Israelis love their coffee; this is a well-known fact to those who have ever visited or lived in Israel. You will find a similarly qstocked coffee station in almost every kitchen, office, staff room, hotel room, meeting space of any conceivable form: electric kettle, instant and Turkish coffees, milk, sugar, maybe even decaf or freeze-dried. For Israelis, having a cup of coffee is as much a social affair as it is a caffeine boost; it’s about taking a few (say, 30) minutes out of the day (several times daily) to relax with friends or coworkers and maybe chat about current events or the weather. We drink it all throughout the day, whether at home or at work or even abroad (I travel with a sealed package of my preferred brand safely checked in my suitcase); in the summertime we like it on ice or from one of those frozen slushy machines that you find absolutely anywhere you seek one out. I am fascinated by this unlikely coffee culture and I believe that we can trace three distinct social influences that merged to create something unique and entirely Israeli; these three cultural powerhouses are the former Ottoman Empire, Europe, and the U.S., in that chronological order.
For roughly 400 years, what we call Israel was a forgotten backwater of the Ottoman Empire, and the overwhelming majority of its residents at the time were Arab farmers who worked land that was owned by wealthy families from all over the Middle East and North Africa. The Turkish people of that era shared many cultural traits with the Arab world, including strong black coffee served in small cups, often cooked over an open fire in a special hourglass-shaped pot. For many Israeli minority groups, such as Arabs, Bedouins, and Druze, this tradition is still the daily norm; furthermore, many of the early Jewish settlers adopted this local custom and their descendants still swear by it today. What we call in Hebrew “black coffee” or “Turkish coffee” is also known as “mud coffee” because a single serving can be prepared by simply stirring boiling water right into the cup, allowing the grounds to eventually settle to the bottom of the glass, forming a thick layer of “mud”. Varying preparations depend on personal preference, such as the inclusion of cardamom (hel), sugar, and occasionally even a drop of milk.
In the late 19th Century, Europeans started showing up in Israel in growing numbers, representing a diverse array of countries and their corresponding cultural traits. Strolling through certain neighborhoods in Tel Aviv in the 1930s and 1940s, you might think you were in Paris, Berlin, or Prague; young families paraded along the boulevards and the cafés were filled with artists, intellectuals, and businessmen. They sat for hours enjoying cup after cup of imported espresso, especially with a dollop of hot foamed milk; the cappuccino/café latte/café au lait later became known in Hebrew as “upside-down coffee” (café hafuch). Along with many other facets of European culture that became a part of the daily landscape in Israel, the café culture remains to this day among the most vibrant and easily recognized institutions. In addition to the many popular café franchises all around the country, almost every kiosk, convenience store, and gas station in Israeli has an espresso machine that sees regular use. Israelis like it short, long, double, decaf, extra foam, steaming hot, for here, to go, any which way; as long as it’s made just the way they like it.
The ancient people of Israel having witnessed their fair share of miracles, it’s no surprise that their modern counterparts are constantly on the lookout for them; therefore it seemed perfectly natural that when Nestle first introduced their miraculous new powdered coffee in 1938, they called it Nescafé. In Hebrew the word nes means miracle and, surprisingly enough, café is coffee, a true coincidence. Although Nestle is a Swiss company, this particular product certainly fits right in line with what became an increasing obsession with the fast-paced, high-tech, always on-the-go consumerism that the Americans seemed to have perfected and were now mass-producing and exporting to every corner of the free world. Today, even with the growing trend of the capsule-fed home espresso machines gaining traction, you will be hard-pressed to find an Israeli home, office, or hotel room without at least one of the many popular varieties of instant coffee. To be sure, as a hardcore lover of strong, freshly brewed, unsweetened black coffee, I myself have trouble finding the appeal of this beige powder. Nonetheless, millions of Israelis start their day with this very same miracle, even in the Diaspora.