One of my favorite parts of my trip to Ethiopia was the coffee ceremony. The coffee ceremony is ubiquitous, found within restaurants, airport waiting areas, and on the street.
To be sure, drinking the coffee is part of it; but, less than half of the experience. The setup is easily recognizable, there is a seating area with some stools, and often some straw or grass (at times even plastic grass) put down like a rug. A small table–a coffee table if you will–is set up with little cups.
To the side is a small charcoal brazier, just big enough to accommodate one pot. The attendant–nearly always a young woman in the traditional dress of the region–roasts green coffee beans, burns incense, grinds and brews the coffee and sells you a cup for anywhere between 25 and 40 cents.
Back home I am pretty careful not to drink coffee after lunch or I lay awake in bed that night from the caffeine. Here, we were on vacation, my body clock was completely screwed up and the coffee is so damn good I just said screw it and drank coffee throughout the day. What I couldn’t counter with beer just kept me up thinking about what an amazing vacation it was.
The beans are roasted in a little skillet with holes in it to let smoke come through. I was so enchanted with this process I bought one of these little skillets and some coffee beans to do this at home!
The thing about the ceremony is that you’re not just there for a cup of coffee. There are plenty of cafe’s where you can do that. You can walk into any number of places and just order a coffee or a cappuccino, etc. The ceremony, however, is about the experience. It forces you to stop and relax and take it all in with your senses.
Sometimes we would smell the coffee ceremony before we saw it. The incense, for me reminiscent of funerals, often stretches around the corner. Whether you like incense or not, this just became an integral part of the experience.
After the beans are roasted with their glistening oils oozing out of them, the young woman pours them into a wooden bowl and walks through the crowd with it, stopping at each person so that everyone gets to take in the aroma of freshly roasted coffee beans. And it is a fragrant field trip to heaven!
The beans are then ground by hand in a mortar and pestle, and boiled in a traditional clay coffee pot called a jebena. The charcoal used to roast the beans now boils the water. When it boils up through the spout, it’s ready. She pours you a small 4oz cup piping hot. Many take sugar with it, and Alice got used to that style.
I, on the other hand, took it black. This is strong, darkly roasted, robust coffee and I wanted it in its purest form. I delighted in every cup and never got sick of it. I also found that just a small cup of amazingly strong coffee was enough to satisfy me.
We stopped everywhere (sometimes to the frustration of our guides) for coffee. Perhaps the most memorable one was on a hike up a mountain. We hiked up before sunrise to visit an ancient monastery and were now on the way down. A family had a traditional house made from mud with a thatched roof. The husband was selling some souvenirs on the side of the trail and I stopped to look. He invited us to stay for coffee and we sat down on goat skins outside his home while his wife roasted the beans.
This poor family made us feel so comfortable, feeding us a little snack of traditional bread and chatting with us through our guide who was now our translator. We sat and rested, told them where we were from, and eventually enjoyed coffee flavored with fresh springs of coffee beans.
We were high in the mountains, around 10,000 feet and it was quiet and beautiful and I asked our guide to try and explain that when I returned to my daily life in Washington, DC, I would remember this moment very fondly. He seemed to get it, but he’s also never seen someone pull up at a Starbuck’s drive-thru window for a “vente decaf Americano”.
Finally it was my turn. At a friend’s house for dinner, their cook was fixing the coffee but stopped to help with the meal preparation. I quickly took her seat and began fanning the charcoal. This turned out to make everyone laugh because the man of the house would never conduct a coffee ceremony! Not the first cultural taboo I’ve ever breached, and boy are they in for a surprise when they come to Virginia!
We did bring home some amazing pre-roasted Ethiopian coffee, but after the ceremony, it’s just not the same!
So if you ever go to an Ethiopian restaurant and you see the setup, be sure and take a few minutes and soak it in. And I’ll warn the attendants who leave their station empty when I’m around…I just might take over for you!