Ordering Coffee in Ethiopia

Virtually everywhere in Ethiopia, you’ll see little trays like this one.

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To order coffee, approach and ask for “andd bunna,” one coffee. If you’re not sure if they’re open for business, you can ask, “bunna alleh?” and the answer will almost always be yes.

The woman preparing the coffee—so far, always a woman—will move the kettle off the charcoal flame, pour some water into the jebena (the Ethiopian coffee pot you see on the left rear of the tray), which she will move back onto the flame, periodically pouring coffee out of the jebena to see if the coffee’s ready. I’m not quite sure what she is checking for, but my current guess is the temperature of the coffee and the color of the brew.

Some of the ashes from the flame will go into the ashtray that you see on the front left of the tray. I still haven’t learned what that ashtray is for, either. Current theories include heating up your coffee and for smoking customers to deposit their ashes.

 

There will also be condiments for the coffee. This always includes sugar (sukwa), and sometimes includes either salt (chew), or ten’adam, an herb that is apparently similar to Italian ruta. If you don’t specify, and the woman preparing the coffee doesn’t ask, you will get sugar in your coffee, most likely too much and, if they have it, ten’adam on the side. You can ask for no sugar by saying “yale sukwa,” or you can ask for a little by saying “tuhnnuhsh sukwa.”

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Clockwise from upper left: with sugar, without (ten’adam on the side), with ten’adam, and with salt. The salt tastes good on the first sip, but is not so pleasant as you continue to drink. The ten’adam has a bitterness to it that somehow mitigates the bitterness in the coffee. Coffee on the roadside will cost 3 or 4 birr, about 15 to 20 cents. In a hotel, about 10 birr.

The coffee is typically not fresh, both in that it is usually ground well before it is brewed, and in that the same grounds are used for several cups of coffee. The grounds boil with water, as with Turkish coffee or kopi tubruk in Indonesia. As with these other methods, that typically means a coffee that is overextracted, tasting more bitter and “stronger,” even when less coffee is used.

Despite this, and despite all the other hurdles to making good coffee this way—the better beans are usually exported, and the remaining beans are roast and ground with old, manual methods that have little opportunity for consistency—I have on occasion had cups where you could taste some of the lemony notes that coffees from this region (Yirgacheffe) are known for, and even one cup where I felt I could detect a light body in a particularly strong cup, an attribute particularly prized by coffee geeks in the United States. It is more than a tad romantic to think that these attributes, though characteristic of Yirgacheffe coffees, are making it through to the coffee on the roadside, or even to think that coffee in Yirgacheffe comes from Yirgacheffe! But on the other hand, after coming all the way to Yirgacheffe to visit the most famous coffee origin in the world, I think I’m allowed to let a little romance interfere with my taste buds.

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