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TURKISH COFFEE

MardinmirraCoffee was introduced to Turkey from Yemen in the early 16th century but until recently the drink had fallen from fashion, its place taken by tea.

Today coffee is slowly but surely reasserting itself. While many people have taken to “neskafe” with a vengeance, others are rediscovering the pleasures of a quick caffeine hit sipped from a tiny china cup and sweetened with just the right amount of sugar.

Some take it “sade (unsugared)”, others “az şekerli (with a little sugar)”, yet others “orta şekerli (with a middling amount of sugar)”, and a few “çok şekerli (very sweet)”.

However you like your coffee you need to sip it carefully to avoid swallowing the grains. A cup of coffee is always served with a glass of water which is intended to be drunk before you begin to sip it, the idea being that it will clear your palate of other lingering flavors enabling you to take full advantage of the coffee’s rich taste and aroma.

 

Until recently it wasn’t particularly easy to buy freshly ground coffee beans in Turkey. The one exception was a small shop beside the Spice Bazaar which was always guaranteed to have a queue in front of it. Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi has been in business since 1871 and still sells ground coffee only steps away from a large han which was built specifically to handle the trade in 1912 (today it sells a multitude of household goods but no coffee). You can hardly miss the place not just because of the continued queues but because of the delicious smell of roasting beans that continues to emanate from it. 

 

The mırra coffee of the south-east

Thick, bitter and looking like something dredged from the bottom of a pond, mırra kahve, a speciality of the Şanlıurfa/Mardin area, bears about as much resemblance to a Starbucks latte as a glass of apple tea does to a good old English cuppa. 

Traditionally mırra was a ceremonial drink served by the better-off to celebrate life’s most important milestones. Accordingly, it was bound up in a network of complex rituals and beliefs, and there was a whole set of specific hardware to go with it.

Although the Syrians don’t drink mırra, the coffee is part of the south-east’s Arab heritage, its name apparently derived from the Arabic “mur,” meaning “bitter.”

Preparing the coffee was extremely labour-intensive as the beans were first ground in a mortar, then boiled and cooled, boiled and cooled, over and over again. The whole process could take up to 10 hours and was only complete when the coffee was thick and dark enough to stain a cup. Some families employed three members of staff to oversee the work, including one whose main function was to sing soothing ballads to his fellow workers.

Just as Turkish çay (tea) is filtered back and forth from samovar to glass to samovar again, so mırra was passed through at least three different varieties of jug before it could finally be poured into a graceful cezve (coffee pot) with a long handle and a thick, beak-like spout. This was then kept hot over a charcoal brazier, which required a set of utensils rather like those used with nargiles to keep it burning.

 

Mırra is served in the same tiny handleless china cups as normal Turkish coffee, although always without sugar.  Deciding how to drink it is a tricky business -- knock it back too fast and you risk scalding your mouth, too slowly and the flavour will be lost. The answer is to do as the locals do and sip it briskly while rotating the tiny cup in your hand.

 

Etiquette used to dictate that the coffee was served first to the oldest person present, then to everyone else in order of seniority. As soon as a cup was empty it was imperative to hand it straight back to the waiter without putting it down on the table. Failure to comply with this rule was regarded as disrespectful.


More importantly, if the waiter was single, tradition had it that the person who had put the cup down would have to arrange their marriage. Should they already be married, the offender was required to fill the cup with gold -- theoretically to the equivalent in weight of the waiter’s wife. This tradition seems to have developed after a rich guest wanted to tip his waiter. In order to do this discreetly he placed his cup on the ground beside him. When the waiter bent to pick it up, he apologized and filled the cup with gold. These days loose change takes the place of the gold and no one would be so impolite as to enquire after the wife’s weight.


Given the ritual importance of mırra, not everybody was allowed to serve it. Instead, this was a privilege reserved for the wealthy. If a family prospered and wanted to move into the mırra-serving class they were expected to throw a banquet and invite all the local movers and shakers. Then they would ask formal permission for their son to start serving coffee.

 

The Christians of Mardin traditionally served mırra on the three days following a death. However, their Muslim neighbors also served it to celebrate circumcisions, weddings, and the Prophet’s birthday. Additionally, mırra gloried in a reputation as a fail-safe cure for hangovers. These days many local restaurants serve it as a normal after-dinner drink. Rather like modern-day sellers of Maraş ice-cream, they make a show of going through the rituals, but sheer practicality means that no one can afford to lavish 10 hours’ toil on just one cup of mud-like coffee.

 

 

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