Traditional Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony


CulturallyOurs Podcast Ethiopian Coffee Culture

Traditional Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony

Show Details

In this episode, we explore the coffee culture and coffee drinking ceremony in Ethiopia. As one of the largest producers of coffee in Africa and fourth largest coffee producer in the world, much of Ethiopian Coffee is actually for local consumption. The buna or coffee ceremony is more than just drinking a cup of coffee. It is a ceremonial ritual that can go on for hours with coffee, snacks, sweet incense and lots of conversation among family, friends and neighbors.

Show Notes

Karthika explore the culture of coffee and a coffee ceremony from Ethiopia, a country where drinking coffee is much more than just a beverage in a to-go-cup. There is a ceremonial process to drinking coffee in Ethiopia that revolves around friends, family, conversation and bonding. In a traditional buna drinking no less than three cups is deemed impolite and Ethiopians believe that your spirit transforms when you complete all three rounds. 

The Transcript

The rituals around certain types of foods are very prevalent all over the world. In some places, it isn’t so much as the food itself than it is about the ritual or ceremony around that particular food. Shane Mitchell, our podcast guest from Season 03 talked about how people connect with each other around the dinner table. Her book, Far Afield is a beautiful celebration of the ritual of food as a way to bring people and communities together.

Ethiopian cuisine is one of my favorite cuisines in the world. Not only does it closely resemble Indian cuisine in the spices and dishes due to the Indian influence in the African continent but also the way Ethiopian food is enjoyed. I have very vivid memories of my grandmother mixing each course of our Sunday dinner into one big bowl and feeding all us kids from the same plate. We would all sit in a semi-circle and my grandmother in the middle. We would then extend our palm and she would give each one of us a bite of the food to eat. She would go around the semi-circle again and again feeding us each course of the meal this way. It certainly took the meaning of family style dining to a whole other level. But you know this was our time to bond with each other, make jokes, tease my mom for her terrible cooking skills (like mother like daughter what can I say) and just enjoy each other’s company. Very different to mealtime these days where everyone is on a device or worse yet, eating dinner watching TV with minimal interaction. I know I am guilty of this too. Maybe that is why I love going to my local Ethiopian restaurant and having a meal – family style – every so often.

Ethiopian food is much like this in that everything is family style. Food is served in one big plate on a base of light, fluffy, delicious injera bread and entrées are piled up on that bread base. Everyone shares food from this same big plate. I don’t know about you but to me this brings so much intimacy, comradery and closeness with your dining companions.

Similar to Ethiopian food, Ethiopian coffee is also a very social affair. In fact the coffee ceremony or jebena buna is almost ceremonial. So today on the CulturallyOurs podcast, we dig a little bit deeper into the buna / coffee ceremony from Ethiopia.

In Ethiopia, coffee is more than a drink. It is a cultural celebration of an Ethiopian staple. In fact, Ethiopia’s coffee ceremony is an integral part of the social and cultural life in the country. An invitation to attend a coffee ceremony is considered a mark of friendship or respect and is an excellent example of Ethiopian hospitality.

Like the Smorgasbord board from Sweden and the Asado culture from Argentina, the traditional ceremony around drinking Ethiopian Coffee is quite unique.

Coffee isn’t just Ethiopia’s national drink. It is had throughout the day but never consumed alone. Unlike in cities like New York, London and LA where ‘coffee-to-go’ is almost a norm these days, in Ethiopia every meeting includes coffee and coffee always requires company.

Ethiopia is not only the largest coffee producer in Africa but also the fifth largest producer in the world and accounts for 4.2% of the global coffee production. The coffee industry in Ethiopia contributes up to 10 percent of Ethiopia’s GDP and provides livelihood for approximately fifteen million Ethiopian farmers all over the country. But coffee isn’t just a part of the economics of Ethiopia. In spite of being the largest producers of coffee in Africa, Ethiopia only exports about 50% of the coffee that is locally grown. In comparison other coffee growing countries like Kenya consumes only 3 percent of its coffee crop where as Colombia consumers 14 percent. It is very clear that coffee is extremely important to Ethiopians in Ethiopia.

