One of the most pleasurable cups of coffee I sip isn’t actually made from coffee beans at all; it’s a Lebanese ahwe bayda, a soothing tisane like hot beverage made from sweet-scented orange flower water.
When having some guests over, making coffee is a great Lebanese tradition. Most people serve the traditional black Arabic coffee, made with grounded coffee beans and flavored with cardamom. Some, however, prefer ahwe bayda instead. It literally means white coffee in Arabic or café blanc in French. The tradition we place on having ahwe, coffee, together in a social setting, I think, is what gave this drink its name. We never really say let’s have tea together. White coffee is what we serve instead of a tisane, but calling it white coffee gives it its social aspect. It is usually served after a meal or during any sort of get-together. The soothing beverage is known to relieve stomachaches and facilitate digestion.
After a meal a host always asks his guests if they would like to be served some coffee. If the guest’s response is a negative one, the host will always, most definitely, say “tayeb, ahwe bayda lakein? Mniha hala2” (then how about white coffee? It will be nice now).
Ahwe bayda is a bit of a misnomer because it contains no coffee at all, yet it’s called coffee. It’s just hot water scented with orange blossom and sweetened with sugar to taste, and it’s like sipping air perfumed with flowers. It’s not overwhelmingly heady, however, and the same principle of dilution that works in perfumery applies to this drink. Mixed with water, orange blossom tastes not just floral, but also green, citrusy, spicy and warm. The first sip reveals a zesty freshness, but what lingers on your lips is the taste of honeyed petals. It’s a drink to sip slowly as it fills you with its sweet scented aromas. Or, by contrast, as you curl up with a book on a cold winter day when sunshine seems like a distant memory of a summer that flashed by in a flurry of red petals.
The scent and flavor of orange blossom water have powers over the soul. Dressed delicately in scented flowers, bleeding love into this world, this little hot cup of loveliness leaves a sweet taste on our lips. Dropping down between our teeth, it pleasantly becomes a certain warmth in our chest. Its touch lingers in the creases of our palms and one is soothed with floral dreams as it curls up in the warm spaces between our fingers.
The first sip is de-caffeinated joy, floral brewed steaming happiness. Then comes the feeling of the serenity of warm water injected into our veins, giving our body a little peace and calm. This drink for me is quintessentially Lebanese with its floral perfumes reminiscent of early morning spring days when the whiff of the orange trees fills the air with its intoxicating scent.
My way of doing it:
- Bring the water to a boil in a small saucepan. Remove from the heat. Add a few mint leaves and orange blossom water with some dried rose petals with a teaspoon of lavender honey.
- Let set for at least 5 minutes.
Strain out the mint leaves and rose petals, and serve in small demitasse cups.
On a hot day, refrigerate and pour this one over some ice for a nice refreshing drink. Sahtein!