Buna Time: A Crash Course in Ethiopian and Eritrean Coffee Tradition

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to have stumbled across an amazing Eritrean and Ethiopian restaurant in the Charlotte, NC area. When I say stumble, that’s literally what I mean – I’m super clumsy and stumbled into the door of the restaurant. Despite my awkwardness, the owner of the restaurant welcomed me with open arms. She was gracious enough to discuss with me the traditions and values of the native cultures. In the few hours that we chatted, she mentioned that the restaurant holds traditional coffee ceremonies for all willing parties on Sundays and I knew I just had to attend.  

East African Coffee Ceremony – History & Preparation

While the origin of coffee is unknown, it is generally believed that coffee stems from the forests of Ethiopia. Legend has it that a local goat herder noticed that his livestock had quite a bit of boosted energy after eating some of the coffee beans. He then shared his discovery with a local monastery. The monastery began to experiment with ways to consume the energy boosting beans, eventually discovering that a beverage could be made via a rudimentary boiling method. After the discovery, the monastery passed the recipe for the potion on to townsfolk and travelers. Word began to spread and the trend of using coffee beans to make beverages began.

Given the origin of coffee, it’s no surprise that it is a staple of Eritrean and Ethiopian culture. Coffee Ceremonies are a pretty typical occurrence in those communities and are typically held at the leisure of the host. There does not seem to be one specific instance where a ceremony would be required per se, but they are commonly held in the company of family and close friends. Luckily, for those of us who do not live in Ethiopia or Eritrea, many authentic restaurants will perform the ceremony right at your table!

Typically, the woman of the household (or waitress if you’re dining in a restaurant) performs the ceremony for her guests. First, fresh Ethiopian coffee beans roast over a small open furnace. In order to ensure an even roast, the host continuously turns the beans. As she turns the beans, your nose is filled with the aroma of fresh coffee intermingled with hints of fruit and flowers. Once the beans are evenly roasted, the host passes the pan of roasted beans in front of everyone’s face – giving you a better smell of the emitting fragrances. The smell is nothing like what you would expect. Unlike the smell of coffee from your local Starbucks, this Ethiopian coffee has a fruity, sweet smell that just warms your soul. The host then pours the beans into a wooden bowl called a mukecha. The mukecha is used to grind the beans by hand. Finally, the coffee grounds are poured into a jebena, which is a pot is made of thick clay and a long pouring spout. The jebena is extremely functional in that it ensures the coffee grounds don’t burn over the open furnace. Water is added to the jebena and then the mixture is boiled.

After a few minutes of boiling, the coffee is ready to be poured into small, decorative ceramic cups.  The host pours the coffee into the cups in one single pour – by that I mean, the host does not put the jebana down in an upright position until every cup is filled with coffee, which I found extremely intriguing.  There had to be some significance in pouring all the coffee at once, right? I was always taught to ask about things I don’t understand, so I just had to ask my waitress about the purpose of pouring all the cups of coffee simultaneously. My waitress explained that pouring the coffee all at once was a very important step in the ceremony. Doing so ensures that the coffee grounds do not mix back into the beverage and stay at the bottom of the jebena – giving you the perfect cup of fresh coffee.  

The Experience

Now let me tell you, I am by no means a coffee drinker and normally I like my coffee with more cream than actual coffee. But I was unsure if the cream was used during these types of ceremonies and didn’t want to westernize the experience; respect the culture! As I started to take my first sip, I was immediately taken aback. The first drop hit my tongue and my goodness, it was the best coffee I had EVER tasted. It was smooth, flavorful and complex and I didn’t even need any sugar!

The ceremony does not stop there, however. Shareable platters of himbasha (sweet bread), yellow raisins and popcorn were brought to the table.  As I began to take pictures, my waitress told me to “enjoy the experience” and to “take pictures later”. I respectfully put my camera down and started to take it all in. Looking at the large plates filled with common snacks, it became prominently clear to me that family time and sharing was a very important piece of the Ethiopian and Eritrean culture.  These ceremonies are a time when individuals tune the outside world out and get to know each other just a little better.  This experience opened my eyes to how valuable our time is with those we love and care about.

The Eritrean or Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony was nothing like what I expected but everything I needed. It reminded me to stay grounded and that time is precious, so I should I make more of an effort to stay involved with my family and close friends. I encourage everyone to find a local Eritrean and/or Ethiopian restaurant in their hometown! And if they do conduct coffee ceremonies, definitely take part. As cliché as it sounds, it will change your perspective and help you appreciate the bigger things in life. Also, do not be afraid to ask questions throughout the ceremony if there is anything you just aren’t too sure about. Asking questions will allow you to attain that solid fundamental knowledge of the ceremony and will help you enjoy it all the better!