Takeaway

Of beans and brew in Ethiopia

Sunil Rajagopal | Updated on February 01, 2021

Hot property: The cups are always handle-less, so that you can feel the warmth of the drink. Sugar is offered, but never milk   -  ISTOCK.COM

The drink that perks up the world holds a special place in the affairs of the country where it was born

* In Ethiopian towns, the heady scent of coffee percolates the air wherever you walk. It is brewing in every home, in cafés, on street corners, at all times of the day. Enough to get a caffeine high without taking a sip. But if it is a quick cup or a milky cappuccino that you want, this may not be your place

* The Ethiopian coffee ceremony itself is called the bunna maflat, roughly meaning “to make coffee”. To me, it seemed less a ceremony and more a magical performance by the lady of the house or the youngest female member of the family

* The roasted beans are coarsely ground with mortar and pestle and added to the boiling water in the jebena. In a trice, the brew is ready. It is then directly poured without breaking stream from jebena to cup

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Aqbala is dry and shapeless, a shanty town spreading through dusty streets. It has that hardy air of cowboy towns from old Westerns and the shabby bustle of a North Indian mofussil town in its shopfronts. Barefoot children returning from school, small bags slung over shoulders, shake with laughter. Empty eateries, an abandoned church, a run-down mosque... Life seems too hard for people to have any time for religion. It reminds me of the desert.

Amidst such sparseness, Marjam’s home in a nameless by-lane is like an oasis. It has a large courtyard with a carpeted hall. Two emerald-eyed black cats sit beside a kettle bubbling away below a giant papaya tree covered with creepers. The cupboard in the hall and its contents are reminiscent of a Punjabi home. Marjam herself is like the lake in that oasis. Her smile is serene; her roomy orange robe and amaranthine turban are glorious. We are on the road in Ethiopia — in an aqbala about two hours from the Mekele, the capital of the Tigray region — and Marjam makes us comfortable and then sits down to brew some coffee.

Fire, smoke and coffee: A household conducts the ceremony at least three times a day and repeats it each time a guest comes in   -  SUNIL RAJAGOPAL

 

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The sun probably rushes to work every morning — in a hurry to rise and shine, to wake up a groggy world waiting for him. He couldn’t be more mistaken. It is coffee the world needs.

Thankfully for the mornings of our world, Ethiopia was the crucible from which this drink from the gods came. It is said that the term “coffee bean” came from two words of Ethiopian origin: Kaffa, the verdant highland area where the little tree was first grown, and bunna, Amharic for coffee.

In Ethiopian towns, the heady scent of coffee percolates the air wherever you walk. It is brewing in every home, in cafés, on street corners, at all times of the day. Enough to get a caffeine high without taking a sip.

But if it is a quick cup or a milky cappuccino that you want, this may not be your place. Ethiopians give the drink the respect it deserves. Not for them a spoon of instant powder and dairy whitener. Coffee is slow, meant to be brewed elegantly and ceremoniously.

Coffee is not just a drink here. It is an invisible thread that ties together every day Ethiopian life and culture; a spiritual potion that binds the family and a medium over which important matters are discussed.

The Ethiopian coffee ceremony itself is called the bunna maflat, roughly meaning “to make coffee”. To me, it seemed less a ceremony and more a magical performance by the lady of the house or the youngest female member of the family. It is held at least three times a day in a household and repeated each time a guest comes in or an important matter is to be discussed.

The set-up is elaborate. A layer of fragrant grass is spread and sprinkled with water. On Sunday mornings, every woman returning from church carries a bunch of this grass, in addition to a baby tied on her back, inside the folds of a white muslin shawl.

The grass is decorated with yellow flowers — plastic works just as well as fresh ones. Upon this is placed a low wooden stand with small porcelain cups, behind which the woman presides. Coal stoves burn on either side. On the left smokes frankincense and myrrh; on the right, the fire where the coffee is made.

Raw, green coffee beans are roasted on a flat iron pan. As the pan warms up, the beans are cleaned off the husk and other debris. Then the coals are stoked and the actual roasting begins. The beans are continuously flipped or stirred to give an even roasting. Meanwhile, an elegant earthen jebena (coffee pot with a slender neck) filled with water joins the pan on the coals. Slowly, the beans turn brown and then blackish with a sheen of aromatic oils.

The hall feels illusory now with wisps of smoke and vapour slit by light from the window; the potent coffee infused with incense. Marjam, silent and mysterious, knows just when the audience is under her spell. She lifts the pan and offers it to me with a rattle of beans, to deeply inhale the heady aroma. It is intoxicating.

The roasted beans are then coarsely ground with mortar and pestle and added to the boiling water in the jebena. In a trice, the brew is ready. It is then directly poured without breaking stream from jebena to cup. The cups are always handle-less, so that you can feel the warmth of the drink. Sugar is offered, but never milk

The process is then repeated twice or thrice by adding water to the jebena. Which means that each serving is progressively weaker. This three-time serving is said to cleanse and awaken the drinker’s soul. The bunna maflat has regional variations. Some add cinnamon for extra aroma. Others offer salt in place of sugar. Some, like Marjam, serve snacks such as popcorn.

When it is done, it is polite to praise both the brew and its maker. How can I refuse?

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The best coffee in Ethiopia is said to come from ancient Harar, a stronghold of Islam and trade. This might have something to do with how coffee culture spread across the world in sync with the growth of Islam.

Harar coffee is among the oldest varieties known to man. Including the moka, a kind where only one bean is found inside a berry unlike a normal coffee berry which has two.

Coffee and its source plant were once a fiercely kept secret. Mocha, a Yemeni port across the Red Sea, was historically the major port for this precious cargo. Venerable Sufi saint Baba Budan smuggled some raw beans from here in his money belt on his voyage to Kerala in the 1600s. He eventually settled in Karnataka, on a mountain in the Western Ghats that we now know as Baba Budangiri near Chikmagalur. From there, those smuggled beans somehow spread and established themselves on the rainy, forested slopes of Karnataka and Kerala.

The story is as legendary as the drink itself. But while our kaapi may not be their bunna, a cup of coffee is always an act of magic.

Sunil Rajagopal is an amateur birder and photographer based in Delhi

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Published on February 01, 2021
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