If the Enterprise runs on tea, Earl Grey, hot, Deep Space 9 runs on raktajino: Klingon coffee that’s rich, spicy, and boasts a battle-ready caffeine content. But it’s more than the crew’s favorite beverage; raktajino is so popular that it is often used to illustrate characters’ personal arcs, serving as a symbol of unrequited love, undercover spies, and the desire to belong. Throughout the series, Klingon coffee is one of the many keys to DS9’s heart.

The earliest episode whose plot turns on raktajino is season 4’s “Crossfire” — this time around, it’s a symbol of unrequited love. The episode begins with Odo preparing for his day: he straightens his office, taps his console and, checking the time, he orders a raktajino — extra hot, two measures of cava — for Major Kira, who walks in bang on time at 0800. The audience shares Odo’s delight as she takes that first sip and sighs with satisfaction. Putting out a raktajino for Kira is Odo’s version of, “as you wish,” the small symbol of his secret devotion to her. Aside from shape-shifting, Odo is defined by his love for order, and in “Crossfire” he demonstrates his unrequited love for Kira by placing her within his routine and setting out her favorite pick-me-up for their morning meeting. 

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - "Crossfire"
"Crossfire"
StarTrek.com

Despite this sweet gesture, Odo’s competition for Kira’s heart is stiff. The first sign that he’s losing his chance is when the major appears late for their usual meeting. Odo points out the raktajino that’s getting cold on his desk, and we watch his face fall as she casually brushes it off, saying that she already had her coffee with Shakaar. Odo is thrown entirely off balance: his routine is disrupted, cold coffee just a small symbol of how everything is changing around him. In the end, he decides to forego meeting with Kira entirely, rather than order coffees she might not arrive on time to drink, letting his heart mend in private.

In season five’s “The Assignment,” raktajino takes on a new meaning, as a metaphor for the longing to fit in. Rom, the tradition-flouting Ferengi engineer, is briefly upgraded to the swing shift as a Junior Grade Diagnostic and Repair Technician, his first job outside of the Ferengi business world. Walking into the conference room for his work assignment, he eyes his new crewmates’ coffee mugs and in a desperate bid to fit in, insists on having what they’re having: enthusiastically overpronouncing “rrrrraktajino” he asks, “Is this what we drink on the swing shift?”

The whole scene is both deeply awkward and incredibly relatable. Who among us hasn’t tried too hard to blend in, only to stick out farther? Rom is many things — kind-hearted, a great father, and a mechanical genius — but he is not popular, and he knows it. Rom’s raktajino is his attempt to fit in with the crew.  He says, “It’s not like this on the night shift—we don’t drink rrraktajino,” but it doesn’t work. The crew instead wait for the awkward moment to pass and get back to work. In the end, however, being overlooked makes Rom the hero of the story, giving him the time and mental bandwidth to crack the episode’s mystery. He proves himself to Chief O’Brien and his crewmates, even dropping raktajino in favor of a breakfast he really enjoys.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - "The Assignment"
"The Assignment"
StarTrek.com

By any measure, “Trials and Tribble-ations” is a standout episode. The seamless integration of DS9’s crew into one of TOS’s most beloved episodes is a celebration of Star Trek’s most delightful, exuberant instincts. And once again, the plot turns on raktajinos: staking out the cantina on Space Station K-7, Odo orders a raktajino from a bemused waitress, prompting her to ask him,  “What is it? You’re the second person to order it today.”

In the moment, Odo sounds like a 21st-century hipster asking for an oat milk latte at a roadside diner, but it gets the job done — without Odo’s out-of-place order, the waitress might never have dropped a clue to stake out the bar. Forget the Kelvin timeline—who knows what universe we’d be in if Darvin had carried out his plot against Kirk!

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - "You Are Cordially Invited"
"You are Cordially Invited"
StarTrek.com

Perhaps it is telling that the one character who never orders raktajino is Starfleet’s first Klingon and Star Trek’s eternal fish-out-of-water, Worf. Instead, it’s his true love Jadzia Dax who can’t get enough. By the time “You Are Cordially Invited” rolls around in season six, we’re more than ready for a happy episode; the Dominion War has been in full swing all season, and our stalwart crew have seen some hard times. Worf and Dax’s wedding should be a welcome relief, but as usual, both parties’ stubbornness almost ruins everything. Insulted that she needs to win her future mother-in-law’s approval to enter the House of Martok, Dax rebels and throws herself a massive bachelorette party. She must be serving real alcohol, too, because when Worf comes by the next morning to find out what happened, she’s in pretty rough shape. She defiantly sips on a double raktajino, extra sweet, while Worf calls off the wedding. Dax’s raktajino is her last rebellious act, a last nod to the wild child who, after 356 years and eight lifetimes, is finally ready to grow up.

And those are just the beginning: there are plenty of times when a warm cup of peppery and cinnamon-laced coffee gives characters a chance to slow down, relax and bond together, both in their regular duties and as catalysts for a story. While raktajino may fuel as much of DS9’s daily life as any ODN relay, it’s also a window into the warm, rich heart of the series itself.

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Claudia Cravens (she/her) is a writer and Trek fan based in Brooklyn, NY. You can find her on Twitter @claudia_cravens

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Odo
Kira Nerys
Jadzia Dax