A thousand years ago an Abyssinian herder, dumbstruck by his wildly cavorting flock of goats, sampled the same shiny red berries his charges had chewed before beginning to twirl like dervishes. The berries were from the coffee tree, of course, and the goat herder soon felt a surge of vitality coursing through his veins. In time big swathes of the human race became addicted to the brew’s energizing lift.
Naturally this is an apocryphal story. But it is true that today, coffee is the second most widely traded commodity in developing counries (oil is first) and that it is consumed by tens of millions of people on a regular basis. I have adored the taste of coffee ever since I was 10 when my father used to slip a silver teaspoon of his Folgers into my breakfast milk. I have friends who cannot be civil before that first eye-opening cup; one gets migraines if she doesn’t partake. And then there are the headaches that come from the health police who want us all to abandon our caffeine addiction. We’ll sleep better, they say, be thinner and less jittery.
Ah, but now it seems we can indulge our habit to our hearts’ content. Well, almost. According to an August 15, 2006 article in The New York Times (“Coffee as a Health Drink? Studies Find Some Benefits” by Nicholas Bakalar), drinking up to 5 cups of coffee daily cuts the risk of getting heart disease, cirrhosis of the liver and type 2 diabetes. It turns out that coffee is full of antioxidants—more even than blueberries or oranges—which curb inflammation associated with cardiovascular disease, alcohol-induced cirrhosis and liver cancer. Scientists are still teasing out the reasons why it slows the onset of diabetes—one possibility is chlorogenic acid, a coffee component that reduces glucose build-up.
(The bad part: Forget coffee if you already have heart disease. Cardiologists point out that the caffeine in coffee raises blood pressure and slows blood flow to the heart, especially during exercise at high altitudes—no mountain biking, please.)
Coffee as medicine is not a new idea. In the 11th century, the renowned Persian physician Avicenna (there is a crater on the moon named after him) wrote that it “fortifies the members, cleans the skin, dries up the humidities that are under it and gives an excellent smell to all the body.” Medieval Arab traders brought Ethiopian coffee to their own lands around 1000 AD, and as Norman Kolpas notes in A Cup of Coffee, by the 16th century “coffee drinking was widespread in the Arab world—even in the holy city of Mecca, where it had been brought by dervishes who drank it during their strenuous ceremonies of worship.”
One of the most pleasurable ways to enjoy coffee is to drink it Arab-style, infused with aromatic green cardamom pods. Although cardamom is native to tropical Sri Lanka and South India (where it is known as the Queen of Spices), it was transported by Arab traders to the Mediterranean nearly two millennia ago. In the first century AD, it was a favorite spice of the ancient Romans, who also used it to clean their teeth and purify the breath. In the past it has been thought to have vague medicinal benefits, useful in treating colds, fevers and various inflammatory complaints. Combining coffee and cardamom seems like a natural, especially since it tastes so good.
In the Middle East, crushed cardamom pods are stuffed into the spout of a coffee pot—when the hot coffee flows over the spice, the brew acquires an aromatic, refreshing flavor. However, in her new cookbook The Arab Table, May Bisou says Arab coffee tastes best when dark roast coffee is simmered on low heat for 3 to 4 hours with as many as 10 coarsely ground cardamom pods. Sugar is never added and certainly not milk, which was thought to induce leprosy in medieval times. This hair-raising inky brew is sipped all day long, but never at breakfast when most Arabs prefer to drink tea.
Bisou, who is of Palestinian descent, notes that cardamom coffee is a traditional gesture of welcome in an Arab home and that you should never refuse the first cup of coffee offered by your host. You should drink at least three tiny cups and when you’ve had enough, signal your host by shaking the empty cup half a dozen times. (If no one offers coffee, you might begin looking for nearest exit.)
Coffee is an intensely personal brew—as Starbucks has learned to its great profit—so view the following recipe, made in a French press pot, as a starting point. The first time you make cardamom-scented coffee, try it my way. The next time, make it your own.
Cardamom-Infused Arab Coffee
To make two 8-ounce cups
4 very fresh green cardamom pods (see note)
5 to 6 heaping tablespoons freshly ground coffee (see note)
16 ounces fresh, cool water
French press pot (17 ounces or larger)
1. Lightly crush the cardamom pods in a mortar and pestle. If the seeds slip out of the pods, crush them gently. Scoop up the pods and seeds and put them in the bottom of a French press pot. Spoon in the freshly ground coffee and set aside.
2. Heat the water in a kettle until steam curls out of the spout and the water is rumbling in the pot. Just before it boils, pour it slowly into the press pot. Put the plunger unit on top of the pot but do not press down.
