The coffee ceremony is an integral part of social and cultural life in Ethiopia and Eritrea. An invitation to attend a coffee ceremony is considered a mark of friendship or respect and is an excellent example of Ethiopian hospitality. Performing the ceremony is almost obligatory in the presence of a visitor, whatever the time of day.
Ethiopian homage to coffee is sometimes ornate, and always beautifully ceremonial. There are many small variations based on region and ethnicity, but we will go over the most common process and the one that is used by Bunna Cafe.
The coffee ceremony is set up around a “rekbot” - a shelf-like box furniture that serves as the staging platform for the coffee making. The rekbot is arranged upon a bed of long scented grasses and flowers. The ceremony hostess is usually a young woman, dressed in the traditional Ethiopian white cotton garment with colored woven borders. The roasting of the coffee beans is done in a flat pan over a tiny charcoal stove, or a gas stove if necessary, the rich, nutty smell mingling with the heady aroma of frankincense and myrrh that is always burned during the ceremony. The hostess gently washes a handful of coffee beans on the heated pan, then stirs and shakes the husks away. When the coffee beans have turned black and shining and the aromatic oil is coaxed out of them, they are passed around the room for people to smell, and then are ground by pestle and mortar.
The hostess mixes the ground coffee with spices and pours it into an ornate clay pot known as “jebena”. This beautiful device is not only pleasing to the eye, but is also quite functional. Its structure allows the grinds to settle on the bottom while brewing. When it is time to pour, the narrow lip of the jebena acts as a strainer to keep the grounds in the pot. The hostess serves the coffee in tiny cups called “cini”, to her audience who have waited and watched the procedure for the past half-hour. Gracefully pouring a thin golden stream of coffee into each little cup from a height of one foot without an interruption requires years of practice.
Coffee, or Bunna, is taken with plenty of sugar (or in the countryside, salt) but no milk. Often it is complemented by a traditional snack food, such as popcorn, ambasha bread, or cooked barley. In most parts of Ethiopia, the coffee ceremony takes place three times a day – in the morning, at noon and in the evening. It is the main social event within the village – a time to discuss the community, politics, and life in general. Transformation of the spirit is said to take place during the coffee ceremony through the completion three rounds of drinking: ‘Abol’ (the first round), ‘Tona’ (second round) and ‘Baraka’ (third round).
The origin of coffee is firmly rooted in Ethiopia’s history. The most popular legend concerns the goat herder from Kaffa, where the plants still grow wild in the forest hills. After discovering his goats to be excited, almost dancing on their hind legs, he noticed a few mangled branches of the coffee plant which was hung with bright red berries. He tried the berries himself and rushed home to his wife who told him that he must tell the monks.
The monks tossed the sinful drug into the flames, an action soon to be followed by the smell we are all so familiar with now. They crushed the beans, raked them out of the fire, and distilled the stimulating substance in boiling water. Within minutes the monastery filled with the heavenly aroma of roasting beans, and the other monks gathered to investigate. After sitting up all night, they found a renewed energy to their holy devotions. The rest, as they say, is history.
Coffee holds a sacred place in their country – just the growing and picking process of coffee involves over 12 million Ethiopians and produces over two-thirds of the country’s earnings. In a world where time has long become a commodity, the Ethiopian coffee ceremony takes us back to a time when value was given to conversation and human relations.
Perhaps an ancient proverb best describes the place of coffee in Ethiopian life, “Buna dabo naw”, which when translated means “Coffee is our bread!”