Comment: What does “moka” mean?   Leave a comment

Despite the name, the coffee species that we know best today (Coffea arabica) was likely domesticated in what is now Ethiopia. The first large-scale plantations were across the Red Sea on the Arabian peninsula, in what we now call Yemen. It is there that we find the first mention of coffee used as a beverage, by Sufi mystics. The drink, later called “the wine of the Arabs,” quickly became popular in the rest of the Muslim world, supposedly both because it was a stimulant not forbidden by the Koran but also because it helped faithful Muslims stay awake for evening (or even night-time) prayers. The coffee was exported from the Yemeni port known in Arabic as “al-Mukhā,” which in English is usually rendered as Mocha or Mokha.

Here’s where the confusion begins. In Italian the spelling is “Moka,” a word that refers not only to the city but also to the coffee that comes out of the home coffee maker (pictured here), invented by Alfonso Bialetti in 1933. In English, on the other hand, “mocha” (also spelled “mokha”) refers to a mix of heated milk and espresso, as well as chocolate (or cocoa powder) and possibly foam; this is possibly because coffee beans from Mokha were said to have a chocolatey aftertaste. Americans asking for a “mocha” at a café in Italy are likely to get strange looks and incomprehension, as this refers to the coffee that one gets out of the little pot at home, not an espresso. This confusion extends to the “latte” as well, which Americans think will get them what Italians would call a “caffè latte” (i.e. a mix of coffee and warm milk), but which nets them only a glass of latte, milk.

This process of partial translation is not simply linguistic, but also hits content. Think of how the pizza was translated to the United States (imagine cheese-filled crusts in Italy) or alternately how the hamburger has made it, in a slightly different form, to Italy.


Posted January 7, 2011 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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