Daily Addictions: A Welcoming Cup of Coffee, Scented with Cardamom
Cardamom-infused coffee has a refreshing, aromatic flavor--and is a
traditional sign of welcome in the Arab world.
A thousand years ago an Abyssinian herder, dumbstruck by his wildly cavorting flock of goats, sampled the same shiny red berries his charges had chewed before beginning to twirl like dervishes. The berries were from the coffee tree, of course, and the goat herder soon felt a surge of vitality coursing through his veins. In time big swathes of the human race became addicted to the brew’s energizing lift.
Naturally this is an apocryphal story. But it is true that today, coffee is the second most widely traded commodity in developing counries (oil is first) and that it is consumed by tens of millions of people on a regular basis. I have adored the taste of coffee ever since I was 10 when my father used to slip a silver teaspoon of his Folgers into my breakfast milk. I have friends who cannot be civil before that first eye-opening cup; one gets migraines if she doesn’t partake. And then there are the headaches that come from the health police who want us all to abandon our caffeine addiction. We’ll sleep better, they say, be thinner and less jittery.
Ah, but now it seems we can indulge our habit to our hearts’ content. Well, almost. According to an August 15, 2006 article in The New York Times (“Coffee as a Health Drink? Studies Find Some Benefits” by Nicholas Bakalar), drinking up to 5 cups of coffee daily cuts the risk of getting heart disease, cirrhosis of the liver and type 2 diabetes. It turns out that coffee is full of antioxidants—more even than blueberries or oranges—which curb inflammation associated with cardiovascular disease, alcohol-induced cirrhosis and liver cancer. Scientists are still teasing out the reasons why it slows the onset of diabetes—one possibility is chlorogenic acid, a coffee component that reduces glucose build-up.
(The bad part: Forget coffee if you already have heart disease. Cardiologists point out that the caffeine in coffee raises blood pressure and slows blood flow to the heart, especially during exercise at high altitudes—no mountain biking, please.)
Coffee as medicine is not a new idea. In the 11th century, the renowned Persian physician Avicenna (there is a crater on the moon named after him) wrote that it “fortifies the members, cleans the skin, dries up the humidities that are under it and gives an excellent smell to all the body.” Medieval Arab traders brought Ethiopian coffee to their own lands around 1000 AD, and as Norman Kolpas notes in A Cup of Coffee, by the 16th century “coffee drinking was widespread in the Arab world—even in the holy city of Mecca, where it had been brought by dervishes who drank it during their strenuous ceremonies of worship.”
One of the most pleasurable ways to enjoy coffee is to drink it Arab-style, infused with aromatic green cardamom pods. Although cardamom is native to tropical Sri Lanka and South India (where it is known as the Queen of Spices), it was transported by Arab traders to the Mediterranean nearly two millennia ago. In the first century AD, it was a favorite spice of the ancient Romans, who also used it to clean their teeth and purify the breath. In the past it has been thought to have vague medicinal benefits, useful in treating colds, fevers and various inflammatory complaints. Combining coffee and cardamom seems like a natural, especially since it tastes so good.
In the Middle East, crushed cardamom pods are stuffed into the spout of a coffee pot—when the hot coffee flows over the spice, the brew acquires an aromatic, refreshing flavor. However, in her new cookbook The Arab Table, May Bisou says Arab coffee tastes best when dark roast coffee is simmered on low heat for 3 to 4 hours with as many as 10 coarsely ground cardamom pods. Sugar is never added and certainly not milk, which was thought to induce leprosy in medieval times. This hair-raising inky brew is sipped all day long, but never at breakfast when most Arabs prefer to drink tea.
Bisou, who is of Palestinian descent, notes that cardamom coffee is a traditional gesture of welcome in an Arab home and that you should never refuse the first cup of coffee offered by your host. You should drink at least three tiny cups and when you’ve had enough, signal your host by shaking the empty cup half a dozen times. (If no one offers coffee, you might begin looking for nearest exit.)
Coffee is an intensely personal brew—as Starbucks has learned to its great profit—so view the following recipe, made in a French press pot, as a starting point. The first time you make cardamom-scented coffee, try it my way. The next time, make it your own.
Cardamom-Infused Arab Coffee
To make two 8-ounce cups
4 very fresh green cardamom pods (see note)
5 to 6 heaping tablespoons freshly ground coffee (see note)
16 ounces fresh, cool water
French press pot (17 ounces or larger)
1. Lightly crush the cardamom pods in a mortar and pestle. If the seeds slip out of the pods, crush them gently. Scoop up the pods and seeds and put them in the bottom of a French press pot. Spoon in the freshly ground coffee and set aside.
2. Heat the water in a kettle until steam curls out of the spout and the water is rumbling in the pot. Just before it boils, pour it slowly into the press pot. Put the plunger unit on top of the pot but do not press down.
3. After one minute, remove the plunger unit and stir gently with a spoon. This will cause the grounds to sink to the bottom of the pot. Replace the plunger unit, but again, do not press down. Let the coffee brew for 3 or 4 more minutes. At the end of this time, press the plunger down and pour the coffee into two cups. Drink immediately.
4. For iced Arab-style coffee, pour the coffee into a pitcher and let it cool to room temperature. Refrigerate until cold. To serve, fill two glasses with ice and pour the coffee over it. For a delicious if even more inauthentic version, add 1 to 2 teaspoons of sugar or simple syrup to each glass and milk to taste before pouring in the coffee. Stir to dissolve the sugar and serve at once.
Note: If you prefer a stronger cardamom flavor, add more cardamom pods rather than increasing the brewing time of the coffee. For best results with a press pot, grind coffee beans for about 12 seconds for a medium, uniform grind. Many press pot users insist that a burr grinder is necessary to produce a uniform grind from which the maximum flavor can be extracted. I have had excellent results, however, with my old Braun blade grinder.
Editor's note: A Cup of Coffee: From Plantation to Pot, A Coffee Lover's Guide to the Perfect Brew by Norman Kolpas (New York: Grove Press, 1993) and The Arab Table: Recipes and Culinary Traditions by May S. Bisou (New York: William Morrow, 2005) are both available through www.amazon.com.