Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Traditional Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony

One thing that Ethiopians and Americans have in common is their love of coffee. However, the difference is in the way that one prepares the coffee here vs. America…

I think I have previously mentioned the Traditional Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony before, but it is such an inherent part of life here, so I’ll give you a little insight into this “ceremony”…usually when I think of this word, “special occasion” comes to mind…but this is not always the case. People will perform the ceremony any time of the day, multiple times a day, no special occasion necessary! I’ll set the stage for you: long blades of green grass or green leaves (or in some instances a couple potted plants or a plastic mat that has a tacky grass-like fringe around it) are put down on the floor where the coffee will be made, and sometimes flowers (fake or real) and popcorn are scattered throughout the grass. A box-like contraption (that sometimes has wheels) is used to display the coffee cups and saucers. A small stool is used by the person making the coffee. She (almost always a woman’s job) will first roast the green coffee beans over a charcoal stove, then pound them using a mortar and pestle (usually a heavy metal rod of sorts). However, after the beans are done roasting and before they are pounded, the lady will walk around the room and shake the beans/aroma to your nose’s delight. You are supposed to gently waft the fumes toward your nose and smile. The coffee grounds will then be mixed with boiling water in a jebena (traditional coffee vessel), then left to percolate for awhile in a little holder. During this time, a snack (coursi bunna) will be made and/or passed around. Popcorn (fandisha in Amharic, or ambeba in Tigrigna) is a favorite, or bread or a piece of injera with berbere and/or salt sprinkled over it is also common. If it really is a special occasion, sometimes bananas, orange slices, small cookies or pieces of candy will accompany the popcorn. At this point in the ceremony, incense is usually lit - either in stick form, or loose-leaf style (looks kind of like potpourri – I had never seen incense in this form before coming here) and the smoke/smell fills the room.

The first jebena of coffee that is made is called owl. The second is tona, and the third is baracka. The coffee is served in tiny cups that resemble large thimbles. It’s kind of like attending a child’s tea party… The cups generally do not have handles, so one must be careful so as to not burn their fingers when holding it. I have become good at the “tripod hold”, placing my pinky finger underneath the cup, and holding the rim delicately with my thumb and index finger. Ethiopians do not skimp on the amount of sugar that goes into this tiny cup – usually 2 or 3 heaping tiny teaspoons per cup. In my region of Tigray, after you take/taste the first sip of owl, you are supposed to say “T’ium bunna” to the person who made the coffee, meaning “sweet coffee! It makes your host feel appreciated. The coffee is potent here, and don’t even think about asking for a cup of decaf – it’s nonexistent! This ceremony is performed at any and all hours of the day – for guests, for fun, out of boredom, special occasions, etc. It is an everyday part of life for pretty much every single Ethiopian (correct me if I’m wrong!).

And it kills me when people ask me if I have ever been witness to the “traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony”…or when it’s happening they’ll lean over and say “this is cultural”…yeah, no kidding! I have been in this country for 8 months at this point – and probably sit through at least one coffee ceremony per day. This whole process, from set up – the end of the 3rd thimble full takes about an hour (at least). I think the most coffee ceremonies I’ve ever sat through in a day has been 4…When I moved to site I started keeping count of how many I attended (for lack of better things to do with my time!), but my count was growing at a rapid pace, so I stopped. I am also asked very often if I prepare coffee in my home…and the answer is yes, just not the Ethio way. I brought a French press w/ me (thanks dad!) and buy ground coffee in Mekele…probably the ultimate Ethiopian faux paus. I do not own a charcoal stove, nor do I own a jebena, but perhaps it will be something I’ll take home as a little relic of having lived here, to place on my bookshelf. The ceremony is quite time consuming and I do have the time, but while I’m here, I think I’ll stick to my western coffee making way (sans drip machine)…

I have seen an electric coffee grinder for sale, in addition to a drip machine, but they are not in any way/shape/form common here (except maybe in Addis).

1 comment:

  1. Well done, Laura. The Tigre method varies slightly from the Amhara protocol, but the results are the same. The incense can be tricky, with many varieties available. The best, and most expensive, come from Yemen. I never liked getting beyond the 'andenya' boil and the 'sosteny' boil was not very good. By that time, all subjects had been discussed anyway. I spent many hours around the bunna icka and its a great way to learn the language. From a man's point of view, a private window to the women's world. I would bring back sacks of charcoal from the Rift Valley and give them to women who kept me well charged with fine Harrar coffee. Some of my fondest memories are with a finjan in hand