'Locking in' a Good Meal

A history of tea and coffee in Egypt

Traditional CoffeeRAWI Publishing

Coffee was introduced to Egypt in the 16th c. and, despite initial religious opposition, gained popularity relatively fast.

Coffeehouses began as low-class ventures, perhaps due to their resemblance to taverns, but by the end of the 19th c., they had penetrated Egyptian society up to the elite classes.

Pouring Coffee
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Popular Egyptian coffeehouses became iconic, bringing together revolutionaries, political activists, artists, musicians, and intellectuals, as well as the unemployed, often providing them with a refuge and a home away from home.

An Egyptian Café, Cairo (1896)RAWI Publishing

Thousands of Coffeehouses

‘Cairo contains above a thousand Kahwehs, or coffee-shops.(…)The coffeeshops are most frequented in the afternoon and evening; but by few except persons of the lower orders, and tradesmen. (..) The Egyptians are excessively fond of pure and strong coffee, thus prepared; and very seldom add sugar to it (though some do when they are unwell), and ever milk or cream; but a little cardamom-seed is often added to it. It is a common custom, also, to fumigate the cup with the smoke of mastic; and the wealthy sometimes impregnate the coffee with the delicious fragrance of ambergris.’
Edward William Lane, excerpt from An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, written c.1836         

Man Smoking Sheesha Pipe in Qahwa (Coffeeshop)RAWI Publishing

Crackling Coal and Newspaper
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Lane then continues to tell us that at the coffeehouses ‘Each person (brought) his own tobacco and pipe’ and describes the various modes of preparation of hashish, which would (at the time) typically be acquired at the qahwas leading one to understand why they were often considered places of ill-repute.

Smoking Shisha
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Today, every qahwa offers a  lineup of sheesha pipes with an assortment mu‘assel (molasses-based tobacco) in flavours ranging from cantaloupe to bubble-gum, with apple the most common.

Tea and Chess at a Cairene CoffeeshopRAWI Publishing

Chess Playing
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A trip to the coffeehouse almost always means a game of chess or backgammon, here served with a side of calming anise tea.

Tea and Sheesha Pipe at a Cairene CoffeeshopRAWI Publishing

The coffeehouse in Egypt is still essentially called qahwa, simply meaning ‘coffee’, but today, these establishments mostly serve tea as their primary beverage.

Although more recently introduced to Egypt than coffee, tea took off in the 20th c. to become Egypt’s most widely consumed beverage. It is usually taken black and heavily sugared, often served with some fresh sprigs of mint.

Tea on the Terrace of the Semiramis Hotel (1934)RAWI Publishing

Cafe Ambience
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Tea was introduced to Egypt after the British occupation in 1882. In typical colonial capitalist fashion, tea leaves were extracted from the Indian sub-continent, refined, packaged and then exported back to imperial territories including Egypt.

Cafe Ambience
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Tea took the place of coffee as a popular beverage between the 1920s and the 1950s, especially among the Egyptian poor. It quickly became the national favourite, such that between 1947 and 1959, Egyptians consumed more than 30 million pounds of tea.

For more on Egypt's culinary culture, check out this story on a historic sweet treat, the 'moulid' doll.

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