Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony in the Lion City

The lions were so privileged to have received a rare invitation recently to an Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony hosted by a beautiful Eritrean lady and her vivacious Ethiopian friend.  They feasted on traditional home-cooked delicacies, in the company of friends, lovingly put together by their charming hostess. It was an unusual treat; authentic Ethiopian food is not currently available anywhere else on the otherwise cosmopolitan island. And some ingredients had to be specially imported from their country of origin, courtesy of the hostess' kind friends back home.

Just like the elegant Chinese and Japanese tea ceremony, with its set of customary steps and etiquette, the Ethiopians and Eritreans have weaved an intricate ritual around coffee that have become an integral part of their social and cultural life. Coffee is, of course, said to have originated in the Kaffa province of Ethiopia. Brewed coffee is called 'Bunna' (boo-na) in Ethiopia, but as its popularity soon spread as far as the Arabian peninsula across the Red Sea, people referred to it as Kaffa or Coffee for the region from which it came from. Today, coffee accounts for a lion's share of the country's exports and high-quality single origin beans with distinctive flavor profiles from this part of the world remain highly sought after.

Labouring cheerfully over each dish.
(From top left to bottom left): Doro wet chicken simmered in berbere sauce,
kidney beans, mixed vegetables, lentils, beef tibs, and shiro (chickpea) stew.
Gomen (spinach) dish not in picture.
Folds of Injera (a sourdough risen flat bread made from iron-rich teff flour)
considered a national dish of Ethiopia and Eritrea. Food is usually eaten with
hands and Injera doubles up as cutlery to pick up meats, gravy and vegetables.
There were 3 varieties of Injera to sample that day. The lions'
favourite was the darkest, chocolate-coloured one (tikur?).
The Injera reminded the lions of local Indian Thosai but
spiced and more sourish.
Everyone's favourite dish was the doro chicken. Whole
pot was scooped clean of the spicy gravy (not exactly
that fiery for local palates). They had never tucked into
anything close in terms of taste before. So, for lack of a
better description, it was somewhat akin to Peranakan
Buah Keluak Chicken in terms of consistency of gravy,
intensity of spices and degree of umami. Pardon us.
Overall, they found the dishes more inclined to the heavy
side and rich in spices. Yum! The lions contributed local
homemade coolers of chin chau and chrysanthemum tea
that day (not in picture).

Ok, after food, it was finally time for the part that the lions were eagerly anticipating - the coffee ceremony. Admittedly, the host could not recreate the process by entirely traditional methods ie. coffee was roasted over an electric stove instead of coal and the coffee was grounded by "modern means" rather than a pestle. Still, the ceremony kept to its true essence and showcased an endearing side of Ethiopian hospitality.  

Unroasted green Ethiopian Arabica coffee beans.
(unknown source, a gift from friends)
Washing the beans.
Weeding out the bad beans by hands.
An aluminum flat bottom pan with a long handle for
roasting coffee beans. You can touch the handle with your
bare hands during roasting! It is made such that heat
is conducted quickly away.
Shaking the pan rhythmically to roast the beans evenly.
A "popping" sound is heard as the beans darken and
become shiny with their own oils.

The most popular folktale tells of an Abyssinian goatherd, who around AD 850, discovered his goats behaving in an abnormally exuberant manner after munching on some bright red berries. He filled his pockets with those "miraculous" berries and took them to the monks who promptly hurled them in the fire, denouncing them as fruits from the dark side. The roasted beans were only embraced after the enticing aroma filled the monastery and its invigorating qualities proven effective in prolonging prayer time.

Anyways, back to the ceremony, each stage of the brewing and drinking process has its own name: abole for the first brew, tonna for the second, and bereka (“to be blessed”) for the third.

Customary snacks of popcorn and roasted grains like
barley and chickpeas are accompaniments to the enjoyment
of the resulting beverage.
Love the handwoven trays.
The female guests were invited to raid a wardrobe full
of lovely Ethiopian garb. That called for a mega Kodak
moment much to the amusement of their macho friends.
Elegant clay pot or jebena for brewing the aromatic
beverage. This is a traditional Ethiopian pot, whereas
the traditional Eritrean pot has no spout :) Trickier when
pouring the coffee out.
Sorry, the lioness couldn't resist taking a picture of the
pretty footwear usually worn with the traditional garb.
Ok beans turning into a darker shade... ..
Another Kodak moment... ...
The pan is brought near the noses of guests; an
appreciation of the heady aroma.
Ok preparing the “mise-en-scène”.
The roasted coffee beans take their place too.
Ok ok this time a Fuji moment... ...
Brewing... ...
Coffee is poured into delicate china cups known as cini
The resultant brew is no pushover! Can easily be served in one of the good
indie cafes here. Floral notes, medium-bodied and low in acidity. Delicious!
This came out of the philosophical heart of their Ethiopian friend and they
shall quote her: "Coffee is not drunk for waking up but for having great
conversations." In fact, she emphatically declared that coffee helps her sleep
soundly at night (arabica beans are apparently low in caffeine). In Ethiopian
communities, the smell of coffee would usually galvanise neighbours to
gather at homes where the latest news and gossip would be exchanged.
Someone's contribution of sweet lychees as an aftermeal
The lions count themselves so blessed that day to have been so well fed
with food, coffee and laughter. Special thanks again to their Eritrean and
Ethiopian friends.

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