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Sunday Journal: Special memories of coffee in Jerusalem

Exploring the old city of Jerusalem with my husband, Gary, I was enchanted by the nooks and crannies of a city so foreign to my North American background. Arab and Jew shared a tentative peace, giving us an illusion of safety. It was 1971 and we were too young to believe any harm could befall us.

Jerusalem is a city built on a city, built on a city. Everywhere is evidence of a previous building beneath the current one. Tired from our day's excursion we found a small cafe on a narrow alley in the Arab quarter. Hidden from tourist traffic, we hoped we had stumbled into an authentic native experience. We were not disappointed. The entryway was excavated through a thick chiseled stone wall from centuries ago. The floor of the original doorway lay buried under tons of dirt and old walls, with the most recent dwelling built on the rubble. Touching the cool stones for support, we bent low passing through a narrow tunnel to enter the cafe. The claustrophobic entrance opened into a large high-ceilinged room.

The proprietor, dressed in a keffiyeh, a traditional Arab headdress, and blue jeans, gestured for us to sit at one of seven small Formica-covered tables. Evidence of multilevel architecture adorned the room. The tops of old windows, now bricked in, visibly marked where the previous room ended and the new began. The ancient stone walls brought cool relief from the searing temperatures outdoors. They muffled the sound of bicycles, mules and hawkers from the alley and filled the cafe with an earthy damp smell. Overlaid on this was the aroma of Turkish coffee, as multileveled in its bouquet as the architecture around us. We were pleased to see the other patrons were Arab men playing backgammon and smoking water-cooled tobacco from a narghile, enjoying their mid-afternoon respite. It boded well for the authenticity of the shop.

Turkish coffee was a new taste I learned to appreciate from a Turkish student traveler at our hostel. He showed us the correct technique to brew the coffee into a sweet, rich liqueur. He measured finely ground coffee beans, sugar and water into a specially shaped coffee pot: wide on the bottom and narrow at the top to keep the grinds close to the heat. The pot is set on the heat until the water almost comes to a boil. The narrowing mouth of the pot allows the heated coffee to shoot up quickly. Before it can boil over, the pot is immediately removed from the heat. This is done three times, being careful to let the cloudy mixture rise to the rim of the pot without boiling over the edge. The expert coffeemaker knows the exact moment between well cooked or messy accident. The dark brown coffee is then poured into small cups with care to leave the gritty grounds behind.

We ordered cups of Turkish coffee and a honey-drenched slice of a flaky pistachio pastry to share. The store owner served the coffee and dessert from an elegant silver tray. The coffee was delicious. It was creamy and sweet and bitter just as our Turkish friend's coffee, but it also tasted of an unidentifiable sweet spice. Gary and I looked at each other. We ordered the coffee speaking in broken Hebrew, perhaps identifying us as Jews. Had that been a mistake? Should we have stayed with hand signals and English? We were concerned.

My mind flashed back to an old horror story. In Roald Dahl's The Landlady, a hotel owner served tea tasting slightly of bitter almond. An image of how her proficient taxidermy skills enabled her to keep visitors forever, floated uninvited through my mind. She too had served from a silver tray.

Could the owner be trying to drug us? We were tucked away and hidden in this remote back alley. No one knew where we were. It could be weeks before my parents in Chicago would even know we were missing.

We bravely told the proprietor the coffee was delicious but there was an unusual flavor. Yes, he told us, it was "hell." We accepted this, hoping it didn't mean he was sending us to that location, and finished drinking the coffee to its last velvety drop. The taste was worth the risk. It wasn't until later we learned hell was the Hebrew word for cardamom, a small pod-shaped spice with tiny black seeds frequently used in baking. Bedouins often add it to their coffee.

Now whenever I make Turkish coffee in the traditional way, I add a little hell. I rejoice in the double aroma and remember an old Arab gentleman who introduced me to something wonderful.

Sheila Wasserman is a freelance writer who lives in St. Petersburg. She has a master's degree in business and a bachelor of science degree in liberal science.

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Sunday Journal: Special memories of coffee in Jerusalem

05/17/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 28, 2010 1:59pm]

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