Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Land of Coffee!

Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee! This  is one of first things I found out about the country while doing my research on it after taking this internship.  I almost dropped from my chair in Starbucks with delight! Having proclaimed myself a caffeine addict back in undergrad, I could not contain my excitement to spend my summer with people who lived and breathed my favorite “drug”! I attribute a lot of my accomplishments to coffee, especially in my last few months as a senior in undergrad, racing against time to complete my theses. At some point,  I had two friends; the basement level of the Regenstein library at the University of Chicago, and COFFEE, as I slaved away on my two honors theses (and regretted ever being a double major!). 

Coffee production anchors the Ethiopian economy and is the country's largest export, bringing in as much as $3.08 billion in revenue in 2013.  It is also a way of life for Ethiopians. Drinking coffee is everyone’s favorite pastime anytime of the day. There is a spread of coffee shops across the city from the chain  Kaldis, (that looks a lot like Starbucks) and the smaller ones that are in shack-like establishments in the local neighborhood. When people like you, they invite you to their home for coffee. It was therefore only fitting that coffee was the first food in my stomach on Ethiopian soil.On our way home from the airport, we stopped by a coffee joint and the double macchiato I had was one of the best tasting coffee I had ever had in my life!! Ethiopians serve coffee, (like their former “colonizers”, the Italians), in dainty little cups, that I am  frankly finding hard to appreciate. At my first drink,  I found myself wanting 3, and then embarrassed to order a 4th as I tried to drink as much as my daily Starbucks order of a vente double macchiato, on my way to class. I was however instantly seduced by Ethiopian coffee and I was eager to find out how Ethiopians made their coffee and its cultural significance to them.
The coffee set( wonder if i can get through customs with this!)

Woman pouring coffee!
I then got to experience coffee in an Ethiopian home with my host Belen and her family. Belen's family served coffee right after lunch in a very intriguing ceremonial way. There was an elaborate set-up to it, a coffee set complete with a coffee pot and the tiny cups, a burning coal pail and the water. First incense was burned to make the air more relaxing. Next the coffee beans came out and were roasted over the hot coals. Thus I found out the first secret to why Ethiopian coffee tasted so good, it was always fresh!After being roasted, the beans were passed around the room for everyone to take in their wonderful aroma, another instance of cultural significance where everyone shares in the deliciousness of the coffee beans. The beans were then  ground into a power. Previously a mortar and pestle served this purpose, but in recent years coffee grinders have become more common. 

I then learnt a few more things about communal coffee drinking. The first was to not be as slow as I was drinking mine the first time. My goal of savoring the fresh taste by sipping slowly was not in line with the way everybody gulped down their tiny cups,  like they were “shots” and had them back on the tray in no time, ready for the next round. The next round was not served until everyone’s cup was back on the tray, so my being slow was inconveniencing everybody around me,  but they were too polite to tell me! In addition the tiny cups of coffee kept coming until you say no more, if not you could possibly drink coffee for 2 hours!

Then an amazing thing happened!! After 4 cups of this strong and delicious coffee, instead of feeling wide awake, I found my eyes getting heavier and I felt a strong need to lie down on the couch. Between by jetlag, the elegant Amharic conversation around me, that I only participated in every 5 minutes when Belen translated something to me, and the gentle rain outside, Ethiopian coffee had done the unthinkable; put Nancy to sleep! I concluded that I would have never survived school in this country!

Drinking coffee with Belen’s family was a really grounding experience for me. Coffee is more than just a drink for Ethiopians. It is a substance around which Ethiopians built their economy, family ties and a cultural identity. To quote another blogger, "coffee is money, coffee is job, coffee is history, and most of all for Ethiopians coffee is love and pride."Coffee ceremonies bring people together, and is a symbol of union among family and friends I found the "rhythmic" way in which Belen's family served their coffee as the afternoon went on in many rounds,  to somehow bring everyone in sync with each other as they got caught up on each other's day. As a visitor  I felt very much a part of this  rhythm and was grateful to share in the warmth and richness of their culture! 

So friends, feel free to be jealous of me because I am in coffee heaven!! They do really need to upgrade the cups though, this coffee is just too good for the dainty little cups!

This cup is so tiny!


  1. I'm so jealous! Coffee (and you) are the best!

  2. Damn, coffee will be ruined for you when you return. I miss you Nancypants. *muah*

  3. I usually buy my coffee from CoffeeForLess.com but I would like to start finding places to try new coffee blends.