Shisha pipes at Layali Zaman, one of the more popular Arabic cafes
For decades, the traditional 'ghahwa' with its Arabic coffee and shisha pipes was a hub for Bahraini males. Now, the coffee houses have gone upscale, attracting men and women of all cultures, and have become places to be seen in, says.
If you are one of those people who enjoys a good cup of coffee, then you have come to the right place. Cafés - both traditional Arabic and Western - are scattered all over the island and the choices are fabulous.
But first let me give you a little background. It is believed that the first coffee tree was probably grown in Kaffa, in a country we know today as Ethiopia. Arabic coffee has been part of the culture here for centuries. When Arabic coffee is offered to a guest, it is considered a gesture of friendship.
Traditionally, ghahwas (coffee houses) were found in the souk and were designed with a very simple style: high wooden benches arranged in a square to give customers the opportunity to chat. Ghahwas served the urban population at a time when communication systems were rudimentary. Without telephones, telegraph or even a fully functioning post office, person-to-person contact was the only effective way of getting news or spreading gossip. Not only did the coffee houses disseminate news, they also manufactured it.
However, today Bahrain has taken this tradition to another level, mixing local and international customs and introducing a whole new coffee house culture. The traditional ghahwas developed into luxuriously decorated places where music, chess and shisha (hookah or hubble bubble) can be enjoyed.
At every table you will find men and women puffing on the shisha pipe and blowing through their half-closed lips long jets of aromatic smoke that fills the air with its distinctive scent. Some will be playing cards, some backgammon and some talking eagerly among themselves.
While once it was rare to see a non-Arab or a woman at a traditional coffee house, the newly-opened cafés have made it fashionable for visitors and expatriates of both sexes to drop in.
To cater to wider tastes, cafés now offer numerous blends and flavours of tea and coffee. The success of a café depends on the ambience, food, its tea and coffee menu, and above all, an experienced shisha man.
Apart from the traditional coffee shops, there has been an explosion of sorts of the Western-style cafés. The district of Adliya is lined with many cafés that have opened up in recent years, offering not just coffee concoctions of every type, but also excellent salads, light meals and desserts served up in homey surrounds.
Bahrain also has its fair share of Internet cafés - Idea Gallery arguably being the pick of the lot -that combine high-tech computer access with laid-back social surroundings. These cafés are popular with students, tourists and many others in need of a web-fix.
Innovative ideas make pipe dreams come true: Smoking a shisha is unique to the Middle East. The shisha, also known as hubble-bubble because smoke is drawn through a water pipe, is a common sight in traditional cafés around the country.
In Bahrain, cafés mostly use Egyptian tobacco which is custom-blended in the local ghahwas to give it a special aroma.
Customers are so demanding that everyday you see one more innovative idea being implemented. The latest trends include using a fresh apple, stuffed with tobacco that is already flavoured with apple, which is placed on top of the shisha to be burned under the coal.
Ice has also been introduced to help regular smokers reduce the hazards of smoking. The ice basically cools the inhaled smoke thus reducing any burning sensations that may occur.
Other then the standard fruit flavoured tobacco, the ghahwas have also concocted their own blends, giving them their own names. They have also started mixing fresh fruit juices and fruit pieces in the water to give the shisha a better flavour.
Know your coffee etiquette
Serving or partaking of Arabic coffee in this region has its own customs and knowing them can be helpful.
Arabic coffee is always served in special small cups and traditionally the quantity poured should be enough for two to three sips. Part of the tradition is to drink it immediately.
To have more, the cup is handed back normally and this automatically indicates to the server that you wish to have a refill. But if you've had enough, then you gently swivel the empty cup from side to side while returning the cup to the server thereby indicating server that you don't want any more.
Another very old custom that is not practiced anymore, is when coffee was first served, the guest might place the cup on the floor. This would tell the host that the guest had come with a request and hoped that the host could fulfill it. Once that matter had been concluded, the guest was expected to finish drinking his coffee, otherwise it would be regarded as a form of insult.
Try the apple flavoured hubble bubble at the corniche restaurant. Bahrain produces the best apple flavoured smokes, all non-hallucigenic so don't worry. All you'll feel is a mild tingling. The peach flavour is also good.