A spoonful of sugar
My much anticipated morning coffee, served in a long-stemmed pot, arrived on a round tray with an empty ceramic cup, a glass of water, and a small plate cradling three sugar cubes and a jewel-like candy that looked like Turkish delight. Although I’m an admitted caffeine addict, I’d already been up for three hours at and hadn’t had any coffee yet. And now I didn’t know how to approach this complicated beverage system. “Excuse me,” I said, turning towards the local man sitting at the table next to me. “Is this how you drink coffee at home?” He responded, “Yes, I drink Bosnian coffee everyday.”
“But how is it different than Turkish coffee?” I asked. He just shrugged.
I was in Blagaj, a village outside the city of Mostar in the southern part of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Nothing had been open in the morning when I visited the village’s main attraction—a 16th century dervish monastery wedged between a rocky bluff and a natural spring spewing aquamarine waters. Now that it was later in the day, I could bask in the blue glow of the mountain’s shadow at one of the village’s waterfront cafes and get my caffeine fix.
But there was one big problem—I didn’t know how to drink it. Sensing my confusion, my neighbor at the next table intervened again. “First you take this,” he said gesturing to the sugar cube and pointing towards the mug. “The sugar goes right here,” he then explained while pointing to the ceramic cup.
I followed his directions and placed one cube in the mug, and then he grabbed the handle of the copper pot and poured in just enough coffee to cover it and dissolve the sugar. Then I slowly poured more coffee into the cup to fill it to the top, while be careful to avoid adding the grounds from the bottom of the pot. Finally taking a sip, it reminded me of a strong espresso with a subtle chocolate flavor.
Always prepared in a copper-plated ǆezva (or cezve in Turkish), Bosnian coffee looks like Turkish coffee at first glance. For about 300 years, the Ottomans ruled over the region that is now Bosnia and Herzegovina until it was ceded to the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1878. Their occupation permanently altered the country’s cultural fabric and established an anomaly in the middle of Europe—a Muslim community with a Slavic background and language.
The Turkish influences, like the nearby dervish house nearby, as well as the famous curved bridge and the many minarets that piece the horizon in Mostar, are still everywhere in the country. There’s also the coffee, of course, but the locals insist on calling it Bosnian.
A few days later I was walking around the Baščaršija, or old Ottoman neighborhood, of the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo. I stopped inside Tucana Kahva, a shop that has been processing Bosnian coffee beans for since 1895. Owner Hajrudin Burek and his family roast and process them in the traditional manner. He grinds them by hand in a giant mortar-and-pestle-like apparatus, pulverizing about five pounds of beans into a fine powder in around 15 minutes.
His adult son, Mufid, was working behind the counter the day I entered. I asked him about the difference between Bosnian and Turkish coffee, and he paused for a minute. “It’s mainly that it’s made without sugar in the coffee pot,” he answered in Bosnian, “It was just the custom, and that’s how it has remained.”
It’s true. Both the Turks and Bosnians place cold water in the copper pot and bring it to a boil before adding the coffee grounds, but the Turks also add sugar while the Bosnians let the drinker sweeten it to their personal preference. Small differences aside, this unfiltered coffee is firmly rooted in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s culture today. There are even different words for coffee used at specific times of day. Azgalica is the morning coffee while sikteruša describes it after a meal.
Grasping for a reason behind the tradition, my guide Ervin Tokic joked, “We serve it without sugar in the coffee pot.. because we have a less bitter life than Turkish people.” The Ottomans might have brought it there, but Bosnian coffee has now survived the Viennese coffee culture of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and then the breakup of Yugoslavia. Now as independent country since 1992, the tradition is a strong part of this new country’s national identity. So don’t you dare call it Turkish.