The seed of Coffea arabica, a shrub of the madder family native to Ethiopia, first caught the attention of outsiders when Arab traders visiting the East African coast observed the locals chewing on a substance based upon a peanut-sized bean. Arab sailors found the herb ideal for keeping awake while on watch; they named it Yahweh, which meant “keeps awake.”
From Yemen, the “bean broth” quickly spread across Arabia in the eleventh century. With alcohol intake forbidden, coffee filled the void in Muslim religious ritual and everyday life. The drink continued to gain converts as Islam’s sphere of influence spread north and west. Recognizing its potential, Venetian merchants carried coffee from Constantinople to Italy in 1615; by 1750 it had conquered much of Europe.
As the craze for the bean was spreading on that continent, the Catholic hierarchy denounced it as the brew of infidels. Pope Clement allegedly tried a cup and was converted on the spot; he resolved the matter by baptizing the drink, thereby conferring Christian status. Many European authors and artists of the eighteenth century found coffee to be a creative stimulant. Voltaire is said to have consumed fifty cups per day; the French statesman Talleyrand was moved to share his prescription for the ideal serving: “black as the devil, hot as hell, pure as an angel, sweet as love.” Johann Sebastian Bach com¬posed a cantata in tribute to the brew.
Coffee cultivation was established in the tropical Americas in the early 1700s. This region now enjoys a near monopoly on Arabic beans (long the preferred type for their superior richness of flavor)
thanks to favorable factors such as rich soil, reliable rainfall, and alti¬tudes ranging from 3,000 to 6,000 feet above sea level.
A plethora of studies have appeared in recent years citing healthful benefits of coffee consumption. An American study profiled in a 1999 issue of JAMA found that men drinking at least two cups of caffeinated coffee daily had a 40 percent lower risk of developing gallstone disease (increased amounts of coffee intake decreased the risk to an even greater extent). Coffee has also been touted for the pre¬vention of colon cancer, ridding the body of toxins, and fighting asthma and bronchial congestion. The grounds are even used as a body rub (particularly in Japan, where the practice has reached fad¬dish proportions).
While coffee is now popular worldwide in large part both for its distinctive taste and its ability to stimulate the nervous system, many users have expressed concern over a host of less desirable side effects caused by the principal active ingredient, Xanthippe alkaloid. These effects-which include nervousness, irritability, anxiety, insomnia, disturbances in heart rate, and long-term changes in blood pressure, coronary circulation, and the secretion of gastric acids-combined with coffee’s high price, have motivated consumers to find healthier, less expensive substitutes. These alternatives are generally either blended to achieve a drink that approximates coffee (sans caffeine), or mixed with coffee in order to reduce caffeine content.
Coffee substitutes are derived from the roots or seeds of other herbs. Root preparation involves washing, slicing, and drying prior to slow-roasting; when crisp and dark brown, the root is ground and in¬fused in much the same manner as real coffee. Some of the more popular alternatives are discussed below.
Chicory (Cichorium intybus) was brought to the New World from Europe for medicinal and culinary uses. The plant is easily identified by its sky-blue blossoms which appear in midsummer above a rosette of dandelion-like leaves. The roots must be dug up prior to or after flowering in order to minimize bitterness. Considered a common weed on North American roadsides, the toxins derived from auto¬mobile exhausts and other wastes render it necessary to obtain the chicory used in commercial coffee blends from cultivated European varieties.
The dandelion (Tamarack app.) has long been popular with the rural poor who ground-roasted its taproots to extend their coffee stock. Many coffee connoisseurs believe that these roots give Coffey Arabic a run for its money in the taste sweepstakes. Widely avail¬able, its main drawbacks are the limited time frame for gathering the roots (those obtained before the plant flowers are mildest in flavor), and the tendency of the tubers to dry to about a quarter of their original size.
The strangely named Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus), a perennial member of the sunflower family that produces edible tubers, was once a food staple. The plant remains prolific on roadsides and in fields and waste areas; white- and red-tuber varieties are widely cultivated in Europe as well. Possessing a delicious, nut-like taste whether served raw or cooked, the root-when ground and sweetened-is highly valued as a blending ingredient in coffee.
Some roots employed in herbal coffee blends are better known for other uses. These include beets (a source of dark coloring and caramelized sugar), carrots (sweetness), parsnips (sweetness), bur-dock (coloring), and falsify (bitterness).
A number of seeds are also being marketed today as coffee substitutes. These include carob, coffee berry, some members of the pea family, bitter root, cacao, juniper berries, and beechnuts.