The story of coffee — from the unknown to a necessity

IAMM to stage a 3-month exhibition on the history of coffee — its influences and conflicts across different continents


MANY people in the world, including Malaysians, would associate mornings with the smell of fresh coffee brewing or a quick trip to Starbucks before work.

However, not many would know that the scent of roasted coffee beans is what led to its discovery in the ninth century.

Legend has it that the world’s most popular beverage can trace its heritage back to the highlands of Ethiopia where a goat herder named Khaldi first discovered the beans. It is said Khaldi learned about the seeds after noticing that his goats became frisky after eating berries from a certain shrub.

Khaldi, who is also a Sufi, later took the berries and presented them to his teacher who grabbed the berries and threw them into the fire. What happened next is something we can all experience today. The chamber of the monastery was filled with the aroma of roasting coffee.

Such trivia had prompted the curators at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (IAMM) to stage a three-month exhibition on the history of coffee — its influences and conflicts across different continents.

You can see why people enjoy their coffee differently. In Bosnia, the coffee has a lot more froth than the Turkish coffee, explains Hariz, who is one of the curators of the exhibition

Located at the museum’s bright open space gallery, the photo exhibition is curated by IAMM’s Nor Adeena Raslee, Hariz Ahmad Kamal and Dalia Mohamed. The exhibition is held until Oct 15.

While the story of Khaldi is a common reference point in the history of coffee, its earliest cultivation came from the coastal city of Al-Mukha in Yemen in the early 1400s.

Yemenis named it qahwa, from which the words ‘coffee’ and ‘cafe’ are both derived from.

In Arabic, the word ‘qahwa’ originally meant wine and is reflective of its use among the Sufi circles in Yemen who used coffee as an aid to concentrate and keep them enrapt through the long hours of midnight prayer in remembrance of God.

“It wasn’t long after that coffee became a lucrative trade item that spread across the Islamic world in Egypt, Turkey, Syria and North Africa — particularly in religious institutions like Al-Azhar in Cairo,” Dalia explained.

She said given its close linkages to intellectual life, coffee drinking led to the establishment of coffee houses where men would gather to discuss and share their opinions on common issues, recite poetry, play games or smoke shisha (water pipe) — pointing to an image of a painting by Rudolf Weisse titled ‘The Dice Players’ which depicts activities related to coffee houses in Egypt.

Coffee later spread to Europe through the Ottoman Empire. The British East India Company and Dutch East India Company, who were major consumers of coffee in the 17th century, had also transported the beans and plants to Europe, India, Sumatra, Bali and other islands in the East Indies.

One of the visitors enjoying the exhibition which will end on Oct 15

“You can see why people enjoy their coffee differently. In Bosnia, the coffee has a lot more froth than the Turkish coffee. The presentations are also different. Nowadays, it is mostly grab and go.

“But in the earlier days, especially in the Islamic world where coffee is associated with the act of hospitality, it was served in special coffee pots to celebrate their guests,” Hariz said.

Today, coffee is widely considered as the most important export commodity after crude oil with more than 400 billion cups consumed each year.

Seattle-based Starbucks Corp, the world’s largest coffee chain, now operates nearly 30,000 stores globally and generates an average of US$22 billion (RM84.3 billion) in annual sales per year.

In Malaysia, there are more than 300 Starbucks stores across the country — often strategically located at the entrance of shopping malls or at airports.

But that’s just Starbucks.

Over the last 20 years, the number of specialty coffee shops in the country has also grown rapidly to create an entirely new coffee culture that is different than the kopi-o grind. In the affluent township of Taman Tun Dr Ismail alone, there are 50 of such cafes.

These coffee shops will probably have an Italian espresso, or a French cafe au lait on the menu, made perhaps with coffee beans imported from Brazil.

Whatever the brew is, know that the cup of java in your hands has come a long way to offer you comfort and that daily spike of energy to seize the day.