Drinks

The Story Behind Café Touba, the Mysterious Coffee Drink of Senegal

This dark, supernatural potion is worth seeking out
Photos: Todd Coleman
What Is Café Touba?

I was zonked from a day running around Dakar, Senegal, in the blazing heat when I had it for the first time. It was mysteriously dark and frothy with an aroma and flavor like nothing I had ever had before. One sip jolted me back to life. What was this supernatural potion? Café Touba—the last remaining coffee drink you haven't heard of.

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"You just had the people's coffee of Senegal!" my friend exclaimed. I arranged a much-needed fact-finding call with Senegalese chef Pierre Thiam (author of Senegal: Modern Senegalese Recipes from the Source to the Bowl), and was glad to find out that he was as excited as I was. I learned from him that the unique taste comes from ground cloves and Selim pepper, something I had never heard of. (Its other names, Kimba pepper and djar, didn't help either.)

The spice itself looks like an overstuffed vanilla pod and has a bitter-spicy flavor with hints of pine and anise. It's boiled with ground coffee from Guinea, cloves, water and sugar to make what I'd approximate as Turkish coffee-meets-cola. Street-side, it's poured in a rhythmic fashion between two cups that are slowly moved further and further apart to aerate and froth the coffee. ("Frothing it is the polite way to serve it," Thiam said.) The result is a West African long espresso with a lather of spiced suds on top.

Where did this puzzle in a cup come from? "It was originally recommended by an African Sufi spiritual leader named Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba to his followers," Thiam said. "Part of their tradition is to chant, and they would have long night sessions—the coffee was meant to keep them up, and the Selim was added for its purported medicinal benefits." Unsurprised that the coffee had spiritual, even mystical roots, I realized that I had seen a painting of Bamba before—his likeness is as ubiquitous on the walls of Senegal as the coffee itself. The coffee is named after the city of Touba (that fittingly means "bliss" in the native Wolof), which Bamba founded in 1887. It became even more widespread in Senegal, according to Thiam, during the financial crisis of 2008 when imported coffee became prohibitively expensive.

As I continued to travel through Senegal for a week, up to Saint-Louis and through desert villages, the coffee became part of my daily routine. I felt I was beginning to understand some of the ritual and magic that Bamba must have originally intended. Thiam understood: "Café Touba is a symbol of identity and belonging," he said. "Its unique, spicy taste brings me back home whenever I drink it."

Todd Coleman is the creative director and editor-at-large for Tasting Table. Follow him on Instagram at @toddwcoleman.

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