Café Touba Is the Senegalese Spiced Coffee Drink That's Better Than Any Seasonal Latte

"Each man finds his way of how he wants to enjoy it, and I love that.”

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Dec 19 2018, 7:45pm

Getty Images // Anton Eine / EyeEm

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‘Tis the season for spiced coffees. From Starbucks to your local artisanal coffee co-op, the caffeine is flowing in flavors like pumpkin spice, gingerbread, and the suspiciously cryptic "holiday spice." But I’m here to tell you that when it comes to coffee that has a kick, café touba blows them all out of the water. It’s actually consumed year-round in its native Senegal, but since the flavor profile fits what we consider seasonal stateside, it’s the perfect less-cloying alternative to your average peppermint latte. Crucially, café touba is spicy instead of just spiced, with a slow burn that warms you like a shot of smoky, peaty whiskey. It has a storied Sufi-anticolonial history, and is even believed to have aphrodisiac powers.

Like most of the other spiced drinks, café touba involves a cloves-and-coffee combo. But it brings the heat by adding ground up djar (that’s its Wolof name but it also goes by grains of selim, Kani pepper, and Kili pepper, among many other monikers) which is the seeds of the aromatic evergreen Xylopia Aethioopica that is found widely found across the African continent.

Djar is sold in knobbly, ebony pods, which are dried, sometimes smoked, and used in lieu of black pepper—added to soups, stews, and starchy porridges, or ground into a paste and used as a spice rub for fish and grilled meats. And that’s to say nothing of its purported medicinal properties, which include pain relief, antimalarial protection, inducing periods, clearing up bad skin, and probably making your crops thrive and your grades improve, too.

But we’re here for the coffee. To call it peppery is to do it a great injustice. Arugula is “peppery”, radishes are “peppery”, watercress is “peppery”; the liquefied salad known as café touba is not. Instead, think of Sichuan peppercorns, with their flavor that is floral in a herbaceous, piney kind of way, and an effect that leaves your lips and tongue a little numb. It’s hard to describe because it tastes uniquely like, well, itself.

So I turned to chef, James Beard-nominated author, and all-round Senegalese culinary ambassador Pierre Thiam. In an email, he described café touba as having a “spicy almost anise-like taste.” He often picks up a café touba coffee mix up from Harlem’s Little Senegal, and used to serve a café touba-inspired brownie in his now-shuttered Le Grand Dakar restaurant. As with many of his compatriots, the drink reminds him of home. “It takes me back to the nights when I was a student in Senegal,” he wrote. “We would drink café touba with my ‘Mouride’ classmates during school exam period to stay awake and study.”

Pierre is referring to the Mouride Brotherhood, an order of Sufi Islam based in the holy city of Touba, whose Arabic name translates to “blessedness” or “bliss.” The city’s founder and spiritual leader, Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba, reportedly brought the beverage back from Gabon, where he was temporarily exiled by the French for his pacifist resistance to their colonial occupation of Senegal. This was around the turn of the 20th century, and café touba soon became an integral part of his followers’ nightly prayers and chants. To this day, Mourides and other Senegalese consume it for its aforementioned medicinal properties as well as its ability to keep them up all night long.

In Senegal, café touba can be easily found served out of the numerous streetside snack kiosks known as tanganas. There, you might see all stages of the preparation process, from roasting the coffee and grinding it in a mortar and pestle to brewing it pour-over style, using a cloth filter, and sometimes straining it multiple times. Finally, it is aerated by being repeatedly poured between containers, like South Indian filter coffee or Indonesian kopi tarik.

But it's also available here in New York if you know where to look. I first tasted it at Café Rue Dix, an upscale Senegalese joint just a few blocks away from my old Crown Heights apartment. In Senegal, café touba is typically black and almost syrupy with sugar. But Café Rue Dix tempers the spice for American palates and serves it like a latte with a shot of espresso and steamed milk. I recently moved to a new neighborhood, but took a bus back to see if it was as good as I remembered, and to maybe even pick up a bag of the pre-mixed stuff for myself from their boutique next door.

The usual ratio of spices to ground coffee in café touba is 1:4—or about 20 percent spice mixture, which is typically split evenly between djar and cloves. The bags of pre-mixed café touba sold out of Café Rue Dix’s boutique mirror this, but my server explained that in the restaurant, with the addition of the espresso, it’s closer to 10 percent djar—and the spice is still plenty evident in the final flavor. He also added that it could be easily found in any of the west African shops that line a nearby stretch of Fulton Street in Bedstuy.

Armed with this knowledge, I wanted to try sourcing my own djar and experiment with adding different ratios to my coffee. I was briefly disillusioned when Nilea Alexander, who co-owns the restaurant and café with her Senegalese husband, Lamine Diagne, explained that “you're not just putting the beans and pepper in a grinder and grinding it down; it's roasted together,” which was more work than I had anticipated. But she assured me that even though there is, technically, a correct way to make café touba, the Senegalese, “[are] not sticklers, like, ‘this is the proper way to do it.’ This is their drink and each man finds his way of how he wants to enjoy it, and I love that.”

Basically, I couldn’t mess this up.

So I set out to DIY café touba in my new apartment—where I didn’t even have a French press, let alone the Chemex that might have provided the closest approximation to the traditional method—and quickly learned that I could, in fact, mess this up. I tried to mimic Café Rue Dix's espresso riff and—well, you know how IPAs are measured in IBUs, or ‘international bitterness units’? My first attempt—stovetop in a saucepan, or “cowboy style”—was far enough off the IBU scale to knock a satellite out of orbit. Subsequent attempts involved a new budget moka pot ($5.99—it immediately leaked), eventually arriving at a 2:3 ratio of espresso to touba mix. So, down to 8 percent overall djar, for those keeping track at home. It’s pretty sensational, even if it involves a lot more Splenda and creamer than I’d normally add to my morning java. Future experiments will involve ginger and condensed milk, and okay, a proper cloth filter setup, but for now I need to wait until my heart slows down. I might have overdone the taste tests. I’ve been awake for over 24 hours.

Don't sleep on café touba—not that you could, even if you tried.