September 14, 2022

What is Touba coffee & how do you prepare it?


Across many countries in the Middle East and Africa, traditional brewing methods are still popular today – in both coffee houses and at home.

One of these brewing methods is Touba coffee (also known as Sufi coffee): a popular traditional coffee beverage largely consumed in Senegal. The drink was first introduced to the country in 1902 by religious leader Sheikh Amadou Bamba Mbacké.

Over the past few years, consumption of Touba coffee has become less linked to religion and more popular further afield, with many people across Senegal – and more recently in West African country Guinea-Bissau – enjoying the drink.

To find out more about this beverage, as well as how it is prepared, I spoke with two Touba coffee drinkers. Read on for their insight on the historical and cultural background of this beverage.

You may also like our article on qahwa coffee and how it’s prepared.

People from the Mouride sect of Sufi Islam chant prayers in the village of Ndande

A brief history of Touba coffee

One of the reasons why Touba coffee is so popular in Senegal is because it’s believed that the drink originated from the country. In fact, the beverage is named after the city of Touba – the second-most populous city in Senegal.

Initially, Touba coffee was mostly consumed as part of religious ceremonies. In the early 20th century, the founder of the Islamic Mouride brotherhood, Sheikh Mbacké (also known as Serigne Touba), is said to have introduced the beverage to other Mouride Muslims. For the Islamic Mouride brotherhood, Touba is considered an important holy place.

This is largely because of Serigne, who is a significant cultural and religious figure in Senegalese history. The country had been under French colonial rule since 1659, and Serigne dedicated his life to promoting peaceful protest in the name of independence. He believed that through Sufism (a mystic body of religious practice within Islam), social equality and peace could be achieved for the Senegalese people. 

However, Christian French colonial powers accused the Sheikh of preaching Islamic teachings (which was deemed a crime during this period), and he was forced to spend 13 years in exile in the neighbouring countries of Gabon and Mauritania. He was also placed under a 15-year house arrest upon his return to Senegal. 

It was during his time in Gabon that Serigne came across the grains of Selim – the seed pods of the Xylopia aethiopica tree, which is native to Central Africa. The seeds (also known as Senegal pepper) have a musky flavour and are used in a similar way to black pepper in local cuisine.

Serigne believed that roasting coffee with grains of Selim produced a drink which helped the followers of the Islamic Mouride brotherhood obtain more spiritual insight during prayer. Ultimately, this led to the increase in popularity of Touba coffee.

However, it’s now more common for people of all religious and cultural backgrounds to drink Touba coffee across Senegal.

Ibra Sawarè is a diplomat at the Senegalese embassy in Portugal. He says that most Sengalese people drink the beverage on a daily basis – regardless of their faith, age, social status, or ethnic background.

A coffee vendor and follower of Senegal's Mouride Brotherhood tends to his stall next to an image of the movement's figurehead and spiritual guide, the late Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba Mbacke

How is it prepared?

As well as being popular in African cuisine and traditional medicine, grains of Selim (or djar in Wolof, a native language in Senegal) are also a key component of Touba coffee, which is typically made with robusta.

Traditionally, dried and ground grains of Selim are added towards the end of the roasting process because they roast much more quickly than coffee beans. Touba coffee is usually roasted to a dark profile.

Grains of Selim add spicy and slightly bitter flavours to the drink. Common tasting notes can include balsamic vinegar, black pepper, and cardamom. 

In order to combat the increased bitterness, some people add sugar – which can give the drink a slightly thicker mouthfeel.

To brew Touba coffee, most recipes use somewhere around 100g robusta beans, 10g grains of Selim, and 800ml water. The drink is usually prepared similarly to a pour over using a cloth filter.

Some variations of the recipe can include cloves or cardamom, which are crushed and added in with the ground coffee. 

In Senegal, restaurants and street food vendors known as tanganas often prepare large batches of Touba coffee, which they roast on a stove.

The drink can be boiled for up to a day before it is served to customers. Tanganas typically use 5l of water, 1kg of coffee, and half a kilogram of ground grains of Selim to prepare the beverage in a large pot. Sugar is also sometimes added.

However, it’s now becoming more common for Touba coffee to be sold in capsule or even single-serve coffee bag form.

Grains of Selim are the seeds of a shrubby tree, Xylopia aethiopica. They are also known as uda pods, hwentia

Does the drink have health benefits?

Ibra explains that many people in Senegal drink Touba coffee because of the reported health benefits of grains of Selim seed pods – which can also be chewed or consumed as a paste.

“In West African traditional medicine, grains of Selim can supposedly be used to treat incurable diseases,” he says. “Because of this, religious leaders started to encourage people to drink it during prayer.”

Some studies have somewhat supported these claims, although more scientific research is required to validate these findings. One 2019 study found that the seeds contain compounds with “antiplasmodial” effects, which means they may be able to combat and improve resistance to malaria infection.

Other studies have shown that the seeds also have analgesic, anti-inflammatory, antidiabetic, and antimicrobial properties – however, there is no solid evidence that they can be used to treat incurable diseases.

Furthermore, the reported health benefits of grains of Selim are mostly linked to consuming them raw, as opposed to roasted and brewed in Touba coffee. In fact, one Senegalese scientist suggests that boiling Touba coffee for prolonged periods of time could release more acidic compounds and diterpenes, potentially irritating the digestive system. 

men drink café touba at a sidewalk coffee shop

Is Touba coffee consumption changing?

Considering the historical and cultural significance of Touba coffee, is the consumption of this beverage changing as time goes on?

Ibra says the drink is prepared and consumed for a number of different occasions; he prepares it every day at home for his family.

“Some people drink Touba coffee while socialising with their friends and family,” he tells me. “It can be served to guests, or even as a part of a spiritual ceremony.

“People also believe the drink boosts energy levels and improves concentration,” he adds.

Magatte Faye is the sales manager of Dialibatou Coffee, a roaster and retailer in Dakar, Senegal. The company sells Touba coffee blends made with robusta and arabica beans sourced from neighbouring countries.

Magatte explains that consumption of the beverage has become much more popular thanks to tanganas, and can now be found in other West African countries.

In fact, Touba coffee became so popular that in 2007, Nescafé instant coffee sales reportedly decreased in Senegal as a result of rising consumption of the beverage. It is believed that in response to this growth, Nestlé launched its African coffee range – which includes different spices and flavours.

Ibra explains that the popularity of Touba coffee is beneficial for a number of reasons.

“Besides being less expensive than other types of coffee sold in the country, it also creates more business opportunities for young Senegalese people,” he says.

a breakfast spread including touba coffee

Potential markets for Touba coffee

Given its popularity in West Africa, is there potential for Touba coffee to be sold in other international markets?

Magatte tells me that outside of West Africa, Dialibatou mainly sells its products in France and Canada.

“These countries are our main buyers, but other markets include the US, Italy, and Spain,” he says. “Most countries which have larger populations of Senegalese migrants export more Touba coffee.”

Magatte also believes that Touba coffee products could be successfully marketed to more consumers who drink other traditional Middle Eastern and African coffee beverages, like Turkish coffee and qahwa. 

men drink café Touba in Touba, senegal

The popularity of Touba coffee in Senegal and other West African countries is undeniable. For over a century, consumption of the drink has grown beyond religious and medicinal significance to become an everyday coffee beverage for most people in the country.

So with more companies roasting and selling higher-quality Touba coffee, there is potential for the market to grow. Whether this will happen over the coming years, however, remains to be seen.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article exploring the relationship between coffee & khat.

Photo credits: Dialibatou Coffee

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