Beijing, 14 March 2014

As I mentioned in my last posting, during our stay in Dubai my wife and I visited a small remnant of the old town saved for the tourist trade. Bastakia, it’s called. Though small, it’s a pleasant quarter, worth a couple of hours of strolling.

Bastakia Quarter

As we sauntered from lane to lane, we stumbled across the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, housed in said Sheikh’s old residence. The Centre was about to hold a talk and guided tour of the quarter, so we decided on the spot to sign up. We were led upstairs and invited to take a seat on divans. We then had a discussion with a pleasant young Emirati woman, during which she invited us to ask her any questions we might have about life and culture in Dubai. As we talked, a young fellow silently padded around filling little cups for each of us with a small amount of a clear brown liquid

coffee pot and cups

and offering dried dates to go with it.

dates and coffee cup

While the others talked, I took a sip of the liquid. It was … strange. OK, let me be frank, it was unpleasant, tart and bitter. It reminded me of the cough medicines which Matron would give us in the school dispensary as we queued up, coughing and hacking, on winter mornings. I always thought that she suspected us of malingering and trying to skive classes, so made the experience of coming to the dispensary as disagreeable as possible. The drink could also have been the non-alcoholic version of one of those herbal liqueurs which Italians imbibe after a copious meal to help digestion and which are aptly named Amari, Bitter drinks: Fernet Branca, Amaro Meletti, Ferro-China Bisleri, Ramazzotti, … I’ve always been amazed that Italians actually enjoy drinking this stuff. I silently thanked the Lord that the dates were being served. Their sweetness helped offset the drink’s bitterness.

I finally could contain my curiosity no longer and asked our hostess what it was that we were drinking. Kahwa, she said, Arabic coffee.

Coffee??! I’ve drunk coffee in many forms,



Viennese coffee, with its dollop of cream and its glass of water (I have really come to appreciate a glass of water with my coffee)

viennese coffee

café au lait served, as my French grandmother used to serve it, in a nice big bowl, with a croissant to dunk in it


Turkish coffee, which always gives me the impression of drinking liquid mud


Nescafé or other instant coffees (I’m not fussy), which in my youth seemed to be the only way the English drank their coffee


Irish coffee, which seems a sad ending for a good whiskey

Irish Coffee

of course the variety of coffees (well, more milk than coffee) that one comes across in Starbucks, Costa Coffee and places of that ilk – who can avoid the global invasion of these coffee shops?


I have even stooped so low as to drink this Chinese version of Nescafé, which is a pre-mix of white, sugared, instant coffee to which you just add hot water.

nescafe ready mix

All in all, these coffees were good, or at least palatable. Kahwa is most definitely neither. A little more discussion brought to light the fact that cardamom is added. Cardamom … I have only the vaguest notion of this spice. Wikipedia states that it “has a strong, unique taste, with an intensely aromatic, resinous fragrance”. That’s certainly true.  Its origins are Indian, Wikipedia continues, and in fact I can’t think of a single European dish which I’ve tried to which it is added (I understand that the Scandinavians use it in some of their breads, but who – apart from Scandinavians – eats Scandinavian bread?). A little research has unearthed the fact that sometimes saffron is also added to kahwa, presumably to colour it, as are cloves or cinnamon or even rose water, but cardamom is the main spice that is used.


A little bit more research suggests that cardamom was added because it was so expensive. At first glance, that seems a strange reason to turn a perfectly good drink into an undrinkable one. But I read somewhere else that in traditional Bedouin cultures (which of course Dubai originally was) it was de rigeur to always serve kahwa to your guests.

bedouin and coffee

So of course you could show them that you had money in your pockets by putting cardamom in the coffee. Still not really a good reason to ruin a perfectly good coffee.

For those of you who might be tempted to try it, here’s a recipe which I picked up on the web:

1) Bring 3 cups of water to boil in a saucepan.  When the water boils, add 3 tablespoons of ground coffee.  Boil for 10 to 12 minutes.

2) Add 1 tablespoon of crushed cardamom, along with 5-6 whole cloves if you are using them. Stir once and boil for another 5 minutes.

3) Remove the saucepan from heat, cover, and let the coffee grounds settle to the bottom for a minute. Do not stir.

4) If you use them, add 1 teaspoon of rose water and small pinch of saffron to a coffee pot. Strain and pour the coffee into the pot. Allow to seep for 5 to 10 minutes before serving.

As for me, I left my kahwa undrunk, nibbled at some more of the dates, slipped on my shoes, and joined my wife as she followed our guide for the tour of Bastakia.


