Rite moves

The traditional coffee ceremony is an integral part of Ethiopian and Eritrean cultures. Lani Kingston soaks up the sights, sounds and aromas. Photo by David Post

The dimly lit room at the back of Mosob restaurant in London’s Westbourne Grove is decorated with fur rugs, woven baskets and pictures of injera, the teff flour pancake common in Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine. We aren’t here for the food, though, although it is excellent. Today we’ve been invited to share in a traditional coffee ceremony.

Seated on low stools, we watch as wisps of smoke rise from a brightly coloured wicker basket filled with frankincense and hot charcoal. “Some people refuse to drink coffee unless frankincense has been burned. It gets rid of negative energy,” says Benjamin, one of the owners of this family restaurant that feels more like a home than a business. His children run through the room and jump on his lap to watch as the ceremony starts. We all settle in for the two to three hours it usually takes to make, drink and talk.

A more intense smoke starts to fill the room and mingles with the incense, accompanied by the snap and crackle of coffee beans as they’re shaken in a metal roasting pan. A woman in traditional dress hosts the ceremony and she is the master of the show. She undertakes her work with ease and unwavering concentration. It’s a well-practised routine, executed with the precision of a Japanese tea ceremony – coffee is serious business in Ethiopia. It’s said the humble bean was discovered there, and coffee traditions run deep within the culture. 

The beans slowly roast and pop over the small fire, turning a dark brown. The woman roasts them past second crack, and the beans glisten as they release their oils. The Ethiopian style is a very dark roast, but brewing with sugar and various aromatics makes for a truly unique coffee experience. Our hostess walks the pan around the room, encouraging us to inhale the smoke. Tradition demands this, meaning smoky parades through the restaurant are undertaken every time coffee is ordered.

The pure arabica beans barely emit any scent until, still hot, they’re ground coarsely – it doesn’t come fresher than this. They have a sweet intensity and this preparation method proves how versatile an ingredient coffee is – this experience is a world away from the flat whites of east London or the Italian espressos of Soho, although equally delicious.

Everyday ritual

This coffee ceremony is one that’s performed daily in Ethiopia and Eritrea, although there it isn’t a ceremony at all. “It’s just coffee to us,” says Benjamin. “It’s how we make it for friends and family.” An offering to join for coffee is
a show of respect or friendship.

The clay brewing pot, or jebena, is filled with the hot ground beans and water, then brought to a boil over the fire. As the brew bubbles, our hostess deftly tips a little into a small jug, then pours it back into the pot and returns it to the fire. “Tradition and culture tells her when the coffee is ready,” Benjamin says. “She will judge by the colour and the smell.” The brew gets darker and more syrupy with each pour, and finally the pot is removed from the fire and the grounds are left to settle.

In Ethiopia, a filter of balled-up horsehair would then be pushed into the neck of the pot, although UK health regulations have required adaptation – at Mosob they use a cleaned piece of onion sack. Some guests who have the money to spare request a bundle of saffron to be used instead, adding a floral note to the coffee. In other parts of Ethiopia and Eritrea, different spices may be added before brewing, such as cardamom, cloves, cinnamon or fresh ginger.

The dark, soul-warming brew is poured into tiny cups from a height and handed out to guests. The skill required in pouring, paired with the constant adjustment of the angle of the pot to filter out any grounds, is a technique perfected through much practice. The pot is immediately refilled and returned to the fire. As Benjamin hands us our cups, he tells us, “We keep drinking until there is no flavour left in the coffee – the taste changes each time we brew.” All thoughts of sleep tonight are abandoned.

The heady sensory experience intensifies as the second brew starts 

to boil and a third integral part of the ceremony is introduced, providing a perfect, crunchy counterpart to the rich aromas of coffee and frankincense. Popped corn kernels are offered in bowls – in Ethiopia, they’d usually serve popped sorghum, visually similar to corn but about one-quarter of the size. Sorghum is an earthy, nutty grain cultivated in Africa for over 4,000 years, but it’s hard to come by in Europe.

Caffeine culture

As the second brew comes to boil, Benjamin explains the Ethiopian ability to drink more caffeine than I’d usually encounter in a week. “As children we would run around and lick the sugar out from the bottom of the cups. We were used to caffeine from a young age. Now when I visit my sisters, I might drink six to 10 cups of coffee.”

The coffee is usually poured on top of many spoonfuls of sugar, and the amount of sweetness desired by each drinker is achieved by how much this sugar layer is stirred into. “Sometimes the cup can be half full of sugar,” Benjamin says with a smile. “We do like our coffee sweet.”