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Coffee hour in Ethiopia

Evelyn Makena @evemake_g

A lingering scent of spicy and sweet smelling frankincense permeates the air as I amble into the chic dining area of Azzeman, a four-star hotel in Addis Ababa.

It’s 7.15am Ethiopian time and an array of salads, sauces, meats and injera (a spongy, flatbread made from teff and the country’s staple food) sprawl across the buffet area.

Despite being located near the Equator and sharing the same time zone with East African countries, the Ethiopian time system is different. They rely on a 12-hour clock with a day starting at sunrise 12.00 (which is 6am for the rest of the world) and ending at sunset 12.00 (6pm), so here in Ethiopia it’s lunch time.

Behind wisps of smoke from burning incense, Woinshet Bozave, a beautiful Ethiopian woman, sits on a wooden stool in a long white flowing dress ready to start the coffee ceremony. It’s the coffee time in Ethiopia, a daily ritual I have come to familiarise with in the two days I have been in Addis Ababa.

Coffee in this country, which is the birthplace of arabica coffee, is brewed and served with fanfare. “The ceremony is the hallmark of Ethiopian hospitality and is done in the presence of visitors at whatever time of the day,” says Idris, a resident of Addis as I draw closer.

Amid the chatters of visitors relishing tasty Ethiopian dishes, Woinshet roasts coffee beans over a charcoal stove, then grinds them by hand with a pestle and mortar. Occasionally looking up with a shy smile, she empties handfuls of grounded coffee beans into a long, dark earthen jar known as Jebena in Amharic, perched over hot coals and adds water.

As hot steam pours from the Jebena nozzle, a fresh aroma of coffee fills the hotel restaurant. “Jebena bunna- (Amharic for coffee) is ready,” announces Woinshet, pouring black coffee into tiny ceramic cups set on a wooden tray. Burning incense, preferably frankincense or myrrh, is meant to emit sweet scents during the ritual.

“The event is best done by women who dress up in white fabrics made of a traditional cloth called Shemma. They add more appeal,” reveals Idris. An invitation to a coffee ceremony by an Ethiopian is a sign of friendship and symbolises sharing and the beverage is never to be drunk alone.

The ritual starts with washing the berries, roasting, crushing, grinding and eventually brewing them can be excruciatingly slow, but the results are worth it.

My stomach flutters with excitement and my head is buzzing under the effects of caffeine after downing just two cups of the black, strong kahawa. Woinshet urges me to take another cup.

In parts of Ethiopia, it’s impolite to take less than three cups! Jebena bunna is taken with sugar, honey or salt and is often complemented by traditional snacks such as popcorn, roasted barley or peanuts. Coffee is a central part of Ethiopians daily life and they hold it in high regard.

The crop accounts for over 60 per cent of the country’s foreign exchange. And unlike most coffee producers, Ethiopia ranks highly in domestic coffee consumption. In many hotels and cafes in Addis Ababa, a hot steaming cup of coffee is commonly served first thing in the morning, tea breaks (let’s call it coffee time), lunch time and before going to bed.

It’s the same in Ethiopian homes. Legend has it that arabica coffee was discovered around Kaffa area in South Central highlands of Ethiopia in the ninth century by a goat herder named Kaldi. He first noticed that his goats leapt up with excitement each time they fed on the red berries of the wild plant.

Curious, the herder tried the berries and felt a rush of energy and voila! Coffee was discovered. The lunch time ceremony takes about 45 minutes and leaves me intensely caffeinated. Though I took a while to sleep later that night, taking the skillfully prepared Ethiopian coffee was a new experience and worth it.

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