Coffee Is Our Bread: The Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony

Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee, and you can still find it growing wild in the forests of Kaffa. Coffee holds a sacred place in this land, as the growing and picking process involves over 12 million Ethiopians and produces over two-thirds of the country’s earnings.

On a November trip to Ethiopia, I tasted Kaffa “forest” coffee during a traditional coffee ceremony. I had traveled to Northern Ethiopia with several UCSF colleagues to help run a faculty development and curriculum revision workshop for Ethiopian physicians. These doctors were preparing to move away from traditional medical school curricula to problem-based learning modules, following a recently issued Ministry of Education mandate. We were asked to assist with that transition by teaching them tools that would enable them to be successful educators in this new learning environment.

During our stay, our group was invited to attend a coffee ceremony, a delightful example of Ethiopian hospitality. Our hostess started the process by arranging the ceremonial apparatus upon a bed of long scented grasses. She then roasted the coffee beans in a flat pan over a tiny charcoal stove, the pungent smell mingling with the heady scent of incense that is always burned during the occasion. I watched her as she gently washed a handful of coffee beans on the heated pan, then stirred and shook the husks away. When the coffee beans turned black, she ground them by a pestle and a long handled mortar. She then slowly stirred the ground coffee into the black clay coffee pot locally known as jebena. The coffee was now ready for serving. Our hostess gracefully poured a thin golden stream into tiny glasses from a height of one foot without a single interruption. (She later told me that it took her years of practice.) After the first round of coffee, there are typically two additional servings. Transformation of the spirit is said to take place through the completion of abol (the first round), tona (second round) and baraka (third round).

Yes, I thought, this is how coffee is meant to be! In a world where time has long become a commodity, the Ethiopian coffee ceremony is a lovely reminder of the importance of conversations and gatherings among family and friends. Perhaps an ancient proverb best describes the place of coffee in Ethiopian life, Buna dabo naw, which translates to “coffee is our bread.”

Marwa Shoeb, MD

Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony. Video by and picture by: KQED’s Bay Area Bites

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