One of the most wonderful customs of Ethiopian hospitality is the coffee ceremony. No matter the time of day or the economic status of the household, if you are a visitor, performing a coffee ceremony is considered a mark of friendship and respect. You feel great honor when your hostess takes the time and effort to prepare coffee or bunna (boo-na) for you in this way!
The coffees of Ethiopia vary from region to region and taste slightly different based on their growing conditions. The Arabica strain – one we’re familiar with in the U.S. – is Ethiopia’s original bean and still garners some of the highest prices on the world market. Sidamo is another Ethiopian variety, widely sold at Starbucks!
The true coffee ceremony is performed by a young woman dressed in a traditional Ethiopian white dress with colored woven borders, and though a hostess may not have the dress, the special nature of the ceremony is still felt. We were served coffee in the most destitute of homes and it was such an obvious act of honor and sacrificial giving. I felt truly humbled that this dear widow took such joy in sharing with us in this way!
All of the necessary tools are placed on the floor (arranged on a bed of long scented grasses and with incense burning if it’s a formal ceremony). Small cups are arranged on a low table. The coffee beans are roasted in a flat, long-handled pan over a small stove – often charcoal or sometimes an electric ‘hot plate.’ The pan is stirred gently to shake the husks away. When the beans have turned black and shiny and the aromatic oil is cooked out, they are ground by a mortar called a ‘zenezena’ and pestle called a ‘mukecha’ (moo-ke-ch-a). You can just imagine the delicious smell! This freshly roasted and crushed coffee is slowly stirred into a hand-made clay coffee pot, known as a ‘jebena’ (j-be-na) full of water. This is boiled and sometimes strained (ours wasn’t poured through a sieve and came out of the pot looking very thick and dark!). Coffee is taken with plenty of sugar but no milk and is very strong and aromatic.
As a guest in Ethiopia, being served coffee (or any food for that matter) is a huge honor and those dear people watch carefully to see how you’re enjoying everything. I think that lavish praise for the wonderful hospitality is a must!