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The Ceremonial Cup: Exploring Coffee Traditions

The Ceremonial Cup: Exploring Coffee Traditions

A Sensory Journey through Ethiopian Coffee Culture

I remember the culture shock I felt when I first came to visit America and realized that coffee was seen as an on-the-go drink. It was evident in the hustle of big coffee shops, crammed with people anxiously waiting for their drinks, glancing at their watches, trying to balance their need for a dose of caffeine for the day and getting to work on time. As an Ethiopian, my relationship with coffee is completely different. We have a saying in Ethiopia: "Coffee and love taste best when hot." Coffee in Ethiopia symbolizes more than just a drink. It is our connection to our country's history, an essential part of our family gatherings, and a way we catch up with friends and welcome guests.

The Legend of Kaldi and the Discovery of Coffee

Ethiopia's connection to coffee stretches back thousands of years. I grew up with the story of how coffee was discovered. We are all taught the story of Kaldi, a goat herder who lived in the Kaffa region in Ethiopia. The story goes that while he was out with his goats one day, he noticed that some of his goats were jumping, baying, and had an air about them that was foreign to Kaldi. Upon further investigation, he found that they had nibbled on some red cherries and now, curious, he tried some himself. Much to his shock, he, just as his goats had felt, a jolt of energy course through him once he ate this mysterious cherry. Excited with his discovery, he rushed home to show his family, who advised him to show it to a Monk at a monastery.

Like many new things, coffee was at first met with hostility as the monk whom Kaldi showed the cherries to threw them into a fire. However, as the cherries roasted, the aroma that wafted from the fire changed the monk's mind, and the rest is history. While there are deviations that come with a story that has been passed down generations, the conclusion remains the same: Arabica Coffee, the current most consumed around the world, originated in Ethiopia.

The Ceremonial Art of Brewing Ethiopian Coffee

Coffee is so integral to Ethiopian culture that we developed a traditional way of brewing it. To paint the picture of how coffee is brewed, I want to first start by talking about the setup. The names I'm using to describe the appliances are in Amharic, which is what my family speaks at home and is widely spoken in Ethiopia. However, Ethiopia is home to various languages that would use different names for these appliances.

The most common set needed to brew coffee includes a Jebena, the traditional coffee pot, a Kesel Mandeja, which is a coal burner, and a small table of sorts where we lay out the cups we drink out of, called Sinis. The small table is on top of a small mat that usually has Ketema, a type of grass, lightly scattered on the mat. In some households, there is usually a small incense burner put right in front of the mat so that as the coffee ceremony is happening, the smell of the coffee roasting and the incense mingles in the air. For me, the incense adds an air of magic to the ceremony – you can't help but feel like you're partaking in something sacred and cherished as you see the smoke from the incense engulfing the room, the smell of the coffee roasting getting stronger, and the chattering of your family getting louder as it goes long into the night.

The Ritual of the Coffee Ceremony

Traditionally, it is women who carry out the coffee ceremony. They start by washing the coffee, also called Buna in Amharic, and then roast the coffee on a flat pan over coal. As the coffee roasts, it emits the most enticing smell, snaking around the room, making it feel more intimate. When the coffee starts turning black, the woman usually picks up the pan and shakes it lightly in front of the guests' faces so they can breathe in the smell. As it was for the monk in the Kaldi story, the aroma is a huge part of the ceremony for a lot of Ethiopians. For my mother, it's her favorite part of the ceremony. She always takes a deep breath in, and I would see her whole frame relax, often breaking into a wide smile. Her own mother loved the ceremony and the smell of coffee, and when my mum takes that breath and fills her lungs with the enchanting smell, she is, for a moment, transported back in time to when she was a child with her mum and family, warm and toasty in the house on a rainy day.

The next part of the ceremony is to crush the beans in a Mukecha, which is like a mortar and pestle. Once the coffee is reduced to a fine powder, it is poured into the Jebena. The Jebena has water that had been boiling while the coffee was being ground, so all that's left is to add the coffee to the Jebena and wait while it boils. Once the coffee is ready, it is poured out into the Sinis and given to everyone drinking on a little tray. It is common to have some sort of snack with coffee, such as freshly made popcorn or some crispy corn roasted over the coals.

Coffee as the Glue of Ethiopian Community

The coffee ceremony is what the family usually sits around on a regular day, but its symbolic role as the glue or the central point is heightened during national holidays. Those are the days I would wake up to the sound of Mahmoud Ahmed, one of my father's favorite artists, belting from the stereo in the living room, the smell of incense, and walk out to see Ketema sprinkled everywhere. Family and friends would come to visit, and it was common for the festivities to carry on the whole day. With each person coming in, a cup of hot coffee was waiting for them. On special occasions, we would bake traditional bread also called dabo. Ethiopian Coffee is rich, dark, and slightly bitter, which washes down with the freshly baked bread perfectly.

This is what coffee symbolizes for a lot of Ethiopians. It symbolizes family, a sense of community, tradition, and history. The smell of roasting coffee will always smell like home to me – it reminds me of my mother smiling wide and the sounds of me and my cousins playing and running around while the adults talk over a cup of coffee. The Ethiopian Coffee ceremony is a unique experience that gives us a glimpse of Ethiopia's history, present, and future, and I encourage everyone to seek out friends, family, and coffee shops that do the ceremony to get a taste of Ethiopia, a taste of my home.

The Global Spread of Coffee Culture

While the origin story of coffee may be debated, what's apparent is that coffee did, in fact, originate from Ethiopia, and we have evidence of a tribe known as the Oromo chewing coffee beans as well. Though the Oromo tradition of chewing coffee beans with animal fat and ghee do not exist today, other ceremonies do. Coffee culture has spread globally, with each country putting its own unique spin on the way it's prepared and consumed.

Country Unique Coffee Tradition
Turkey Thick, strong coffee brewed in a special pot called a cezve and served in small cups
Japan Delicate tea ceremony-inspired rituals for preparing and serving coffee
Vietnam Slow-dripped coffee served over sweetened condensed milk in a French press-style pot
Cuba Strong, sweet espresso-like coffee called Cuban coffee or café cubano

As the world has become more interconnected, coffee has become a global phenomenon, but the deep cultural significance it holds in places like Ethiopia remains unmatched. The ceremonial nature of brewing and sharing coffee is a testament to the power of this humble bean to bring people together, transcend borders, and connect us to our roots.

So, the next time you enjoy a cup of coffee, I encourage you to take a moment to appreciate the rich history and cultural traditions that have shaped this beloved beverage. And if you ever have the chance to experience an Ethiopian coffee ceremony, I invite you to visit Brooklyn's Georgian Coffee House to truly savor the sensory delights and deep-rooted significance of this time-honored ritual.

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