What Is Qahwa Coffee? Origins and Traditions Explained

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

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Lesser-known coffee recipes from across the world have always fascinated me. One such brew, qahwa coffee, is a traditional Arabic delight and a particular favorite of mine. 

Lesser-known coffee recipes from across the world have always fascinated me. One such brew, qahwa coffee, is a traditional Arabic delight and a particular favorite of mine. 

Qahwa is a coffee deeply rooted in Arab culture and history. This aromatic coffee has a distinctive depth of flavor and earthy, nutty notes. The flavor profile goes beyond what is typical in mainstream coffee selections. 

I want to take you on a fascinating journey that explores the story of this regional favorite. You’ll discover the origins of qahwa coffee and its importance in Arabic culture and beyond. 

So, as an Arabic speaker would say, yallah! meaning “let’s go!”

Join me on this coffee journey full of Eastern promise. I guarantee you unique flavors and tasting notes sure to tantalize your taste buds!

Overview: What Is Qahwa Coffee?

At its most basic, qahwa coffee (or kahwa, qahwa Arabiyye) consists of coarsely ground coffee from green or lightly roasted beans and water brewed in a traditional Arabic coffee pot (dallah).

The liquid brews for 15 to 20 minutes, yielding a distinctive-tasting coffee that’s always served black.

Qahwa’s preparation and consumption follow specific rules and rituals. Seeing as coffee entered the Islamic world from Ethiopia via Yemen as early as the 1400s, its traditions differ vastly from more recent practices in Western coffee culture. 

But what has made this Arabic coffee a beloved beverage across many Middle Eastern countries and beyond? Simple: its earthy and nutty flavor profile

Unlike Turkish coffee, preparing qahwa saada (unsweetened qahwa) means skipping the sugar. This coffee is strong and guaranteed to give you a jolt. What’s more, it lingers on the tongue, revealing hidden spicy and bitter-tasting notes. 

Let’s face it, not all coffee lovers can stand a punchy, Robusta-like coffee like qahwa. Because of this, most Arab countries add spices and aromatics to this coffee. The most commonly added spice is cardamom. Saffron, cloves, cinnamon or rose petals/water are popular regional favorites that create a unique taste experience.

Adding spices gives qahwa its on-the-money fragrant, floral and spicy flavor profile. Still, breaking with tradition and adding sugar is rare. Much like with a regular cup of joe in the west and other parts of the world, added sugar in your brew is a matter of personal preference.

The Cultural Significance of Qahwa

Qahwa Arabic Coffee Pot

Qahwa plays a significant symbolic role in Arab culture. Just how important a role? Well, in 2015, UNESCO added qahwa coffee to its Intangible Cultural World Heritage list.

This intoxicating brew is a guaranteed part of everyday Arab hospitality. As a guest, a host will serve you qahwa (or sometimes sweet tea) as a sign that they wholeheartedly welcome you to their house. But it doesn’t end there! Qahwa is also an integral part of business meetings; an unmistakable sign of respect before the hard work of negotiating a deal begins.

Most importantly, you can’t miss qahwa at traditional ceremonies and social gatherings. This traditional Arabic coffee recipe is a staple at family gatherings and special occasions. It takes center stage during births, rites of passage, weddings and religious gatherings during Ramadan and Eid.

Finally, don’t put on a surprise Pikachu face if you ask for coffee and instead get qahwa during your airport layover in the Middle East. They take qahwa very seriously in Arab countries. You’ll likely get served this black Arabic coffee before a Starbucks-style drip, espresso, or americano any day! 

How Is Qahwa Coffee Brewed and Served?

Brewmasters make this Arabic coffee recipe using a dallah, an hourglass-shaped Arabic coffee pot. Although its origins are unclear, this brewer has existed since the 1600s. It’s so essential in making authentic Arabic coffee that it features in artwork, popular stories and even on paper currency.

This special coffee pot has a recognizable figure-8 or Coke bottle silhouette. Crowning it is a spire-shaped lid, finial with crescent-like beak (some with a lid, some without), and a gooseneck kettle-style handle.

