietly
sipped in a corner, then you must rethink your ideas when it comes to
mirra. This coffee is a ceremonial drink served at formal social
gatherings, at weddings, circumcision celebrations, on religious feast
days, and in the homes of the bereaved when offering condolences.
Wealthy households in the past employed a coffee maker whose sole job
was to roast, grind and make coffee for the family and their guests.
Even today there are an estimated twenty or possibly thirty master
coffee makers in Urfa who are employed on special occasions, and whose
trade is often passed down from father to son.
Any type of good quality coffee may be used to make mirra, but at
least three people are required: one to stir the water, one to slowly
pour the ground coffee into the pot, and the other to recite ballads.
First, however, the beans are roasted in a large coffee pan over a low
heat while being constantly stirred with a special long-handled spoon.
The master coffee maker can tell when the coffee is perfectly roasted
by the colour. Then it is pounded in a large mortar made of hard wood
until the grains are slightly larger than that used for ordinary
Turkish coffee, which is more powdery in texture. Although coffee
mills are often used today for convenience, coffee pounded in a mortar
is still reckoned the best.
Having been slowly added to the water, the coffee is brought to the
boil several times, so that a froth forms and the coffee becomes
thick, and it is in this process that expertise really counts. This is
then mixed with fresh water and some poured into a special decorated
metal pot so as to half fill it. Two or three kilos more coffee are
added, and the pot brought to the boil, placing it on the heat and
taking it away alternately so that it does not boil over. When ready
it is left to get cold so that the coffee grounds fall to the bottom
of the pot, and the coffee poured off into a second pot known as a
mutbak. More of the intial coffee and water mixture is added at this
stage, and then the coffee is boiled again and poured off into another
pot, leaving the remaining grounds behind. It is then boiled again,
left to get cold, and poured into special mIrra jugs with lids. By now
the coffee has the consistency of molasses and is so dark that it will
stain a coffee cup. In the past this process of boiling and pouring
into another jug or pot was repeated seven times, and a charcoal fire
was used. Sometimes cardamom is added as a flavouring.
When required the coffee is heated up, either in a long-handled copper
coffee pot known as a cezve or in a copper jug, and poured into cups.
Even the pouring has its own ceremonial. The coffee maker holds the
cup in one hand and the pot in the other. Around his neck or in his
pocket are cloths for wiping the cups. He serves the people present in
order of age, from oldest to youngest, and each person is served
twice. Only a small amount is poured into each cup at a time. It
should not be allowed to get cold, as the flavour is lost, but nor
should it be drunk so hot that it scalds the mouth. One should first
tip the cup to on'sl mouth and let the coffee lightly touch the
palate, and then drink it slowly in two or three sips, swivelling the
cup 45 degrees each time.
No sugar is added to mirra, which is so strong that it is regarded as
a failsafe cure for drunkenness and is known colloquially as 'sarhos
ayiltan' ('that which brings brings a drunk to his senses'). Strict
rules of protocol apply to mirra in Urfa.
If someone from a family that has never served it before becomes
prosperous and decides to serve mirra, he must first invite the
dignitaries of the area to his house for a banquet to celebrate the
granting of permission.
Mirra cups are of a special type, and no one would dream of drinking
it from anything else. These are tiny cups in the form of inverted
truncated cones, without handles. Good manners require that the person
who is served should look into the face of the person who serves the
coffee, and when finished should hand the cup back. To place the cup
down is regarded as impolite, and the forfeit is either to fill the
cup with gold or to promise to arrange the marriage of the young man
who offered the cup! How this custom originated is unknown, but the
following story is related on the subject. One day a rich guest in the
house of a landowner decided to tip the coffee maker, but sought to do
it in such away that his host would not take it as a slur on his
After drinking his mirra, he placed the cup on the floor instead of
handing it back to the coffee maker, who bent down to pick up the cup.
The guest apologised for not handing it back, and as an expression of
his regret filled the cup with gold coins.
Thereafter, if anyone placed their cup on the floor, the coffee maker
demanded that they fill the cup with gold or arrange their marriage.
So if you are in Urfa and are invited to drink mIrra, remember there
is a high price to pay for forgetting local manners!
* Benan Kapucu is a writer
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