Why Is Coffee Important In UAE?
Updated on 03 April 2019

By: Salamah Ghudayer

The Emirati Coffee tradition; called Qahawa is a tradition from bean to refreshment served sip by sip in little handless cups. Our beans are only slightly roasted, over a fire, cardamom and saffron are added and the noise of the mortar and pestle announces to all, fresh coffee and conversation is being welcomed. Served not by the host or hostess but a standing server to not interrupt the majlis conversation; communication is done by a movement of the cup; a twist - you are done, a lift - you want more. 

When the coffee is prepared in the traditional way, not the quicker method some houses must use now to just ‘get it done,’ the taste is different; everything is different. It’s almost indescribable, but an experience that must be witnessed. So integral, the United Nations has protected it for UAE as an intangible asset. Imagine, you are a guest, coming toward a home you will visit. First the slight scent of a fire passes across your face. “They have roasted the beans and are boiling the water over the fire,” you think to yourself. Ding-dingling-ding-dingaling; your ears catch the sharp then light sounds of the mortar and pestle from the brass accessories which keep the heat of the hot beans. Once you reach within sight of the home, you can smell the cardamom and something else, but you know it is saffron, as they are mingled with the hot beans being crushed and the rich spicy perfume of the mixture arises to your senses as you walk forward. Into the boiling water you see the mixture goes; bubbles boil up to the top once, then twice, then it’s strained into a della that can be held easier than the one now sitting over the fire and all just in time as you greet your hostess nose to burqa, and sit down on a cushion. Off to the side you notice another neighbour lady is headed over. She heard and smelled the welcome and has come to share her news and listen to ours. The majlis has begun. 

At the risk of sounding similar to the father in ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding,’ coffee is Arab. There are too kinds of coffee beans; the more bitter Robusta and deeper Arabica. Robusta was initially grown in Africa and Arabica in the mountainous regions of Yemen; but Arabica came first; one hundred years at least prior to Robusta. This original coffee region though is only spilt by the narrow Red Sea, yet conditions on both sides; soil and weather produce quite different tastes. How then, does the world think coffee is the product of Latin America? In the 1800’s there was a migration of Arabs to South America and it is the same time, Brazil got its first coffee plantation. Historian’s will say it was French people who brought the plants; but the time period and history speaks for itself; that and there are more people of Lebanese descent in Brazil than in Lebanon. Columbia though is the famous land of coffee you say? Though Columbia too has a giant population of Arabs, the earliest reported coffee plant there was just a decade earlier than Brazil, brought by religious priests of the Jesuit order which was founded in Spain; where who ruled until the “rise of the west” in the 16th century when the order was founded; the Arab Caliphs for over seven hundred years. 

Coming back to the Emirates and our coastal nation; coffee was sometimes the only thing to serve a guest. Water we could get and some coffee beans can be stretched a long way for the light-colored refreshment which can satisfy the stomach with its warmth. The huge buffets of today were unseen in the childhood of the middle-aged Emirati. Their parents as well know of even harsher economic times; including even the household of the late Sheikh Zayed, when famously their dwindling stores of food was shared with the community without hesitation. So, coffee turned into something beyond what it seems. Its preparation was an invitation sent by scent and sound. Hospitality was being served and the most valued commodity of all; meaningful human connection.

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