Ethiopians take much pride in their culture, and, unlike many of their neighbors and most African nations, Ethiopia has resisted change. Ethiopians have shown a limited desire to adopt Western ways, and outside influences have yet to dramatically influence their traditional culture.
Among the many inherited customs is the Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony, an event that makes the country unique among producing nations. Ethiopians show an appreciation for coffee that is almost god-like in its tribute. Their homage to the beverage is sometimes ornate, but always overtly ceremonial.
The ritual begins by spreading a bed of straw and then strewing fresh, colorful flowers on top. Amidst this confusion is the centerpiece—the traditional black Ethiopian earthenware coffeepot—which is filled with water and placed on top of hot coals.
Nearby sits what looks like a hibachi grill, also filled with hot wood coals. A large, open wok-shaped pan rests on top, and inside the pan green coffee beans roast slowly. One person—usually a woman—conducts the cooking and the ceremony. Normally, she has a few assistants who fetch water at the proper time and fan the coals to keep them hot. She stirs the green coffee beans constantly so as not to burn them. Upon closer inspection, however, many are over-roasted and some under-roasted.
The water reaches the appropriate temperature at about the same time the beans finish cooking. The woman then dumps the hot beans into a hollow stump and uses a crude, mallet-shaped mortar with a long handle to crush them. Specialty coffee professionals know the importance of a consistent grind in the preparation of coffee. The archaic method used by Ethiopians, however, results in a grind that can be called anything but even.
Finally, the woman dumps the coffee through the small opening at the top of the coffee vessel and allows it to steep. After only a few minutes, an assistant arrives with a tray of small, demi-size cups, and the conductor of the ceremony pours and serves the coffee to the family and friends who have waited and watched the procedure for the past half-hour. They consume the beverage quickly. Smiles and slurping generally accompany kudos about both taste and flavor.
At the first of the many coffee ceremonies I attended, I remember thinking, "How is it possible, with what we know about the importance of precise and even roasting and consistent and proper grinding, that a process of brewing similar to the one used to make cowboy coffee could result in a palatable beverage? Impossible... the coffee experts say. I would have agreed until I tasted Ethiopian coffee. A true and undeniable testimony to the quality of this coffee is in the cup produced at this ceremony... one of the best cups of coffee I have ever tasted.
In restaurants, the preparation is typically done in the kitchen but the pan of roasting beans is brought out to the group before it is ground so that all may partake of smelling the vapors (an integral part of the ceremony). A special type of incense is customarily burned at tableside throughout the duration of the ceremony. The traditional method of pouring usually involves a free pour into the demitasse from about 12" - 14" above it in a continuous stream - fascinating to watch and partake not to mention that the coffee is so damn good.
I've been fortunate enough to do this on two occasions, once in Denver on the first occasion that I ever tried Ethiopian food and more recently in the Adams-Morgan area of Washington DC. It's best done with a group (4 or more). I'm personally curious as to the variations in spices and the amounts that are added as well as to possible variations on the bean varieties (some add limited amounts of spices to the coffee and others do not).
Have any of you tried it and where? How was it? I'l be visiting NYC this weekend and will be free on both Saturday afternoon and mid-day Sunday. There's a small Ethiopian restaurant on Mulberry or Mott in Little Italy (just south of Houston if I recall correctly) that offers the ceremony on Sundays and Queen of Sheba on 9th Avenue may have it by now (they did not last year but said they were going to add it to the menu options). I think Meskerem may also offer it at their Village location but Sheba's is the easiest spot for me as I'l be driving out through the Lincoln Tunnel afterwards to get home.
It's best done with a group of four or more - any egulleteers up to joing me for this ?