Israel’s Freedom Fries Moment

On Language


By Philologos

Published June 16, 2010, issue of June 25, 2010.
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It was, I suppose, predictable. In Israel there is now a movement to change the name of Turkish coffee, or kafey turki, as it is known in Hebrew. Bad enough, the movement’s proponents say, to be insulted by the Turkish government, denounced by its prime minister and have one’s flag burned by Turkish demonstrators without also having to drink the Turks’ coffee — especially since they never invented it in the first place.

Although kafey turki is likely to remain kafey turki in Israel, just as French fries remained French fries in America despite efforts to rename them when France criticized the American invasion of Iraq, the antis have a point. The Turks were not the originators of Turkish coffee — which, for those of you who may never have drunk it, is prepared by heating water, finely ground coffee beans, and (unless you prefer it bitter) sugar in a beaker, bringing the mixture to a boil, quickly removing it from the fire to prevent it from overflowing, and repeating the procedure several times. After the final boiling, the beaker must be left alone for a while to let the coffee grounds settle to the bottom. Even then, the coffee should be poured slowly and gently to keep the grounds from spilling out into the cup.

This is the simplest and almost certainly the oldest method of making coffee, whose beans originally came from a plant indigenous to the highlands of Ethiopia, where they were probably first drunk in powdered form somewhere between 600 and 1,000 years ago. The Ethiopians called the coffee plant bun, and when, in the 15th and 16th centuries, its consumption, and, eventually, its cultivation crossed the Gulf of Eden to Yemen and traveled from there to other Arab countries, the drink was called by the Arabs qahwat el-bun, “the elixir of the bun.” In time, this was shortened to qahwa, from which our English “coffee” ultimately derives.

To this day, “Turkish” coffee is, other than in cafés and hotels designed for tourists, the only coffee prepared in Arab countries, where it is simply called qahwa with no need for a qualifying adjective.

Why, then, have the Turks gotten credit for it in many of the languages of Europe? The obvious answer would seem to be that it was the coffeehouses of the Ottoman Empire that spread the drinking of coffee to Greece and the Balkans, from which it reached the rest of Europe. Coffee’s diffusion took place quickly. First drunk in Istanbul in the 1550s (The Turks, who do not have a “w” sound, called it kahve, and the voiced “v” changed in most European languages to an unvoiced “f.”), it arrived in Western Europe a hundred years later. The first English coffeehouse was established in London in 1654, and by the end of the 17th century, coffee was a widespread drink throughout Europe.

And yet the obvious answer to why credit accrues to the Turks is wrong because the term “Turkish coffee” did not appear in European languages until relatively recently. Not only, for example, won’t you find it in the unabridged “Oxford English Dictionary,” whose 12th and last volume was published in 1895, you won’t even find it in the OED’s 1933 supplement, although you will find “Turkish bath,” “Turkish delight” and “Turkish towel.”

This really shouldn’t be so surprising. After all, well into the 19th century, coffee in Europe was what it still is in the Arab world today: boiled in a beaker. There being only one kind, it was known everywhere simply as coffee.

Non-Turkish coffee is a largely 20th-century development. Although the first percolator was designed by the American inventor Benjamin Thompson (1753-1814), commercial percolators were not introduced into the United States until the late 19th century. The first espresso machine dates to 1901. The first paper filter was created in Germany in 1908. (It is possible to make, under duress, palatable filter coffee by using an ordinary sock, too, but I doubt whether socks were ever widely resorted to). The first French press coffee maker was patented in 1929.

It was only when such alternative coffee-making techniques became popular, eventually supplanting the older method throughout Europe and the Americas, that a name for this method became imperative. “Turkish coffee” was the one given it because, even though it was an Ethiopian and Arab invention, many fewer Europeans had been to Ethiopia or Arab lands than to Turkey, and boiled-beaker coffee was known primarily as a Turkish drink.

And yet it is not only the Arabs who still don’t call Turkish coffee “Turkish coffee.” The Greeks, who used to call it that, began saying “Greek coffee” after the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, while the Armenians, who have even less reason to like the Turks than do the Greeks, call it “Armenian coffee.” (In fact, I was nearly thrown out of an Armenian restaurant in New York for asking for Turkish coffee at the end of my meal.) Hopefully, Turkish-Israeli relations will not deteriorate to the point where Israelis feel the same way. And even if they should, Turkish coffee in Israel is largely an Arab drink. Most Jews prefer espresso or other forms of coffee and drink kafey turki only when camping or roughing it.

“Israeli coffee” it will never be called, even if diplomacy fails.


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