Coffee comes with its share of mystical, often even whimsical origin stories ("Didja hear the one about the goatherd whose livestock took to dancing after chomping on some potent little red berries?"), but you don't need a book of fables to get a taste of the stuff's history. Especially if you ever get a chance to witness (and drink the fruits of) an Ethiopian coffee ceremony.
Traditionally performed by the lady of a household as a mark of honor and of great social importance among Ethiopians, the coffee ceremony is as much about the specific preparation as it is a culture klatch. Friends and neighbors will gather at all hours of the day to share local news and gossip over the steaming hot cups, and imbibers will come and go as cups are doled out by the woman preparing them.
The brewing process may be different from any you've seen before. First, green (unroasted) coffee beans are carefully browned in a shallow pan over a flame, then ground by hand with a mortar-and-pestle style contraption. A rod called a zenezena is used crush the beans in a metal bowl, or mukecha, immediately before brewing. The grounds are then boiled with hot water in a clay pot called a jebena, and served in tiny cups, typically alongside freshly popped popcorn. The cups (called cini) are refilled as the drinker sips and chats: Often the grounds are brewed two or three times, and enjoyed over lively conversation.
Coffee ceremonies aren't always a feature at Ethiopian restaurants in the States, but some spots do offer them by arrangement or for special occasions.
Washington, D.C.—which famously boasts one of the U.S.'s largest Ethiopian communities—has several options around town, including weekly staging of the tradition at Sidamo Coffee & Tea. At Boston's Lucy Ethiopian Cafe, ceremonies are available Fridays through Sundays by appointment; Oklahoma City's Queen of Sheba Restaurant has also allowed guests to enjoy the caffeinated custom. In any case, call ahead.
Lucy Ethiopian Cafe
334 Massachusetts Avenue, Boston MA 02115 (map) 617-536-0415
Queen of Sheba
2308 N MacArthur Boulevard, Oklahoma City OK 73127 (map) 405-606-8616