Bastakia: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-BaNjm0Vd1YE/Uc2SsmcHlfI/AAAAAAAAAFM/LibNtSVNXQQ/s1600/Bastakia+Quarter.JPG [in http://junishadama.blogspot.com/%5D
Coffee pot and cups: http://arabiczeal.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/ARABIC-COFFEE-How-to-make.jpg [in http://arabiczeal.com/prepare-enjoy-arabic-coffee/%5D
Dates and coffee cup: http://arabiczeal.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/ARABIC-COFFEE-with-dates.jpg [in http://arabiczeal.com/prepare-enjoy-arabic-coffee/%5D
Espresso: http://gotgelato.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/espresso-coffee.jpg [in http://gotgelato.com/espresso/%5D
Cappuccino: http://thelittlebirdbakeshop.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/Cappuccino.jpg [in http://thelittlebirdbakeshop.com/gallery/cappuccino-2/%5D
Viennese coffee: http://flaneriefeminine.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/img_4591.jpg [in http://flaneriefeminine.com/2012/11/09/viennese-coffee-specialtie/%5D
Café au lait et croissant: http://us.123rf.com/400wm/400/400/shawnhempel/shawnhempel1005/shawnhempel100500087/7075391-cafe-au-lait-with-butter-croissant-over-white-background.jpg [in http://www.123rf.com/photo_7075391_cafe-au-lait-with-butter-croissant-over-white-background.html%5D
Turkish coffee: http://www.poweredbytofu.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/turkish-coffee-istanbul.jpg [in http://www.poweredbytofu.com/overnight-on-the-orient-express-to-istanbul/%5D
Nescafé: http://rithuset.com/files/large/Rithuset%20new%20nescafe%20logo%20illustration.jpg [in http://rithuset.com/illustration/new%20nescafe%20logo%20illustration.jpg/%5D
Irish coffee: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-ZOmE04kKHEs/T2NnO6j9FlI/AAAAAAAAAJ8/e7fBLQoIO3c/s1600/Irish+Coffee.jpg [in http://harvestmooncafe.blogspot.com/2012/03/st-patricks-day-deal.html%5D
Caffé Nero and Starbucks: http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Money/Pix/pictures/2011/9/22/1316705313267/Caffe-Nero-and-Starbucks–005.jpg [in http://www.theguardian.com/money/blog/poll/2011/sep/23/store-wars-caffe-nero-starbucks%5D
Nescafe ready-mix: my picture
Bedouins and coffee: http://www.bedawi.com/Odl%20picture%20Coffee%20making%20ritual.jpg-for-web.jpg [in http://www.bedawi.com/Hospitality_EN.html%5D

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I like writing, but I’ve spent most of my life writing about things that don’t particularly interest me. Finally, as I neared the age of 60, I decided to change that. I wanted to write about things that interested me. What really interests me is beauty. So I’ve focused this blog on beautiful things. I could be writing about a formally beautiful object in a museum. But it could also be something sitting quietly on a shelf. Or it could be just a fleeting view that's caught my eye, or a momentary splash of colour-on-colour at the turn of the road. Or it could be a piece of music I've just heard. Or a piece of poetry. Or food. And I’m sure I’ve missed things. But I’ll also write about interesting things that I hear or read about. Isn't there a beauty about things pleasing to the mind? I started just writing, but my wife quickly persuaded me to include photos. I tried it and I liked it. So my posts are now a mix of words and pictures, most of which I find on the internet. What else about me? When I first started this blog, my wife and I lived in Beijing where I was head of the regional office of the UN Agency I worked for. So at the beginning I wrote a lot about things Chinese. Then we moved to Bangkok, where again I headed up my Agency's regional office. So for a period I wrote about Thailand and South-East Asia more generally. But we had lived in Austria for many years before moving to China, and anyway we both come from Europe my wife is Italian while I'm half English, half French - so I often write about things European. Now I'm retired and we've moved back to Europe, so I suppose I will be writing a lot more about the Old Continent, interspersed with posts we have gone to visit. What else? We have two grown children, who had already left the nest when we moved to China, but they still figure from time to time in my posts. I’ll let my readers figure out more about me from reading what I've written. As these readers will discover, I really like trees. So I chose a tree - an apple tree, painted by the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt - as my gravatar. And I chose Abellio as my name because he is the Celtic God of the apple tree. I hope you enjoy my posts. http://ipaintingsforsale.com/UploadPic/Gustav Klimt/big/Apple Tree I.jpg

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