Even without an Ethiopian background or heritage, plenty of Washingtonians can tell their wot from their injera. But there’s more to Ethiopian cuisine than its relatively well-known stew and bread. The African country’s world-famous coffee beans have been the centerpiece of a traditional ceremony for generations. Tebabu Assefa, co-founder of Takoma Park, Md.-based Blessed Coffee and the founder of Silver Spring’s upcoming second annual Ethiopian Festival, spoke to Express about the ceremony. (Catch a free demo at the festival on Sunday.)
What’s the importance of coffee in Ethiopian culture?
In the Ethiopian culture, coffee is a social beverage. From small villages to big villas, people get together once a day after lunch and go through the rituals of a coffee ceremony. It has been done for thousands and thousands of years.
What made you want to introduce the coffee ceremony to Americans?
I’m not introducing coffee alone, even though Ethiopia is known for the finest coffee in the world. I want to bring the social, the cultural components of the coffee ceremony, because people in America don’t have time to have a conversation. And I’m trying to stress the importance of sitting in a circle with friends, family and the public. Really, we have a chill time; it’s a good time for conversation. It’s looking in each other’s eye and saying, “How are you?” and meaning it.
What are the key elements of a coffee ceremony?
It’s a three-cup ritual. Every cup is made the same way. It’s ground in a clay pot that’s specially made for coffee. It will take about 60 to 90 minutes. Family and friends will sit, have conversation, laughter, and it’s very lively.
Sounds like a lot of caffeine!
The first cup has a strong taste of espresso and then it will be watered down [progressively] in the second and the third cups. So, in the course of the ceremony, you can probably drink a 12-ounce coffee.
Does coffee prepared in the Ethiopian style taste differently from what Americans are used to?
It’s creamier, it’s more chocolaty … because the coffee is made [and ground] in a clay pot. [During brewing,] you let the sediment settle and you drink the clear part. The best coffee still has all the oil [from the beans].
The Complete Experience
Traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremonies unfold in a specific yet leisurely manner. The host hand-washes green coffee beans, roasts them in a pan over a charcoal stove, grinds them with a mortar and pestle and brews the coffee, before straining and serving it. It’s considered rude to leave before the third cup, called “baraka” (meaning “blessed”). To really understand what the ceremony is about, ”you have to be a part of the circle” and take part, says Tebabu Assefa, co-founder of Blessed Coffee, a “benefit corporation” (a nonprofit/for-profit hybrid) that aims to connect the local community with a cooperative of 200,000 Ethiopian coffee farmers. The best place to experience a coffee ceremony is at the home of an Ethiopian family; restaurants in the U.S. don’t typically offer them, Assefa says. He hopes to change that when Blessed Coffee opens a cafe in Takoma Park, Md., within the next six months.
Want to sample more than Ethiopian coffee? Try some food, such as sambusa, a savory, fried, triangle-shaped appetizer stuffed with fillings such as beef and lentils. That recommendation comes from Teru Fentike, owner of Bete Ethiopian Cuisine & Café (811 Roeder Road, Silver Spring; 301-588-2225), which will sell the snack at the festival.
Second Annual Ethiopian Festival, 1 Veterans Place, Silver Spring; Sun. 11 a.m.- 9 p.m., free. (Silver Spring)