Olfactory expert Vedat Ozan: "The only coffee that can tell fortunes is Turkish coffee!"
Olfactory expert and perfumer Vedat Ozan is the founding instructor of the course "Cultural History of Smells and Senses" course at Istanbul Bilgi University’s Cultural Studies Graduate Program. He has been studying the senses, their interactions, cross-modalities, the perceptual mechanisms of the senses of smell and taste, as well as their historical and cultural projections, and has conducted numerous educational programs. Ozan's articles have been published in several journals, and his radio program on the sense of smell was broadcast for 154 weeks on Acik Radyo. He is also the author of four books, "Book of Smells," "Book of Smells: Perfumes," "Book of Smells: Cultures," and "Book of Smells: Flavors," which won the Food Writing category at the 2019 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards.
Perfumer Vedat Ozan, author of the best-selling Book of Smells series, explains what the world-famous Turkish coffee is. Should it be called Turkish coffee? How did Turkish coffee get its name, even though its climate is unsuitable for growing coffee plants? And the fortune-telling which makes Turkish coffee unique…
Now is the time for you to go and get a coffee (brewed, filtered, espresso or whatever) and start reading what Ozan has to say about Coffee alla Turca.
What is Turkish Coffee?
This may be getting off on the wrong foot, but there is no such thing as "Turkish coffee." Cherries, which are the coffee beans used in all types of coffee, require certain climatic and soil conditions that do not exist in Turkey. Thus, the name "Turkish" does not refer to the coffee beans used, but to the unique method of preparation and cooking, which differs greatly from other types of coffee. The correct name should have been "Coffee alla Turca," if you want my honest opinion.
In the traditional approach, coffee beans are roasted more than the beans used in other types to give them a burnt aroma and then ground to powder like ultra small granules for a more even aromatic diffusion in water.
I underline the expression “traditional approach” because in the last decade there have been some experiments by young baristas to roast coffee beans with less heat and in shorter periods of time, aiming for different aromas to be sensed when drinking.
The powdered coffee and water are then brought to a boil twice, which gives the coffee a foam that is typical only of this particular style of coffee. The thicker and richer foam on the brew is a sign of the know-how in the preparation of the "Kahve." Coffee grounds are left in the cup, fincan, to be used later for fortune-telling. In terms of flavor intensity, it is close to espresso, but takes longer to drink, as it is not drunk in one gulp.
How delicious is Turkish coffee compared to other coffees?
Deliciousness is, undoubtedly, a subjective point that I cannot decide for everyone. If you like strong flavors, meaning a pungent aroma, a bitter taste and grounds that can be felt on the tongue for texture, then Turkish coffee is the best choice for you, followed closely by the Italian brewing method called espresso. Honestly, I should have put mirra at the top of this list with its extremely sharp bitter taste, but I am not sure if it is as popular as the other two strong varieties.
Flavor is the sum of many chemical and physical sensory properties, with aroma, flavor and texture being the most important. Therefore, roasting, grinding, cooking time, cooking pressure and temperature all affect these sensory qualities and result in different flavors, even if all beans come from the same origin.
It should not be forgotten that the presentation is an external stimulus to the overall perception of flavor, and the traditional Kahve service, a silver or porcelain coffee tray, white cups that contrast with the dark color of the poured coffee, accompanied by a glass of water and perhaps also a small piece of Turkish delight turns the whole drinking process into a unique taste experience.
Are we hardwired to love coffee?
Our opinion about food is formed by more than one sensory stimulus and that is how the continuity of the chain of life in the evolutionary process is ensured. Although we evaluate food by the pleasure or enjoyment it provides, safety variables also play a role in our decisions. Within this group of multi-sensory stimuli, our two chemical senses, smell and taste play a more prominent role than the others in forming that decision.
Our sense of taste is made up of five tracks: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami. There is no other proven taste -at least not yet. The main job of these basic taste courses are to convey the edible/non-edible information. Concepts such as "coffee taste" and "milk taste" which contain descriptive discourses, do not actually refer to our sense of taste, but to a bigger sum of multi-sensory stimuli called flavor.
We are born with a set of knowledge of basic tastes. For example, we tend toward sugary foods because they provide us with the vital energy we need. Conversely, we avoid bitter foods because they warn us of their toxic potential. Coffee is also one of the bitter foods therefore we do not automatically accept it. In other words, we “learn” to love coffee.
How is our sense of smell involved in this process of "learning to love"?
Our other chemical sense, the sense of smell, works through two channels. We perceive odor molecules not only through the nose, but also through the mouth. These two channels through which odor molecules travel are called orthonasal (from the nose) and retronasal (from the palate).
What we perceive through the palate is called "aroma." Unlike the basic tastes, the odor and aroma perceived through the two olfactory pathways are descriptive and help us name the food or drink we consume. Therefore, aroma is something more than just bitter or sweet, and when combined with these basic tastes, forms the bulk of the total sum, the flavor.
When the sense of smell is disabled it is not possible to define what one is drinking. From that point of view, when your smell is blocked, the coffee you drink means nothing more than a warm and bitter liquid. On the other hand, when the block on the nose is gone both the outer and inner smell (aroma) of the coffee enable us to love that bitter liquid which we could have rejected otherwise.
Turkish coffee’s bitterness rating is near to the top among other varieties; this explains its need for a strong aroma to overcome the bitter sensory stimulus. Thus, it is roasted longer and with more heat for a stronger and distinctively delicious aroma.