The not so unbiqitous welcome drink, Saudi style

Among the many new products and services which I introduced to our brave foreign and local guests over six memorable and highly volatile years of service in Pakistan, was one for which I may be long remembered: My signature cinnamon iced tea, served ice cold as a welcome drink to our arriving guests during the long hot and humid Karachi summers, and served steaming hot during the port city’s chilly winters.

The “secret” recipe was actually created by accident, as many inventions are, when I added a couple of cinnamon sticks, several dollops of honey, and a few other assorted spices to a jug of iced tea in my refrigerator. Left overnight to infuse, the ingredients combined to create a dark and musky beverage which was later replicated and served to thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of appreciative guests over the six challenging years I spent in Karachi.

After this epic adventure I left my cinnamon tea lovers behind to return to another challenging market in another of my favorite cities, Riyadh, capital of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where new towers of glistening glass and steel are rising from the desert sands at the same frantic pace as they did in Dubai back in the 90’s, and where our arriving guests from all over the world are also in search of a special spicy welcome drink, which we call Al-Qawha, or Arabic coffee.  

Arabic coffee is a general name that refers to the way coffee is prepared in many Arab countries, but it originated here in the Arabian Peninsula. Our own version of Saudi coffee, or ‘‘Al-Qahwa’’ as it is known locally, is made from the finest Yemeni coffee beans roasted very lightly, then ground delicately along with cardamom, which combines with the uniquely aromatic Yemeni coffee flavor to provide a true and traditional taste of Arabian culture and heritage.

Our special “local brew” is served by Ali our coffee man from Yemen, to all arriving guests from sunrise to sunset, and sometimes late into the evening, along with Saudi Arabia’s world famous sweet, plump dates.

Arabic coffee is often served along with Saudi Arabia's famous dates.
Arabic coffee is often served along with Saudi Arabia’s famous dates.

First time visitors are often surprised to observe that Arabic coffee is served just a few centiliters at a time, with the server pouring each guest just enough to cover the bottom of the cups. This is because the coffee is usually boiling hot, so larger amounts would take too long to cool to a drinkable temperature.

The guest drinks from the small cup, savors the heady aromatic flavors, and if he or she wishes, they will gesture to the server not to pour any more by shaking the cup, otherwise the server will continue to pour another few centiliters at a time, until the guest indicates he has had enough. The most common practice is to drink only one cup, since the offering of Arabic coffee serves as a ceremonial act of kindness and hospitality, and for me and my team here in Riyadh, it’s also our special way of saying “Marhaba,” which means welcome to our hotel, and welcome to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.