History of coffee in Ethiopia

Legend has it that coffee beans were discovered around 800 A.D. by a goat herder’s sheep as they grazed on the red fruit of a coffee plant. When the goats began frolicking, the herder rushed a handful of the mysterious fruit to nearby monks, who promptly destroyed the seeds by tossing them into a fire as a way to get rid of something they did not know about and considered potentially sinful.

However, the roasted seeds exhibited two miraculously redeeming qualities: a delectable aroma and, when crushed and steeped in hot water, a distinctive drink with an invigorating kick. The brew buzzed the monks’ daily devotions, allowing them to continue their prayer long into the night. And slowly as people migrated from region to region, country to country, coffee’s popularity spread throughout Ethiopia and eventually the world.

‘Buna tetu’ which translates to ‘come drink coffee’ is a famous communal tradition in Ethiopia. Families will send children to knock on their neighbors’ homes to invite them to come share some coffee. This bonding nature of Ethiopians is a key thread in the fabric of their society.

Traditional way of drinking buna

Believe it or not, there is actually a process to drinking coffee in Ethiopia. The coffee brewing tradition has many special elements. The ceremony involves processing the raw, unwashed coffee beans into finished cups of brewed coffee. Before this event, the dining room undergoes some preparatory rites for the ritual. Firstly, the coffee cups are all arranged on a table along with some snacks. Freshly cut grass is displayed on both the floor and the table. And sweet incense is burnt as a way to clarify the space.

Preparing a traditional cup of coffee or buna can take more than an hour and actually drinking it can be longer, especially during festivities and celebrations. Drinking coffee is sensory experience in Ethiopia unlike any other. The process begins with washing and roasting the beans on an iron pan called mitad. The person preparing the beans (who is typically the lady of the house) is dressed in the traditional Ethiopian clothes called habesaha semis. When the coffee beans are roasted, the mitad is taken to the guests so that they can inhale and smells the roasting beans. This is a huge part of the Ethiopian Coffee sensory experience. The coffee beans are then brewed in a traditional mortar before putting them in a jebena in which the water has already been set to boil. Jebena which is a traditional clay pot made specifically for preparing coffee comes in various shapes and sizes and hold essential value in every Ethiopian households. Jebena’s have one, two or three spouts depending on the region where they are made and used. Once coffee beans have been added to the simmering water, it is left to steep in the jebena. When the coffee foam discharges from the top hole of the jebena, it is removed from the heat and left to allow all the solid coffee particles to settle at the bottom of the pot. Once all the coffee cups are gathered on the rekebot – the coffee platter – coffee is poured into the first cup. This first cup is culturally not for consumption but to confirm the murky liquid is free of all coffee grind. The drinking ceremony can finally begin and coffee is offered with multiple seasoning options including sugar, salt, or rue. Often coffee will be accompanied by traditional Ethiopian snacks.

A traditional cup of Ethiopian coffee served with aromatic incense, usually frankincense and myrrh. The incense is ignited by a hot coal to produce smoke that is said to carry away any bad spirits. Conversations starts flowing freely as sweet incense dissipates in the room. From abol – the first cup of coffee, to tona – the second cup and finally to bereka – the last cup of coffee, the jebena is refilled until the settled coffee bits squeeze out their very last taste and guests are finally satisfied. It is considered impolite to leave the ceremony without consuming at least three cups. Ethiopians believe that your spirit transforms when you complete all three rounds. Of course, you are free to take as many cups as you wish afterward.

I had a chance to witness my first buna ceremony in one of my favorite Ethiopian restaurants here in Chicago and it became quite clear that to Ethiopians, in or outside Ethiopia, coffee culture is a ritual. It is more than just drinking a cup of coffee for that caffeine buzz we all crave. It is a great way to slow down and engage with your friends and neighbors. It is an exploration of all your senses to really enjoy something so simple as drinking a cup of coffee.

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