Traditional Gahwa Ceremony
Coffee is integral to Arab hospitality, and the traditions associated with it are essential to the region’s heritage. Serving Arabic coffee to guests is an important element of hospitality in Arab and Emirati societies and a symbolic act of generosity. Arabic coffee (pronounced “gahwa” in the Emirati Arabic dialect) has been a central part of Arab culture for centuries and its preparation and serving is marked by elaborate traditions and rituals. So deeply is coffee connected to Emirati daily life that every day starts with coffee. It’s part of the political, economic and cultural aspects of daily life. In the UAE, this love and enthusiasm for serving and drinking coffee remains even though modern and mainstream coffee chains can be found all over the country, many cafes, just like people’s homes, also serve gahwa. Arabic life starts with Arabic coffee. When welcoming guests, even poor households can always afford to serve coffee and dates.
Gahwa is more than just coffee: it signifies the entire ceremony of preparing and serving the brew. The serving of Arabic coffee is guided by elaborate etiquette for the server, the guest and the host. The coffee server is seated at a low wooden table, transferring coffee from the brewing pot, lined with dried palm tree fiber, to another dallah pot filtering the liquid from the beans, then into yet another pot. The coffee is served using the left hand with the thumb pointing to the top, and is poured slowly into a small cup held in the right hand until it’s about half full – this is so that the guest can hold the hot coffee with ease. The host keeps pouring into the guest’s cup until the latter shakes the cup, to say that it’s enough. The most important or oldest guest is served first, and the cup is only filled one-quarter full. Filling the cup all the way to the top would signal to the guests that they’re not welcome, although that is unheard of, the spirit of Gulf hospitality would not let anyone be turned away from gahwa. Common practice is to drink at least one cup but not exceed three.
Coffee-making tools are collectively called the Ma`ameel (brew basket), and include specialized equipment, chiefly al tawa (a wide circular pan for roasting coffee beans), al mihmas (a spoon for stirring beans), and an iron clamp to place and spread embers inside the stove. The dallah pot is specially designed and decorated, three types of dallahs are used in preparing and serving Arabic coffee: dallat al khamrah (a large pot for boiling coffee and cardamom), dallat al talgeemah (a medium-sized pot for filtering the coffee) and dallat al mazalah (a small pot from which the coffee is served). Usually made of brass, the dallah is a unique pot made of sheets of metal bent together with heat, and often engraved with patterns. There are four basic motifs: a swirl, a diamond, a flower and a design based on the cardamom pod. The dallah has also become a strong symbol for the UAE as a country. Giant versions of the elaborate pot can be seen in roundabouts across the cities, there is also a dallah proudly decorating the one dirham coin.
Gahwa can be found across the entire Gulf, but three essential things set the countries apart: the bean roasting, the preparation and the dallahs. Coffee beans used in Saudi Arabia have a cinnamon color, while in the UAE they are more yellow. Saudis mix cardamom and cloves into their beans as they are prepared; Emiratis use cardamom, saffron and rosewater.