Dallahs are reminiscent of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia and the countless other mosques like it. These brass, copper or silver vessels boast beautiful engravings, stylized Arabic font and even precious stones. For special occasions (or if you happen to find yourself having coffee with an emir or a sultan), expect your qahwa coffee to come in a 24 carat gold-plated or solid gold dallah.

Apart from the brewing equipment, you’ll need lightly roasted or green coffee beans. However, green coffee beans can be hard to find, save from particular coffee traders and online retailers. 

scooping up green coffee beans

So, what to do? Avoid trying to make this Arabic coffee recipe? Not a chance!

You could buy your own single-origin green Arabica beans Or, why not go the whole hog and make your own Arabica-Robusta blend? After all, this is a rare coffee, so, immerse yourself in the full experience! 

The next step involves lightly roasting coffee beans at home (only if you fail to get a suitable light roast online). Pan-roast your beans for about five minutes on medium heat, constantly turning them until they change color. Then, coarsely grind your coffee beans using a manual grinder or electric burr coffee grinder.

You’re now ready to brew this Arabic coffee!

Brewing and Serving Authentic Qahwa Coffee

Now to the brewing method. As I’ve stated, qahwa coffee is earthy, nutty ground coffee and water brewed in a special coffee pot.

This Arabic coffee recipe is traditionally prepared over a wood fire (as the desert Bedouins would), hot coals or a heated sand pit. Modern street-level coffee shops (mohaila) may use a gas stove instead. 

Brewing Qahwa Coffee

Brewmasters in the Middle East measure 2 to 3 tablespoons of coarsely ground coffee and combine with three cups of boiling water. They then gently boil this liquid in the dallah for 15 to 20 minutes. 

The addition of spices, such as saffron, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom and sometimes rose water to the brewing coffee grounds comes next. They then leave the coffee to settle for about five minutes before pouring it into a separate ornamental dallah for serving.

Qahwa recipes vary from one Arab country to the next. The Levant and Saudi recipes are simple, commonly containing only cardamom. On the other hand, Emirati qahwa contains saffron, cloves and cardamom. Even more complex is the Yemeni recipe, which is packed full of cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves.

How to Authentically Serve Qahwa Coffee

Serve coffee as the locals would – black and piping hot in small cups with no handles. If you can’t find these traditional small cups, espresso cups will do.

Oh, and make a show of it in front of your guests by pouring your coffee into the cup from on high as they do in the countless souk coffee shops throughout the Middle East.

No milk added is the only way to go. Milk would only mask the flavor profile of this earthy and nutty coffee and rob you of the chance to experience this unique beverage. 

Traditionally, coffee lovers in Arab countries enjoy qahwa coffee with sweet delicacies. Commonly, nuts, dried fruit (dates, figs, apricots) or candied fruit are the preferred accompaniments. So too are pre-made sweets from the local bakery or candy shop.

Top choices include baklava (syrup and nut-filled pastries), knafeh (syrup-drenched sweet cheese topped with spun pastry) and Turkish delight (starchy rose water-scented sweets).

How to Make Qahwa Coffee: Authentic Arabic Coffee Recipe

Well, now that we know all about qahwa coffee, how about learning how to make this delicious coffee like a pro? 

For this Arabic coffee recipe you’ll need: 

Ingredients

  • 2-3 tablespoons (30-45 grams) coarsely ground coffee (single origin or Arabica/Robusta blend

  • 2-3 cups (480-720 milliliters) filtered water

  • 1 tablespoon (15 grams) ground or crushed cardamom pods

  • 2-3 whole cloves (optional)

  • 1 cinnamon stick (optional)

  • 1 teaspoon (5 milliliters) good-quality rosewater

  • 1/8 teaspoon (0.75 grams) saffron strands

Equipment

  • Dallah or similar coffee pots. Alternatively use a heavy-bottomed saucepan

  • Wooden spoon (for stirring)

