Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Letter from Ethiopia: Special brew

An invitation to join in an Ethiopian coffee ceremony is considered a mark of friendship and respect. Photograph: Karel Prinsloo/AP
In a nation with dozens of ethnic groups and languages, the revered coffee ceremony remains a constant for all to savour
In the scorching Danakil desert, the Afar people are known to file their front teeth to a point in the belief it is attractive. The Mursi of the southern lowlands slit their lips and ear lobes and fill the opening with clay or wooden discs. In the central highlands the devout staff-wielding Amhara and Tigrean Orthodox Christians harvest teff on small plots, while the nomadic camel-herding Somali Muslims ply the southern deserts. With more than 70 ethnic groups and over 80 different languages, it is no surprise that it is difficult to find common ground throughout the nation.

However, there appears to be one link that every Ethiopian agrees on: a strong, sweet brew of a rich, dark liquid that settles the nerves and pacifies the mind. It is coffee.
In every country region and at every city turn, in the corner of every restaurant, a space seems to be reserved for the rituals of roasting, pounding and brewing the revered drink, a process referred to as the coffee ceremony.
It was when I was invited to celebrate this valued drink that the spirit of Ethiopian hospitality emerged, raised in the very scent of the beans roasted over hot coals.
The ceremony is said to be a mark of friendship and respect. It carries with it good living and gracious hospitality. After scattering a small amount of freshly cut grass on the floor – a symbolic gesture to bring freshness and the fragrance of nature into the room – my host sat on a low stool and placed incense in a burner.
Over a small stove of hot charcoal he roasted fresh coffee beans, the aromatic smoke filling the room. He moved the hot plate holding the roasted beans around the room, filling it with the fragrant aroma. Inhaling it deeply I expressed a delicious pleasure in the aroma, a gesture considered polite to my host. The beans were then grounded in a mortar and pestle, before being brewed in a clay jug with a bulbous base tapering to the top. Arranged on a small, purpose-built table, the coffee was then served sweet, in tiny cups.
I sat in the small, dark room sipping the thick brew. Popcorn and roasted grains were passed around to be enjoyed with the coffee. All the while my friendly host continued to ask questions I did not understand, chuckling as I made futile attempts to converse in phrasebook Amharic.
I knew at least three cups must be accepted, the third said to bestow blessing to the guest. I also knew that with so much caffeine in my system, I wasn't going to sleep much that night.