In a world filled with uncertainty, humankind has sought answers from every imaginable source: The stars, the moon, the earth, in each other, within one's self. From these unknowns and the human mind was born astrology, evolution, creationism, atheism, and hundreds of other constructs humans use to define the mysteries of the universe, explain events from the past, and prediction future occurrences—including the centuries old practice of reading images in leftover coffee grounds or the tea leaves that settle at the base of a cup. This is known as tasseography.
Since the 17th century, inhabitants of the Levant, or the area around the Middle East and near present day Turkey, have been drinking coffee. To this day, Turkish coffee is the most commonly served type of coffee in the area. To be labeled "Turkish" coffee, Arabica beans are roasted and then very finely ground; the grains for Turkish coffee are even finer than they are for espresso. To brew the coffee, one or two teaspoons of finely ground coffee is dropped into a small, usually copper, long-handled pot called a cezve or ibrik. The vessel is then filled with water and placed on a stove or over a fire to heat. Sometimes sugar is added. The dark mixture is boiled for several minutes, cooled slightly, then poured into espresso-sized cups and served. The coffee is strong, but not bitter, and its strength is often tempered by sugar.
Because Turkish coffee is not filtered or strained, as the coffee is consumed, a dark, muddy sediment forms at the cup's base. To avoid drinking the grounds, one stops drinking when about one fifth of the coffee remains. What no one knows is when, exactly, reading the shapes left at the bottom of a cup of Turkish coffee became customary as a sort of everyday, casual, communal, culturally reinforced fortune-telling. Today, the practice is common throughout the Middle East, Greece, and parts of Europe and the U.S. There are several different ways to decipher and read the meaning of images in a cup of coffee. Some practitioners use coffee and cream, others use tea leaves. The most widely practiced traditional Turkish coffee cup reading is called fal, which literally means "fortunes."
Saba Hocek, New York City
Saba Hocek has practiced coffee ground reading since she was 16. "I was always very intuitive. I would have dreams, they were premonitions. Anytime I was in danger there was a certain smell I would pick up." In the psychic world, this is known as clairscient, and is a sign of a particular sensitivity or awareness. Hocek, who is Turkish, says her entire family was intuitive. "I always saw my mother read coffee grounds when I was younger. It's very much part of our culture."
It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves. — William Shakespeare
When Hocek was 16 her family moved to Iran. She enrolled in school there, and one day she went out with the kids from school to a cafe and ordered coffee. Hocek says, "So they said, ‘You're Turkish, why don't you read our cups?'" Not wanting to disappoint her new friends Hocek felt put on the spot, "I'd never done this before, but I'd seen my mom do it hundreds of times, so I thought sure, I'll give it a shot." Hocek looked into the first cup and says, "All of a sudden a story about this person's past, history, and coming events started showing up in my mind." She was dubious, but gave a reading she felt was honest. "Not long after that, kids at school would line up to have me read their coffee cups," Hocek says. She went on to become a computer programmer, and though she was born in the U.S., has lived in Turkey, Iran, Austria, and Germany. Looking into the future, she says, was a way for her to stay grounded throughout the travels in her youth and while she was in school.
"Around 10 years ago, I started up again." Hocek was inspired to begin practicing again because she says she feels it empowers people. She doesn't consider herself a psychic at least not in the Hollywood sense. "The most important thing for me is to empower people. I believe we all have the gift of intuition, but we hide it. I want to teach people to open themselves up to the possibilities and powers they have within them. If you're intuitive, you're not only in touch with the people around you and able to pick up their emotions and what's going on with them, but you're more aware of your own feelings. Everything is about awareness. To bring inner peace you need awareness."
