Ethiopia holds the mantle of being the birthplace of coffee, and with that, there is a long and storied history of coffee being a staple within their culture. Coffee is practically a character in the history of Ethiopia. Through time immemorial this ceremony has brought together neighbors, friends, and family because of its interactive nature. Erie has a growing refugee population so experiencing other cultures is only ever a few miles away if you are looking in the right places. Luckily for me, I had the chance of taking part in this ceremony without leaving the snowy confines of Erie through a couple of very hospitable folks from Ethiopia.
Eskinder and Eden Begna walked me through every step of the process while giving me cultural insights and historical context. It started out on a great foot when I found out that green coffee from the Yirgacheffe region (which I finally learned how to properly pronounce) of Ethiopia was being used. Eden wore a white dress with diamond patterns on golden stripes and a matching shawl with tasseled ends. She explained that the only steadfast rules regarding dress are that the dress be made of white cloth and that the matriarch of the household performs the ceremony.
While Eskinder was telling me about the Axumite Empire crossing into Yemen, Eden took the green coffee and roasted it on her stovetop, pushing the beans around with a spoon constantly to keep an even color. Traditionally, incense made from tree bark is then burned. She explained that in Ethiopia the roasting of the beans is usually done over a fire pit with a large wok-like pan and a staff with a crook is used to stir the beans.
At first crack, the chaff of the coffee beans rocketed from the beans setting off their smoke detector and waking their newborn! Eskinder absconded to baby’s room and deftly cooed him back to sleep while silencing the smoke detector. Though an unintended consequence, it got me to meeting the entire family, even the tuckered out little dude. Roasting was now hitting second crack and a cluster of little pops could be heard echoing through the Begna home. I continued watching the roasting process asking more and more questions.
“Is this something that everyone does?”
“Almost everyone does this.”
“What if your guests don’t like coffee?”
“We serve tea.”
“Is this only for special occasions and holidays?”
“It is for when you invite friends over and holidays and special occasions.”
The roast had reached a point where the beans were mostly at an even color and oil was coming to the surface making the beans shiny and dark. Eden lifted the pan of sizzling beans and wafted the familiar smoke toward me. She said that the pan of beans is always brought to each individual guest so that they can smell the coffee straight off the fire. The beans, still well over 400 degrees F, were poured into a top loaded spice grinder and Eden brought an Eritrean clay brewing jug known as a jebena nearby for the brewing process. The Ethiopian variant of this jug has a both a pour spout and an opening on top for loading the coffee. Again, being in the United States, most tools like a mortar and pestle have cheaper automated counterparts, in this case, a spice grinder. She ground them quite fine, nearly to a Turkish grind then transferred them directly into the jebena. The jebena was then filled with water and set on the stove to boil the grounds and water together.
Erstwhile in the living room, Ed Grode, board member of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) was proffering information on his experiences in Kenya and the separation of the Eritreans from Ethiopia to gain their independence in 1991, while his wife suggested quality of life improvements for getting used to our cold climate. The coffee was almost ready.
I asked Eskinder what the experience of getting coffee is like in Ethiopia. He told me that you never go directly to farms, nor to a bazaar, but to small kiosks that provide green coffee. He told me that they would always wash the coffee beans after buying from a kiosk. I asked about cream and sugar and he explained that sugar is absolutely a luxury item in Ethiopia. Instead of sugar, they would buy salt to cut through any bitter flavors that might present themselves.
Eden emerged with the jebena of hot coffee and set it at an angle on a stand and a straw lid to keep it warm, its round bottom cradled so the coffee grounds would settle at the bottom when pouring it. Small porcelain cups were arrayed in a circular fashion surrounding snacks of popcorn and crackers (and in Ethiopia sometimes Himbasha, a semi-sweet cardamom bread, is served as well,) each cup set on a saucer with a cucchiarino teaspoon for stirring sugar or salt in. While we waited for the grounds to settle, Eskinder put on YouTube videos to walk me through the process and make sure we didn’t miss anything important. Ed talked to me about the religious makeup of Ethiopia while Eskinder drew pictures of the different types of jebena in my notebook.
Eden began serving the coffee. While I was skeptical that an askew jebena could keep back many of the coffee grounds, likening it to Turkish coffee I’ve had in the past, I was pleasantly surprised that my teeth weren’t clogged with coffee grounds. I was also pleased with what stovetop roasting could produce. The coffee was a dark roast with subtle flavors of blackberry jam and toasted sesame seeds. I was offered seconds, and of course I indulged. We continued talking and hanging out for a few hours and just as fast as it begun, the ceremony concluded. If you have a chance to experience this yourself I highly recommend it.