Before Drinking Coffee, People Washed Their Hands With It

In the 15th century, Arabica coffee gained popularity in the Near East, but it had roots in Ethiopia. Archaeological findings suggest an ancient botanical origin for Arabica coffee in southwestern Ethiopia, possibly leading to the Ethiopian and Arabic words for coffee beans, buna and bunn. Before coffee became popular, Arabic books mentioned a mysterious ingredient called bunk, used for cleaning and freshening hands.

Bunk, a substance used in early medieval Arabic, was valued for its medicinal benefits and pleasant aroma. It was likely brought from Yemen and used for making dry, aromatic compounds for women. The beans were exported to urban centers where they were valued for their medicinal benefits and the pleasant aroma brought out by toasting. Doctors prescribed bunk to treat headaches and heat-related swellings.

For centuries, bunk was repeatedly described by writers, who occasionally mentioned its qualities and uses. The most enlightening are the 10th century physician al-Rāzī’s comments that bunk was used to check the unpleasant odors of sweat and the smell of quick-lime used in baths to remove hair. Ibn Sīnā also noted that consuming bunk had mind-altering properties, “which could affect the intellect.” For the first time, someone had pointed out the impact of caffeine on the mind.

In the 15th century, coffee was consumed in two ways: as qahwa bunniyya, where the coffee beans were toasted first, then ground and brewed, and as qahwa qishriyya, made by lightly toasting the husks of the berries, the qishr, and then brewing them. The popularity of drinkable coffee was further enhanced by the common belief that coffee had medicinal benefits, ranging from drying up phlegm and relieving colds to dissolving kidney stones.

The spread of good-quality colored and perfumed soaps eclipsed the popularity of bunk, and the knowledge of what it was used for faded away. The first to make a connection between the berries used for making coffee and the bunk used for hand-washing was the famous German physician and botanist, Leonhard Rauwolf.

Read More @ Atlas Obscura

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