Hocek also practices hypnosis and biofeedback, treatments that feel more firmly on the edge of science than fortune-telling. "This is all very different from reading tarot cards," Hocek explains. "The main things I look for in the cup, is not so much to say, ‘Oh in three months this is going to happen or that is going to happen to you.'" She goes on, "My interest is in finding out what are the blockages that are preventing you from getting to your goal faster? Let's say that somebody comes in, and perhaps they're not happy in their job and they're wanting to find another job. I'll look and I'll say I don't see it happening for another year, but what I am seeing is that you're going to be focusing on education, and at that point this will open up opportunities for your career. Knowing that, they can expedite their goals. Why wait six months, if maybe what is stopping them from pursuing a new career path is something simple like further education?"
So, is this sort of fortune telling a lot like the services a life coach might provide, but with a celestial bent? "I like to believe the control is not in my hands but is in their hands. What I see in the cup, when I'm reading, what I'm interested in, is awakening an overall awareness, or a sense of what realizations this person needs to make in order to achieve their potential."
Sema Bal, Queens, New York
For Sema Bal, the practice of fal is more about helping people connect with loved ones they've lost. She reads Turkish coffee grounds, not creamed coffee. Bal's claim to fame is her one-time appearance on season 7 of the Bravo reality show The Real Housewives of New York City. In that episode, three housewives — Carole Radziwill, Heather Thomson, and Dorinda Medley — receive a reading that caused the audience to gasp. "Someone's coming back from your past," Bal told Radziwill on the show. "For some reason, he's apologizing."
"Who is this?" asked Radziwill.
"He's like a husband who passed away," Bal says. Radziwill's husband Anthony died of cancer in 1999. "Is there anyone who drives a black Jeep?"
Anthony drove a black Jeep.
There is nothing like a dream to create the future. — Victor Hugo
Bal practices out of her home in Woodhaven, an enclave of about 28,000 people in the New York City borough of Queens. Though she specializes in connecting with the dead, she doesn't like the words "medium" or "psychic." Instead, she calls herself a coffee whisperer. She charges a minimum of $150 for readings and sometimes over $1,000, depending upon the gravity of the matter at hand. Unlike others, Bal only does readings in person or based on a photograph of coffee grinds sent via email or regular mail.
How did she get into it? Bal, who was born in Apapazri, Turkey, says everyone there practices fal; it's a casual, fun game among friends: "My mom used to read turkish coffee grounds, my dad and my whole family. I started reading for friends when I was younger." According to her, only some people have the ability to truly see visions, spirits, or the future. Bal says," My mom used to say 'you can only tell them what you think the reading means,' but everyone interprets it differently." So how does one know how to separate fact from fiction?
The reading of Turkish coffee grounds is by far the most widely known form of tasseography in practice today, but it is not the only form of fortune telling that comes out of a cup. Less common is the reading of the steam and swirls that rise up from a cup of coffee when cold cream is poured into its center. Though its history is murky, this type of reading traces its origins to Latin America.
Jorianne, Crown Point, Indiana
Jorianne — who only goes by her first name — has been reading images in coffee cups for over 30 years. She works out of her home and office in Crown Point, Indiana, an incorporated town of some 27,000 about an hour's drive south of Chicago. Jorianne, a cheerful woman with Midwestern manners and the charm of your favorite cool aunt, is frequently a guest on television programs, hosts her own psychic radio show, and has written and spoken extensively on her profession. So how did she get into telling fortunes with coffee? "The truth is I used to drink 30 to 40 cups of coffee a day, I love caffeine — that's no joke," she says with a little laugh. Jorianne started reading fortunes in tarot cards, until she decided she needed to shift her business. She was discussing her business strategy with a family friend who told her about how "in Hispanic cultures, they take a black cup of coffee and pour cream into it. When you do this, you see images." Is it a sign of an overactive imagination? Is it like seeing shapes in the clouds in the sky? Or does the universe speak to humans through a cup of coffee and a tablespoon of cream? Who's to say?
