Coffee Diaries

Inside the Centuries-Old Art of Turkish Coffee Fortune-Telling

Seeing the future, one cup of coffee at a time.

April 25, 2023
Photo by Food52

There’s something about the aroma of coffee that’s undeniably alluring.

For me, it’s the familiar scent of Greek coffee that brings me back to my childhood. Growing up in a Greek household, the sight of my mom’s stainless-steel briki, a small, long-handled pot, on the stovetop beside two demitasse cups and a bag of Loumidis ground coffee on Saturday morning is a comforting memory.

As a teenager, I started to appreciate the taste of this strong, gritty-yet-flavorful coffee. I learned how to make it by watching my mom and my uncle, the two best Greek coffee makers in my family. Eventually, I developed my own method, and it’s become a ritual I’ve carried with me into adulthood. The process includes slowly brewing water and finely ground coffee in the briki, or a cezve copper pot, until the mixture boils for several minutes and forms a foamy layer on top. My mom would scoop the foam from the top, placing it in the small cup before pouring the unfiltered coffee directly over it. My uncle, meanwhile, would pour the entire mixture from the briki straight into the cup. Each of their brewing methods were slightly different, but both resulted in a perfectly strong cup with a layer of foam on top.

Regardless of how it’s made, this coffee is served alongside a cup of water as a palate cleanser and, on occasion, Turkish delights. Not quite as acidic as espresso, it has a smooth, strong, and slightly smoky taste and is served unfiltered, which means that the grounds remain in the button of the cup after the drink is finished.

This style of coffee—made with finely ground arabica coffee beans, brewed over a flame in a small copper pot, and served in small portions—can be traced back to the 16th century near present-day Turkey. Today, it’s often referred to as Turkish coffee, though it’s found across the region in countries like Armenia, Greece, and Bosnia, and the name changes depending on who is making it or the brand of coffee you are using. Because my family likes to use a Greek brand, we know it as Greek coffee.

For me, the experience of drinking Greek or Turkish coffee is not just about the taste or aroma, but the stories that are woven into each cup. Growing up, after a meal at grandmother’s house, my uncle would take the briki from the cabinet and brew us coffee. We'd sit around the table for hours, sipping and sharing stories—but the conversations didn’t end when the coffee ran out. Sometimes, my aunt would instruct us to flip our cups over and let the grounds settle. Unique patterns would begin to form in the coffee grounds all across and down the sides of the cup. Then, we would take turns showing my aunt our cups, as she attempted to read our fortunes.

My aunt might see the grounds take the shape of hills or lines resembling a road, a sign that I should travel, or perhaps take a road trip. For my siblings and I, this tradition was an opportunity to look toward the future with positivity. As I grew older, I discovered that the practice of reading coffee cups has been part of Turkish culture for centuries.

Gizem Şalcıgil White, founder and CEO of Turkish Coffee Lady, a gourmet coffee shop in Alexandria, VA, has been a goodwill ambassador for Turkish coffee culture since 2009. She's been promoting the tradition first through a non-profit traveling coffee cart that she took around the U.S. and abroad for 13 years, and now, through her shop, where she offers coffee cup readings performed by a professional Turkish coffee reader.

According to White, these coffee readings are a centuries-old tradition and a significant part of Turkish coffee culture that dates back to the 1500s. “Turkish coffee is one of the oldest known methods for brewing coffee, and in Turkey, coffee is not just a beverage but a lifestyle,” says White. “The beverage is shared with others, and can be followed by fortune readings, which began during the Ottoman era.”

First appearing in the Ottoman palaces as a communication tool, palace wives would use the coffee grounds as an entertaining way to share stories and gossip with one another. A form of tasseography, the tradition shares roots with similar fortune-telling practices, like reading tea leaves or sediment from wine.

Modern-day cup readings, performed by family members or professionals, are still practiced at social gatherings in much the same way. It is a custom, says White, for individuals to make a wish before the reading, flip their cups over, place them on a plate, and let the grounds settle. Though interpretations vary from reader to reader, according to White, the right side of the coffee cup represents the happenings of one’s inner life, while the left side represents their future.

Once they settle, all sorts of shapes, lines, and figures appear in the grounds, each with a different meaning. Seeing the shape of a camel, for example, may represent a long journey ahead, while the appearance of a crescent shape suggests that good news is on its way. Seeing birds may symbolize good luck, while the shape of an egg connotes wealth and success.

For White, the art of brewing Turkish coffee and performing a reading is a way to gain insight into one’s future, connect with loved ones, and even seek guidance. In my own life, the act of making and drinking coffee is more than a morning habit: It’s a way to connect with people and my heritage. When I make a cup of Greek or Turkish coffee, I’m reminded of the moments spent with family around the table, laughing, and listening to stories.

Have you ever had your fortune read in Turkish coffee grounds? Tell us about it below!

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Lena Tzivekis

Written by: Lena Tzivekis

Lena Tzivekis is a food and culture writer

1 Comment

Elena D. April 29, 2023
You make Turkish coffee in a Jazva, at least that's what we call it in Armenian. And yes, My grandma read coffee grounds, and I wrote this poem about it.
Copper Jazva

Gram read my coffee grounds only once,
when I was fifteen, old enough to date.

She pulled out the jazva, brought Turkish
coffee to a foaming boil three times,

poured our cups full. She had never been
willing to tell our fortunes before. We added

sugar and drank at the kitchen table in silence,
then turned our cups over on saucers.

Our coffee grounds dripped their fortune telling
patterns down the china cups and Gram began.

She turned the cup over, and paused. Surprised,
she said mountains. Then she saw a 'no good boy',

someone new in my life. Not worth anything.
I was sure she was in cahoots with my dad

to keep me from dating. Gerry had begun walking
me home from school, and we had our first date.

A week later I found she was right about Gerry.
Now I live halfway up a mountain.

Elaine Harootunian Reardon