Better Mornings

Lily & the Cezve

Lily and the Cezve Featured
A properly brewed cup of Turkish coffee is as elusive as it is delectable. Here’s how it’s done.


The first thing you need to know is how to say the word. Cezve is pronounced jez-veh, the second syllable halfway between a long a and a short e.

The next step is knowing what it is. A cezve is a traditional Turkish coffee pot, usually brass or copper, with a long handle for brewing on the stovetop or, if you’re kicking it old-school, an open flame. The word comes from jazwa, Arabic for “coal” or “burning log.” Cezves are used throughout the world under a variety of names: zezwa in Tunisian Arabic, briki in Greece, džezva in Serbo-Croatian.

I’ve been a coffee-maker enthusiast since the early 70s. I watched my mother prepare endless cups from a percolator and, later, an electric drip. I worked at a French restaurant in the 80s, before the Starbucks-explosion, and had my first cappuccino. Over the next 15 years I made my way through moka pots, French presses, samovars and espresso machines. In the late-90s I moved to Dubai and was introduced to Turkish coffee by Lily, the “tea lady” at work.

In the Middle East nearly every office has someone—though not necessarily a woman—whose sole job is to brew tea and coffee for the staff. Lily, from Indonesia, was the tea lady for my department at the university. I didn’t like my job—at all—but the coffee was delicious. It was the only thing that kept me going. Over the next few years I got to know Lily. She brought me increasingly large cups of Turkish coffee and eventually taught me how to make it myself. On several occasions I prepared drinks for my colleagues, but the boss shut down the operation. It wasn’t sufficiently dignified, he thought, for a professor to moonlight as a barista. Plus, I was no Lily.

The Brewing Technique

Here’s what I learned from the tea lady:

    1. Start with a cezve and finely ground Turkish coffee. This is essential. If the grounds aren’t small enough, they won’t sink or dissolve—your drink will be crunchy. It’ll be like having a mouthful of deweaponized Pop Rocks.

    2. Put 3 Tbsp. coffee into the cezve. Add 1 sugar cube and 1 Tbsp. powdered cardamom. Ginger and other spices can also be added. With practice, you can tweak the proportions and ingredients to suit your taste.

    3. Add approx. 1 cup water. Stir to mix the ingredients. You won’t stir a second time—this is important. It’s also crucial not to use too much water. My cezve has a capacity of 1¼ cups. If I fill it too close to the top, I’m asking for trouble. We’ll get back to this in a minute.

    4. One of the secrets to great Turkish coffee is patience. It should be cooked slowly at low heat. Otherwise, the result will be smoky, bitter and charred. Brewing takes about 15 minutes and requires fastidious attention to detail. To speed up the process, I crank up the stovetop heat to high for the first minute. This accelerates the process without compromising the flavor.

    5. After a minute, reduce heat to medium-low. Brew for another 4 minutes. Pour 1/3 of the coffee—carefully, slowly—into your mug. My cezve brews 1 mug or two small cups at a time. Work-intensive, but worth it.

    6. Return cezve to the stovetop. After another 2 minutes, reduce heat to low.

    7. Keep your eyes on the pot. If it boils over, the coffee’s ruined and you’ll have a huge mess on your hands. A watched pot may never boil, but an unwatched cezve will always bite you on the ass. It only takes a few seconds for Turkish coffee to froth up and spill over the sides. This is why you shouldn’t overfill the cezve.

    8. Once you see a bubble or two, you’re almost done. The liquid will begin to gently swell, like a set of ocean waves starting to roll in. This is the moment to remove the cezve from heat, before it boils. Pour the rest into your mug.

    9. Remember, don’t stir the coffee. There’s sediment at the bottom of the mug. If you disturb it, you’ll have a mouthful of sludge and silt. Think of the sediment as an angry monster guarding a vast treasure. Sneak in, on tip-toes, grab the treasure, leave quietly.

    10. You now have a sturdy cup of Turkish coffee, or Türk kahvesi. You won’t have a delicate, wafer-thin crema on top, as with espresso, but a thick head, like a pint of Guinness. You’ll have a bed, a king-size mattress, of brown foam. Not that you’ll be sleeping anytime soon.

Where to Get the Materials

It’s easy to find a stainless steel cezve online, often for as little as $7, but pay a few dollars more for copper or brass. You can also find imported Turkish coffee for a dollar an ounce. You might be able to buy the items in person if you live near an Asian market or Middle Eastern grocery.

You can use any coffee you want, as long as it’s ground finely enough. So if the “authentic” Turkish coffee isn’t organic or fair-trade enough, or if it simply isn’t your jam, then use what you have. Türk kahvesi is all about the brewing process, not the coffee bean.

Your drink will be quite robust. I never use sugar in coffee, or any other drink, but I use it in Türk kahvesi. In Turkey, they serve it with a shot of water on the side, which tells you something. They also tend to leave out the cardamom and serve the coffee on the overcooked side. Lily’s version was much better. Probably the best coffee I’ve ever tasted. I guess it takes an Indonesian woman in the Emirates to make a proper cup of Turkish coffee.