For Serving

  • Ornamental dallah, coffee pot or teapot

  • Arabic coffee cups (fenjal) or demitasse cups

  • Ornamental serving tray

  • Honey (optional)

Qahwa Arabic Coffee Recipe

Authentic Arabic Coffee (Qahwa) Recipe: Instructions

  1. Boil water using a gooseneck kettle or other electric kettle.

  2. Measure out 3 tablespoons of coarsely ground coffee into your dallah and combine with the just-boiled water. If you don’t have this special Arabic coffee pot, you can substitute for a small cooking pot or a Turkish ibrik.

  3. Boil this liquid on medium-high heat for at least 10 minutes. Gently stir using a wooden spoon. Simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, depending on your desired strength. Ensure that the liquid does not come to a rolling boil as this could ruin the flavor of your final cup.

  4. This Arabic coffee recipe calls for ground or crushed cardamom. Authentic Arabic coffee recipes add as much cardamom as coffee, but this may be too much for some palates.

  5. You may also add cinnamon sticks, ground cinnamon, whole cloves or rose petals, it all depends on how adventurous you’re feeling. Remember to stir the mixture with a wooden spoon.

  6. Next, add in the saffron and rose water (if using). Stir the coffee, saffron and rose water mixture using a wooden spoon.

  7. Strain the coffee liquid, pouring into an ornamental dallah, similar coffee pot or teapot. Set aside for 5 minutes to allow the coffee grounds to settle.

  8. Serve qahwa piping hot in traditional Arabic coffee cups arranged on an ornamental serving tray.

  9. You shouldn’t sweeten authentic qahwa when serving it. But if the taste is too robust for you, I’d recommend adding honey.

  10. Enjoy with candied or dried fruit, dates, roasted nuts, or shop-bought Middle Eastern sweets.

Final Thoughts: Qahwa Coffee Is the Very Essence of Arab Culture and Hospitality

It’s clear that qahwa coffee isn’t just an Arabic coffee recipe; it’s so much more than that. Rather, qahwa is a cornerstone of Arab culture and a cross-cultural sensation. 

For non-Arab java lovers, qahwa coffee is a delicious departure from the norm. The rich, aromatic, earthy notes dance on the palate and the elaborate preparation makes for a unique coffee experience.

Drinking this Arabic coffee recipe is a ritual steeped in history and tradition. Importantly, qahwa showcases the best of Arab hospitality. You’ll experience authentic Middle Eastern coffee culture enjoyed by all Arabs, from the Lebanese, Palestinians and Syrians in the Levant to the Bedouins and Saudis in the Gulf and beyond! 

Have you ever had Arabic qahwa before? What did you think of this aromatic and earthy Middle Eastern take on coffee? I’d love to hear your views and opinions so feel free to leave a comment below!

Qahwa Coffee FAQ

Although coffee and qahwa consist of ground coffee beans brewed in water, they differ in their preparation. Coffee has multiple brewing methods, including drip, pour-over and espresso. Like Turkish coffee, Arabic qahwa typically uses a special coffee brewer (dallah) to brew coffee using coffee grounds from green or lightly roasted coffee beans.

On its own, qahwa is earthy and slightly bitter. Adding spices such as ground cinnamon, crushed cardamom, cloves, saffron and rose water is typical. These spices give this traditional Arabic coffee unique floral, herbal and citrusy notes.

Qahwa or Kahwa means “coffee” or “brew” in Arabic. The word originally meant “wine” or “strength.” It is the origin of the Turkish and East African (Swahili) words for coffee – “kahve” and “kahawa.” The Dutch adapted the word into “kaffe” when they introduced coffee to Europe in the 16th Century.

This Arabic coffee recipe can certainly help with weight loss. It has a high caffeine and low carb content. Ultimately, drinking qahwa can suppress your appetite and speed up your metabolism. This, in turn, promotes weight loss.

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Arne Preuss

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

More about Arne Preuss

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

More about Arne Preuss

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