Gahwa - An Age Old Custom of Saudi Arabia
Gahwa - An Age Old Custom of Saudi Arabia Last updated on Sunday 25th April 2010
The preparation, serving and drinking of gahwa -- Arabian coffee -- are each individual rituals derived from Bedouin hospitality; traditions that are still bound today by the same ceremony and etiquette which have ruled for centuries.
According to legend, coffee-drinking began in Arabia almost 12 centuries ago when a goat herder named Khalid noticed that while the afternoon sun made him drowsy, his flock frolicked and gambolled after nibbling at the berries of a certain evergreen bush. The ingenious Khalid ground and boiled the agreeable berries and so invented a phenomenon that has worked its way into the marrow of everyday life.
The gahwa ritual (pictured) starts when the host places a set of four coffee pots, called della, next to an open fire. He pours the coffee beans onto a mahmasa, a shallow, long-handled iron pan which he holds just above the flames. He stirs the roasting beans from time to time with a yad al mahmasa, which is attached by a chain to the small pan. When the beans are cooked they are left to cool before being pulverised with a pestle in a mortar called mahbash. When pounding the beans it is necessary to strike the side of the mortar occasionally with the pestle to free the grounds from sticking together. This noise is considered music and the guests should listen carefully and show appreciation of the host's artistic expression.
The largest della contains the coffee grounds from previous days, so water is poured into the second largest pot, to which the freshly ground coffee is added and then boiled over the fire. Meanwhile, the host pounds the cardamom seeds, and sometimes a pinch of saffron, in the mahbash. These spices go into the third della which is then filled with the freshly brewed coffee from the second pot and brought to the boil again. Finally the gahwa is poured into the fourth and smallest pot ready to serve.
It is always the host's privilege to serve his guests, although a servant may assist by holding the tray of small, china cups without handles. He may pour himself a small cup first in order to taste it, but strict rules of etiquette are observed in the serving order. When only men are present, the most important person in the room is served first. Age takes precedence if there is some doubt as to rank. Until a few years ago men were always served before women, but today that custom is often reversed, particularly if Westerners are among the guests.
The cups are only half filled, but guests may have several refills. It is polite to accept an odd number of cups -- one, three or five. When the guest has finished he should jiggle the empty cup from side to side, indicating to the host that he has had sufficient. To refuse the first round is considered not only bad manners but also an insult to the host.
Gahwa is never sweetened with sugar. Instead, fresh dates are offered as the standard accompaniment to the aromatic brew. The papery-skinned fingers of fruit contain 55% natural sugar which refresh and sweeten the palate between each sip of gahwa.
The proportions of coffee and cardamom in recipes for making gahwa varies considerably from region to region. The Saudia airline offers its passengers a blend made from 25 grams of ground Arabic coffee, 35 grams of crushed cardamom and 1 litre of water. To be served a cup of this unique beverage is more than just refreshment, it is unfailing proof that the guest is still revered and honoured in Saudi Arabia. In offering a cup of gahwa the host is saying Ahlan Wa Sahlan, welcome.