The Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony

Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee. Sometimes in this global marketplace I forget that, hundreds of years ago, plants were actually indigenous to places and you simply couldn’t get them anywhere else. Talk about terroir! So when I first started going to Ethiopia with Travis about 4 years ago, I was excited to dive into the original coffee culture.

Now, I love coffee. Being from Seattle, I have a long experience with various beverages, from the soy vanilla latte in high school and college to the double short cappuccino in my early 20s, to coffee with maple syrup and cream in grad school. I mostly drink tea now, it turns out coffee completely disrupts my sleep, but every now and then I indulge and enjoy. And there is no better place to indulge and enjoy than in an Ethiopian coffee ceremony.

There are several ways to enjoy coffee in Ethiopia. First, as a privileged First World traveler, it’s easy and affordable for me to go to the swankier coffee bars that offer a more Italian-style beverage. They have the beautiful machines, the whir and tamp and hiss of the espresso that takes me straight back to rainy ungraduate days at Parnassus Cafe in the basement of the art building on UW campus. They have delicious macchiatos served in lovely little cups. But this is a newer way to drink coffee, a more elite way, a more global way.

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So let’s talk about the second way to enjoy coffee in Ethiopia. Let’s back it up a little and go out into street.

Along the smaller streets, usually unpaved, there is kiosk after kiosk offering the usual assortment of household necessaries like bottled water, phone cards, soap, toilet paper. And frequently those kiosks have coffee. There is a charcoal brazier with a black ceramic pot on it, and the coffee is steeping. There is a low table covered with a certain kind of grass, and sometimes there is incense. On this low table is a tray filled with small cups. Sit down and order a buna (pronounced boona). Tell them quickly if you don’t want any sugar or only a bit, otherwise you are likely to get a full teaspoon in your small cup. Ethiopians don’t eat dessert, they drink it.

One of my favorite memories from our first trip was our tourist shopping expedition into the nearby town on market day. We left James in good hands and went out to catch the bus. Being market day, every bus that went by us towards town was full and wouldn’t stop. I kid you not, we crossed the street and took a bus in the opposite direction to get to the small town where the buses were filling up. Sometimes you have to go up to go down. I was starving and cranky as all get out, so Travis asked when the next bus was then dragged me over to a kiosk selling music records and coffee (Seattle anyone?) and sat me down in a plastic chair by the brazier. A moment later I had a freshly fried doughnut, a bombolino, and a hot sweet cup of Ethiopian buna. Bliss as the calories, sugar, and caffeine hit the senses all at once. It was a religious experience, and I don’t say that lightly. I think I fell in love with Ethiopia right then.

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On our most recent trip to Ethiopia, Travis arranged a buna and shai (tea) delivery from a stand around the corner from our house, and the trays would arrive with empty buna cups, sugar bowl, and steam drifting from the spout of the coffee pot and from the tea pot. The students and researchers gearing up for the day would descend. Someone would be by later to pick it up, and sometimes we would haggle about how many cups had been on that tray, and whether my husband had already paid or not. It added to the charm.

Now, the third way to enjoy  Ethiopian coffee is the full-on coffee ceremony. This can happen at nice restaurants and hotels as a tourist attraction. Or it can happen in someone’s home. A traditional ceremony can take over an hour. It is lovely and worth every minute. We even had a guest do a coffee ceremony for us here in the States in front of our woodstove. If someone is having a dinner at their house, or if you are enjoying a nice lunch at a hotel, the buna ritual begins while you start eating so that, 35 minutes later, they are ready to begin serving. Let me walk you through it.

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First, the charcoal fire is started. Kessel in Amharic (no idea how to spell it, that’s my Americanized spelling of the word, Amharic has its own complex alphabet). You can buy kessel at the market. Did you know that it’s just wood? I didn’t. Yep, I’m that girl. Married to a guy who studies trees and forests and I didn’t know that charcoal is burned down wood. You learn a lot when you travel. Okay, so kessel is lit (without the aid of lighter fluid, just saying). Incense might go on the charcoal at this point, it’s usually chunks of frankincense. The green coffee beans are heaped in a pan and roasted by hand over the charcoal until they are fragrant with a very slightly bitter aroma. Frequently the woman (always a woman doing the ceremony) will walk around and offer you a waft. The beans are taken and pounded into a rough grind, think French press. Last spring when we lived in Ethiopia, Adina would do this for Travis so there would be a jar of ground coffee for stove-top coffee at our house. She used a surprisingly large and heavy crowbar type of implement to pound the coffee in a tin cannister. I would never sneak up on a woman while she is doing this, I can’t imagine it would end well for you.

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Once ground, the coffee is placed in the pot with water over the kessel and it brews. Ethiopian coffee prepared in this manner is a little more akin to Greek or Turkish coffee, but the grind is so large that you don’t end up with that sludge (for lack of a better word) at the bottom of the cup, and the coffee is not quite so thick and intense. This is good, as you are about to get three cups in succession.

As the coffee simmers, the popcorn is prepared. While I enjoy the popcorn (abbabakolo, or cornflower), I really enjoy that it distracts my kids. Ly especially loves the coffee ceremonies. Popcorn is definitely not something you will find in the outside stalls, this is something from the formal ceremony. So the popcorn makes the rounds, and the coffee is poured. And sugared, unless you stop them in time. The incense is fragrant and the coffee goes right to your head. The next cups are successively weaker as they are made from the same grounds. I like that. Because really, the marginal enjoyment of that coffee is going to diminish with each cup so why waste new grounds when you won’t enjoy it quite as much as that first one anyways? (as is often the case, food can demonstrate an important economic concept such as diminishing marginal returns with simplicity and elegance).

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Like so many moments of travel, the Ethiopian coffee ceremony is a gift. When there, it is an hour of slowing down and enjoying a centuries-old ritual. Once home, I remember the ceremony and I remind myself that when I sip a tea or coffee I should take a moment to let the aroma fill my senses, to watch the swirl of steam arise, to find a second of calm with that first sip. When I do these things, I go right back to ceremonies at friends’ homes, I go right back to that stall selling music and coffee, I go right back to the first person in the Ethiopian highlands who brewed a cup of coffee.

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One comment

  1. Martha

    I stabled across your blog while looking for someone who might have used arrowroot as a thickener for deserts and was pleasantly surprised to see your entry about the “Ethiopian coffee ceremony”. As someone who is originally from Ethiopia and currently living in London (UK) I thought I stop by and say hello. It sounds like you are not just a tourist as you eloquently described the process of making coffee in Ethiopia accompanied by beautiful photographs. Although I live in London permanently I have not completely cut my ties with Ethiopia completely. My husband Andrew and I have a very small charity which we set up to do what we can by providing schools and health care facilities with basic but much needed materials and I am always interested in people who have links with Ethiopia. If you don’t mind me asking is it pleasure or business which takes you to Ethiopia. It would be nice to hear your story.

    Kind Regards
    Martha

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