Thursday, September 22, 2011

Armenian Coffee with Salt?

All her life Marash Girl had heard the story of Auntie Gulenia and the Armenian Coffee.  As Peter told the story, one day a young man came courting Gulenia (Peter's oldest sister). Upon his arrival, the suitor was ushered into the living room by Gulenia's family while Gulenia dutifully went into the kitchen to prepare Armenian coffee for everyone.  She prepared the coffee in the traditional manner, in a jezveh, bringing the coffee to a boil three times before pouring it into the demi-tasse cups, making sure each cup had just the right amount of froth on the top.  Ceremoniously, she carried the tray of cups full of coffee into the living room where she served each guest and family member.

As the family and guests sat around sipping their coffee, the young man who had come courting took a sip of his coffee, looked around confused, took another sip, looked around confused, took another sip. Everyone else seemed to be very happy with their demi-tasse of Armenian coffee.  All but the man who had come courting, who, after one last sip, got up and left without a word.

It seems that inadvertently, Auntie Gulenia had poured coffee into the one demi-tasse cup that held the salt (every Armenian kitchen had a demitasse cup full of salt sitting on the stove) and again, inadvertently, she had given that cup to her suitor.  

All these years, Peter had made it seem that the salt in the coffee was an accident.  It was only recently that Marash Girl learned that the test for every potential Armenian bride by her future Armenian husband is the way in which she makes and serves Armenian demi-tasse coffee.  Interestingly enough, some brides have been known to switch salt for sugar when brewing in order to create an undrinkable cup of Armenian Coffee, in an effort to avoid an unthinkable marriage.  Was that Auntie Gulenia's ploy?  We'll never know!

This salty tradition has become an institutionalized joke in Turkey, where today at engagement parties, the fiancee puts salt in the coffee which she serves to her future husband!

Recipe for Armenian Coffee

Ingredients (depending on the size of the jezveh):

  • 2 cups cold water
  • 2 tablespoons of extra finely freshly ground (almost powdered) Armenian coffee (available at Middle Eastern Stores)
  • 2 tablespoons (or less) sugar
  •  NO salt (unless you want to chase away a potential suitor)
In a jezveh, bring water and sugar to a boil in ibrik.  Add coffee and stir. Put jezveh back over the flame and bring to a boil, remove from heat, bring to a boil, remove from heat, bring to a boil (three times in all).  Avoid stirring as this will cause the foam to dissipate.

Pour into demitasse cups, a little at a time (a bit in the first cup, a bit in the second cup, a bit in the third cup, etc.), making sure each cup has equal amounts of coffee and equal amounts of foam, unless you want to 'dis' someone that you are serving by giving them very little foam.
When folks are finished drinking their coffee, and only the sludge is left at the bottom, they should turn the cup toward them, upside down onto the saucer, leaving it for several minutes.  If there is an old Armenian lady in the room, she is sure to be able to read your fortune in the pattern of coffee left on the insides of your cup.
N.B.  The incident Peter related occurred in the 1930's in Newtonville, Massachusetts; Gulenia, who was born in Marash, married the man she loved,  an Aintabtsi. She is still living at 106 years old in Pasadena, California!


  1. Auntie Gulenia is a very smart women, and clever. i am quite certain the salty coffee was not an accident. Good for Auntie Gulenia. She made her choice sans histrionics and offense given to the suitor.

  2. My maternal grandparents were Josephine and Levon Yenovkian from Marash. They eventually, after 1920, went to live in Palestine where my mother was born in 1924. When mom was college age, she went to Beirut College for Women. About the time she graduated and started teaching in the Sidon Girls School, she went as a volunteer to a welfare camp in north Lebanon, a project of BCW. At the same time, my father, an American serving as a short-term fraternal worker under the Presbyterian Church went to Lebanon and was assigned to work at the summer welfare camp. When my mother first saw him she said to herself, I wish God would send me someone like him. One day, soon after their first meeting, she and some of the other women salted dad's water. He picked it up, and without a flinch, downed it, never saying a word. They were eventually married and that encounter was one of the things that lead them towards each other. They were married in 1949 and ended up working as Presbyterian fraternal workers from 1954 to 1985. Both were wonderful people and parents and I can now see that the salting of his water was a tradition that went back to her Armenian heritage.