Coffee and…Politics: The Battle for “Turkish coffee”



“One coffee, many names!” one could say. Or the femme fatale of coffees: many claim to “own” her, but, does she actually belong to one person only? Similarly, is Turkish coffee actually “Turk” or can it also be Greek, Cypriot, Armenian, Bosnian or Arabic? What is the history behind these “variations”?

Let me give you some information about the coffee’s journey first. It all started in the Arabian Peninsula when, in the mid 14th century, coffee cultivation reached Yemen and spread quickly to all Arabic regions. Yemen’s climate and fertile soil offered the ideal conditions for cultivating rich coffee harvests.

For 300 years, it was drunk following the recipe first used in Ethiopia. The method of preparing it, namely boiling finely ground coffee in a small copper pot (cezve), typically sweetened, and served in a demitasse, is said to also stem from 15th century Yemen, reaching Constantinople in 17th century and consequently spreading across the Ottoman Empire. To be more specific, during the reign of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Governor of Yemen, who had grown to love the drink while stationed in that country, introduced this coffee to Constantinople.


The name variations we encounter also derive from the regions in the Ottoman Empire to which it spread, which included Greece, the Balkans and in general the Eastern Mediterranean. The reasons are clearly political because, for what concerns  the coffee preparation, there are more similarities than differences: the preparation is still done using a pot but not necessarily a copper one, the mix still contains finely ground coffee, more or less roasted, and sugar is added according to  taste. In Arabic countries, people also add spices, such as cardamom or cinnamon. Or in Greece, the water for the mix is at first slightly warm, then the coffee and sugar are added, stirred, slowly boiled for a while, then after the “first bubbles”, stirred slightly again away from the stove in order for the mixture to “calm down” and then boiled for a second and final time. On the other hand, in Turkey, the mixture does not require the water to be warm or the boiling to happen twice, but it can be made with cold water by placing all the ingredients together from the beginning.

This is briefly how,  through this journey,  “Arabic” coffee became “Turkish”, but what about “Greek”, “Cypriot”, “Armenian” and “Bosnian” versions of the, apparently, same coffee? According to various sources, after the banishment of the Greek Community of İstanbul through deportations and expatriation in 1964, everything that had to do with Turkey was “forbidden” or “banned” in Greece and from people’s habits.. This is how Turkish coffee became Greek or ellinikos kafes. A similar case occurred in Cyprus. After the occupation of a part of Cyprus in 1974, the Cypriots reacted similarly to the Greeks, by “banishing” anything Turkish, and so Turkish coffee became Cypriot or kypriakos kafes.

For the Bosnians, we observe apparently the same “issue”. Turkish coffee is Bosnian or Bosanska kafa and the name also has to do with the Ottoman occupation of the territory. After Bosnia-Hercegovina was liberated from Ottomans they began calling the coffee Bosnian, explaining that there is a difference in its preparation: as the Greeks, the Bosnians use warm water instead of cold.

Finally, in Armenia, the reason is even more painful that the one of Greece. The Ottomans actually led a genocide against more than a million people between 1915 and 1923. The Ottoman “fingerprint” had to be erased even from the simple stuff. The coffee began to be called Armenian.

It is amazing the power, memories linked with intense feelings, can have. One can taste a simple, common, brewed drink and remember a genocide by listening to its name. Turkish coffee as it seems, has more to do with politics and history than food!


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Written by Katerina Palamioti