Bars are commonplace in urban and coastal Turkey, Beirut and Christian areas of Lebanon, Amman in Jordan, and throughout Israel. Alcohol is forbidden in Iran.
Tea & Coffee
Drinking tea (shai, chai or çay) is the signature pastime of the region and it is seen as strange and decidedly antisocial not to swig the tannin-laden beverage at regular intervals throughout the day. The tea will either come in the form of a tea bag plonked in a cup or glass of hot water (Lipton is the usual brand) or a strong brew of the local leaves. Sometimes it’s served with na’ana (mint), and it always comes with sugar. Be warned that you’ll risk severe embarrassment if you ask for milk, unless you’re in a tourist hotel or restaurant.
Surprisingly, Turkish or Arabic coffee (qahwa) is not widely consumed in the region, with instant coffee (always called Nescafé) being far more common. If you do find the real stuff, it’s likely to be a thick and powerful Turkish-style brew that’s served in small cups and drunk in a couple of short sips. In private homes, a good guest will accept a minimum of three cups, but when you’ve had enough, gently tilt the cup from side to side (in Arabic, ‘dancing’ the cup).
The Cafe & Coffeehouse Experience
There’s nothing more authentically Middle Eastern than spending an hour (or an afternoon) soaking up the ambience and fragrant shisha smoke at a qahwa (coffeehouse; ahwa in Egypt); in Turkey they’re called çay bahçesis (tea gardens). Most serve up more tea than coffee and all have loyal, predominantly male, clients who enjoy nothing more than a daily natter and a game of dominoes or towla (backgammon). Adding to the atmosphere is the smoke from countless water pipes, a fragrant cloud of lightly scented tobacco that’s one of the Middle East’s most distinctive sensory experiences.
Called nargileh in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan and shisha in Egypt, the water pipe is a tradition, an indulgence and a slightly naughty habit all wrapped into the one gloriously relaxing package. A feature of coffeehouses from Ankara to Aswan, it’s as addictive as it is magical. Consider yourselves warned.
When you order a water pipe, you’ll need to specify the type of tobacco and molasses mix you’d like. Most people opt for tobacco soaked in apple juice (known as elma in Turkey and tufah in Egypt), but it’s also possible to order strawberry, melon, cherry or mixed-fruit flavours. Some purists order their tobacco unadulterated, but in doing this they miss out on the wonderfully sweet aroma that makes the experience so memorable. Once you’ve specified your flavour, a decorated bulbous glass pipe filled with water will be brought to your table, hot coals will be placed in it to get it started and you’ll be given a disposable plastic mouthpiece to slip over the pipe’s stem. Just draw back and you’re off. The only secret to a good smoke is to take a puff every now and again to keep the coals hot; when they start to lose their heat the waiter (or dedicated water-pipe minder) will replace them. Bliss!
Though the region is predominantly Muslim and hence abstemious, most countries have a local beer. The best are Turkey’s Efes, Egypt’s Stella and Sakkara, Lebanon’s famous Almaza and Jordan’s Amstel, a light brew made under licence from the popular Dutch brewer Amstel. The pick of Israel and the Palestinian Territories' beers are the boutique ale Alexander and the Dancing Camel microbrews from Tel Aviv. The most interesting ale is the preservative-free Taybeh. The product of the Arab world’s first microbrewery, in Ramallah, it comes in light and malt-heavy dark varieties.
Wine is growing in popularity in the Middle East, thanks largely to the wines being produced in Lebanon. Lebanon’s winemaking, which is based on the ‘old-world’ style, began with the French winemaker Gaston Hochar, who took over an 18th-century castle, Château Musar in Ghazir, 24km north of Beirut, in 1930. Together with his sons, Hochar created a wine that, despite the civil war, was able to win important awards in France, including the prestigious Winemaker’s Award for Excellence. Ninety percent of their produce is exported. The main wine-growing areas are Kefraya and Ksara in the Bekaa Valley, and we particularly recommend the products of Château Musar and Ksara’s Reserve du Couvent. Turkey and Israel also have small wine-producing areas.
If there is a regional drink, it would have to be the grape-and-aniseed firewater known as rakı in Turkey and as arak (lion’s milk) in the rest of the region. The aniseed taste of these two powerful tipples perfectly complements mezze. You’ll find many Middle Easterners for whom mezze without arak (combined with water and served in small glasses) is just not taking your mezze seriously.
Other Nonalcoholic Drinks
Juice stalls selling cheap and delicious freshly squeezed asiir (juices) are common throughout the region. Popular juices include lemon (which is often blended with sugar syrup and ice, and sometimes with mint), orange, pomegranate, mango, carrot and sugar cane, and you can order combinations of any or all of these. For health reasons, steer clear of stalls that add milk to their drinks.
Other traditional drinks include aryan, a refreshing yogurt drink made by whipping yogurt with water and salt to the consistency of pouring cream. Another favourite is the delicious and unusual sahlab (sahlep in Turkey), a drink made from crushed tapioca-root extract and served with milk, coconut, sugar, raisins, chopped nuts and rosewater. Famed for its aphrodisiacal properties, it is served hot in winter and cold in summer.
In the baking heat of an Egyptian summer, coffee and tea drinkers forgo their regular fix for cooler drinks such as the crimson-hued, iced karkadai, a wonderfully refreshing drink boiled up from hibiscus leaves, or zabaady (yoghurt beaten with cold water and salt).