3. After one minute, remove the plunger unit and stir gently with a spoon. This will cause the grounds to sink to the bottom of the pot. Replace the plunger unit, but again, do not press down. Let the coffee brew for 3 or 4 more minutes. At the end of this time, press the plunger down and pour the coffee into two cups. Drink immediately.
4. For iced Arab-style coffee, pour the coffee into a pitcher and let it cool to room temperature. Refrigerate until cold. To serve, fill two glasses with ice and pour the coffee over it. For a delicious if even more inauthentic version, add 1 to 2 teaspoons of sugar or simple syrup to each glass and milk to taste before pouring in the coffee. Stir to dissolve the sugar and serve at once.
Note: If you prefer a stronger cardamom flavor, add more cardamom pods rather than increasing the brewing time of the coffee. For best results with a press pot, grind coffee beans for about 12 seconds for a medium, uniform grind. Many press pot users insist that a burr grinder is necessary to produce a uniform grind from which the maximum flavor can be extracted. I have had excellent results, however, with my old Braun blade grinder.
The New York Times
Coffee as a Health Drink? Studies Find Some Benefits
By NICHOLAS BAKALAR
Published: August 15, 2006
Coffee is not usually thought of as health food, but a number of recent studies suggest that it can be a highly beneficial drink. Researchers have found strong evidence that coffee reduces the risk of several serious ailments, including diabetes, heart disease and cirrhosis of the liver.
Among them is a systematic review of studies published last year in The Journal of the American Medical Association, which concluded that habitual coffee consumption was consistently associated with a lower risk of Type 2 diabetes. Exactly why is not known, but the authors offered several explanations.
Coffee contains antioxidants that help control the cell damage that can contribute to the development of the disease. It is also a source of chlorogenic acid, which has been shown in animal experiments to reduce glucose concentrations.
Caffeine, perhaps coffee’s most famous component, seems to have little to do with it; studies that looked at decaffeinated coffee alone found the same degree of risk reduction.
Larger quantities of coffee seem to be especially helpful in diabetes prevention. In a report that combined statistical data from many studies, researchers found that people who drank four to six cups of coffee a day had a 28 percent reduced risk compared with people who drank two or fewer. Those who drank more than six had a 35 percent risk reduction.
Some studies show that cardiovascular risk also decreases with coffee consumption. Using data on more than 27,000 women ages 55 to 69 in the Iowa Women’s Health Study who were followed for 15 years, Norwegian researchers found that women who drank one to three cups a day reduced their risk of cardiovascular disease by 24 percent compared with those drinking no coffee at all.
But as the quantity increased, the benefit decreased. At more than six cups a day, the risk was not significantly reduced. Still, after controlling for age, smoking and alcohol consumption, women who drank one to five cups a day — caffeinated or decaffeinated — reduced their risk of death from all causes during the study by 15 to 19 percent compared with those who drank none.
The findings, which appeared in May in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, suggest that antioxidants in coffee may dampen inflammation, reducing the risk of disorders related to it, like cardiovascular disease. Several compounds in coffee may contribute to its antioxidant capacity, including phenols, volatile aroma compounds and oxazoles that are efficiently absorbed.
In another analysis, published in July in the same journal, researchers found that a typical serving of coffee contains more antioxidants than typical servings of grape juice, blueberries, raspberries and oranges.
“We were surprised to learn that coffee quantitatively is the major contributor of antioxidants in the diet both in Norway and in the U.S.A.,” said Rune Blomhoff, the senior author of both studies and a professor of nutrition at the University of Oslo.
These same anti-inflammatory properties may explain why coffee appears to decrease the risk of alcohol-related cirrhosis and liver cancer. This effect was first observed in 1992. Recent studies,published in June in The Archives of Internal Medicine, confirmed the finding.
Still, some experts believe that coffee drinking, and particularly caffeine consumption, can have negative health consequences. A study published in January in The Journal of the American College of Cardiology, for example, suggests that the amount of caffeine in two cups of coffee significantly decreases blood flow to the heart, particularly during exercise at high altitude.
Rob van Dam, a Harvard scientist and the lead author of The Journal of the American Medical Association review, acknowledged that caffeine could increase blood pressure and slightly increase levels of the amino acid homocysteine, possibly raising the risk for heart disease.
“I wouldn’t advise people to increase their consumption of coffee in order to lower their risk of disease,” Dr. van Dam said, “but the evidence is that for most people without specific conditions, coffee is not detrimental to health. If people enjoy drinking it, it’s comforting to know that they don’t have to be afraid of negative health effects.”