Grounded In Tradition

The Ethiopian coffee ceremony is about more than sipping a familiar beverage with family and friends

October 04, 2006|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN REPORTER

More than an hour has passed since the Ethiopian coffee ceremony began at Baltimore's Dukem restaurant, and still not a drop of coffee has been served.

It is a purposely slow and deliberative process. Coffee here is not just coffee, it is a performance meant to stimulate conversation, a ritual guided by tradition and folk stories said to be as old as coffee itself.

The green buna beans are roasted until flavorful smoke wafts over the diners gathered around tables or sitting on straw stools, like background music against the din of spirited chatter. The beans are then ground fine, scraped into a large clay pot full of boiling water and left to simmer until dark and thick.

Only then will Eden Alemseged hold the pot high over a set of small white cups and carefully pour - an art in itself - and serve the coffee along with heavy bread. The process is repeated to complete the ancient ceremony, with each subsequent cup getting progressively weaker.

Alemseged was just 8 years old when she made her first cup of coffee at her home in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa - a tradition passed from mother to daughter. She moved to Silver Spring a little over a year ago and now works at Dukem, run by her family on Maryland Avenue just north of Mount Vernon.

Every Sunday, the restaurant in Baltimore and its sister restaurant by the same name in Washington's U Street corridor each hold a coffee ceremony, and Alemseged puts as much time into the craft here as she did in her home country.

It is strictly a woman's work, according to tradition. While making coffee, Alemseged said with a warm, inviting smile, "You feel like home."

Going too fast can be offensive to honored guests. "The longer it takes me to make the coffee, the longer you will stay," Alemseged said. "That's our culture.

In Ethiopia, this is simply a way of making coffee. Expatriate Ethiopians have turned it into a Sunday event as a way of preserving a ritual that back home is performed two or three times a day, usually in the mornings and afternoons, or whenever visitors stop by.

The different stages have spiritual meanings.

"By completing the rounds, the spirit is transformed and cleansed," said William J. Boot, a taster and consultant for countries that grow and harvest the coffee bean, and a contributing writer to the trade journal Tea & Coffee.

"This ceremony is a style of drinking that gives the family an opportunity to sit together and spend precious time with friends and family, and update each other on the news or the newest events in the village," Boot said. "It is a moment of reflection, a moment where you can mentally relax."

The ceremony has its roots in how coffee is said to have been discovered. It is widely believed that the coffee plant originated in Ethiopia, a place where it still grows wild. But how the bean transformed into one of the most popular drinks in the world remains a subject of debate.

The most popular belief among Ethiopians seems to be that a wayward goat found the beans, nibbled on them and returned to his herder noticeably energized. The impressed herder gathered his own sample to try. In other versions of the story, three herders - sometimes referred to as wise men - stumble upon the beans. Each of the three rounds of the traditional ceremony is said to be named after these men - Abol, Tona and Baraka.

Boot and other experts agreed that this coffee ceremony is unique to Ethiopia, though it differs somewhat from region to region and village to village.

Food is an integral part of the coffee ceremony. Senedu Zewdie, one of the owners of Dukem in Baltimore, insisted that a full meal is necessary to fully appreciate the coffee. She brought a salad laden with garlic, lamb stew, cubed beef called Gored Gored and raw beef seasoned with cardamom, called kitfo, served on a light, airy flat bread - a colorful array of food.

"You can enjoy our coffee," Zewdie said, serving what amounted to a large dinner at lunch, "if you have the time."

Participants are directed to the second floor, where folk music is playing and Alemseged is seated amid utensils, pots and cups. She wears a traditional dress, a habesha, that is white with colorful borders, and sits in front of a green mat symbolizing grass.

Alemseged does not talk during the ceremony or explain the significance of the various steps. It is assumed that most people know, and many don't pay much attention; it is supposed to be a time for friends and family to converse.

But watching Alemseged work is like watching a carefully choreographed show, with the added pleasure of aroma from the beans and the soothing scent of frankincense. She boils water in the clay pot, a jebena, and mixes it with sediment from the coffee beans until it takes on the consistency of mud. She then roasts the whole beans on a flat pan, scraping constantly with a crude metal spatula, until they turn brown and the husks fall off.

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