"I started pouring the cream into coffee during readings, and would tell people to look into the cup with me. One of the first times I did this, I saw a broken bone. So I asked the person, ‘Did you break your bone recently?' And they said ‘Yes.'" Not long after, she was pouring the cream and she saw a skull. "That means death, but I don't like starting with bad news so I didn't say anything. Then I saw seven or eight more skulls. I knew I had to say something." Jorianne says she gingerly told the man what she was seeing, and said she couldn't get any other information. "He gasped," she says, "He says, ‘Jorianne, eight of my friends just died.'" She says, "That's when the coffee became my thing, and I got real good at it."
The empires of the future are the empires of the mind. — Winston Churchill
Jorianne's readings are unique in that they have no ties to traditional Turkish coffee readings, but she presides over a thriving practice. She sees sometimes 30 people in one day, hosts psychic reading parties, and travels to clients around the states and abroad. She will also read people's cups over the phone. She says she likes to use a dark roasted coffee and brew it fresh for each cup. "I make the joke that I used French roast until the French were bad to us," she says with a laugh. Then pours in a glug or more of half-and-half. She explains, "Cream is too thick, and milk is too thin; half-and-half produces the most vivid shapes." For Jorianne, the coffee cup becomes a motion picture.
"I see faces, letters, numbers, body parts, babies, animals, books, trees, you name it," Jorianne explains. She doesn't like to deliver bad news, "but I do it anyway because to be forewarned is to be forewarned." Jorianne uses words like clairvoyance and aura, she refers to herself as a "professional psychic transmedian."
"I've seen incredible things," Jorianne says, "one lady's brother came, and after I told him what I saw in his cup he called his sister and said, ‘You got to tell daddy if he doesn't go to the doctor he's going to have a heart attack.'" The family rushed their father to the hospital and an hour later the doctors were performing a triple bypass on him. She's seen people with translators, and one hearing impaired person with an interpreter. "That was a real honor for me," she says.
Jorianne says women come in asking about love, men come asking about love and finances. "The coffee is always different. Sometimes when I pour the cream in it will bubble up. Why does it bubble up for one person and not the next person?" Jorianne has some awareness of her skeptics, people that believe psychics are full of crock. "Yes, there are misconceptions about coffee reading and psychics in general. There are charlatans out there. If someone says to you, ‘You have a dark cloud over you,' and they're saying, ‘Give me all your gold,' well that's not right." Jorianne knows she doesn't have the power to change anyone's destiny. "If people are having strong emotional problems, maybe they'll seek out a psychic, but there's only so much a psychic can do. Sometimes I'll tell them they need to see a therapist. If they need serious help, I will tell them to seek out a medical professional."
How do you explain the unknown? How do you foretell a future?" Jorianne likes to tell one specific story: "One time, a woman came in and I read her cup. After the reading she said, ‘I don't know if you remember me, but you read my cup when I was 12 years old.'" Jorianne says she didn't remember the woman, that had to have been two decades prior. "She said, ‘You told me I was going to travel the world and I was going to record my travels in some way.'" That woman grew up to become a reporter for CNN and indeed has traveled the world and recorded it. Was Jorianne seeing into the future when she read that young girl's cup? Was she interpreting a future truth out of the shapes in a swirl of smoke and creamed coffee? Or was she passing along a hint of encouragement in a world of uncertainty? "Here's the deal," Jorianne says, "I talk to the dead, I talk to spirits, I can't hold back from what they tell me, whatever I see I have to report. It can be fun and exciting, and many times it's heart warming." She says she doesn't do it for the fame or fortune, "I love helping people, and that's the truth."
If humans seek answers to the unknown, and there is no all-knowing, all-seeing power (at least none that we know exists with a certainty), is looking for meaning in a coffee cup any different from Googling a question, searching one's soul, or going with one's gut? Turkish coffee reading, such as it's practiced throughout the world today, is little more than a guide for most people. Superstitious or not, sometimes it's comforting to have an answer or direction, any answer or direction. Caffeinated or not, the power of suggestion may be stronger than the stars — or a pot of muddy coffee grinds.
Photos by Matthew Kang, unless otherwise noted.