THIS BLOG IS ANECDOTAL and informational, not confessional. Still, I have a confession to make.
I present myself as an expert on Ethiopian food, but there’s one Ethiopian food that I’ve never tasted: coffee.
That’s not exactly true, and I’ll explain why in a moment.
Coffee came from Ethiopia: Somewhere around the eighth century, the legend goes, a pastoralist named Kaldi, who lived in a region called Kaffa, noticed that his goats became frisky when they ate the small red berries of a certain plant. They were eating coffee “beans,” and soon people began to eat them and brew them in drinks, which gave them energy. Invaders from the Arabian peninsula came to Ethiopia seeking slaves, and the slaves brought these beans with them. Arabs then began growing coffee on the east side of the Red Sea, and centuries later, the beans they cultivated made their way back to Ethiopia.
The coffee of Ethiopia today is in part the product of cultivars grown in Arabia and brought back to Ethiopia, and in part native Ethiopian coffees that go back centuries. Ethiopia has numerous coffee-growing regions, and the coffees that come from them bear their names: Harar, Yirgacheffe, Sidamo, Limu and several others. Most of these are areas in the vast Oromo region of Ethiopia, and that makes coffee political: The Oromos, the plurality culture in Ethiopia, are not the ruling culture (the Amharis are), and Oromos feel disenfranchised and even persecuted.
Coffee connoisseurs today don’t consider Ethiopian coffee to be the best of the best – very good, to be sure, but not the pinnacle. After playing such a historic role in the emergency of coffee in the world, the familiarity of Ethiopian coffee may have bred a taste of contempt.
Nonetheless, coffee remains an important Ethiopian export crop, and in recent years, cooperatives have negotiated higher “fair trade” prices for Ethiopian coffee. My book Mesob Across America: Ethiopian Food in the U.S.A. has a chapter on coffee that looks at all of this more closely.
In Ethiopia, social life often revolves around coffee, and when families and neighbors have time, they gather for a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony, which can take two or three hours – including the drinking, chatting and munching on crunchy grain snacks, like popcorn or kolo (roasted barley). The hostess roasts the beans over charcoals, then grinds them and brews the coffee in a clay pot called a jebena. The small cups in which the coffee is served are called sini.
Now, my own sad coffee story.
I do not drink coffee of any kind. I never have. Just don’t like the taste of it. Tea is fine, on occasion, and Ethiopian tea, or shai, flavored with cardamon, cinnamon and cloves, is very tasty. But not coffee.
A few summers ago, at Ambassador restaurant on 9th Street NW in Washington, D.C., I was enjoying a delicious meal of spicy doro tibs wot. The restaurant was new, and I was one of only a few customers when I ordered my meal. Soon, the restaurant’s other occupied table emptied, and I was alone in the place.
I had chatted with the owner and passed a few word of Amharic, which always gets me a smile. As I ate my meal, my server, behind the bar, began to prepare a cup of coffee with whipped cream and a sprinkle of nutmeg on top. I suppose there was a name for this concoction, but as I said, I’m thoroughly coffee-ignorant.
As she prepared the drink, I thought: “I hope she’s making that for herself.” I just had a feeling. And I was right: She brought the coffee over to me and, with a smile, said, “This is on the house.”
I felt terrible, but I couldn’t just leave it there, and I certainly had no intention of drinking it (I do not like coffee). I thanked her, and then I explained that I’m not a coffee drinker – just never drink it, never ever. She looked disappointed, so I told her I’d give it a try.
Which I did – first, with a spoon, eating some of the whipped cream (it tasted like coffee), and then, tilting the cup to my mouth, I took in some of the liquid.
Did I mention that I do not like coffee? Need I say that I still don’t?
I’ve returned a few times to Ambassador, whose owner is Eritrean, and whose staff is made up of Ethiopians and Eritreans who all get along. I even took a friend there. It’s a good restaurant. And while I’m confident that its coffee is equally good, I can’t really say for sure. I do not drink coffee, even if it’s Ethiopian.
University of Pittsburgh
Watch an Ethiopian coffee ceremony.