A white (faranje) adoptive mother to two Ethiopian (habesha) girls wends her way through
Exotic Ethiopian Cooking by D. J. Mesfin

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Bunna (Coffee)

an Ethiopian coffee ceremony set-up

The first day we were in Ethiopia, at around 4 o'clock in the afternoon, the entire guest house filled with smoke.  Indeed, we were half afraid that perhaps it was on fire, except no one seemed concerned in the least, so we decided we weren't concerned.  Upon our return from Chuko (in the Sidama region), we noticed this phenomenon again: a guest house visibly full of smoke and absolutely no one showing any signs that this was anything about which to worry.  This time, though, we investigated and discovered that it was the staff's afternoon coffee ceremony.  

At the end of the recipe, there is a brief notation stating that "In most household [sic] coffee drinking has a ritual beyond explanation."  I'm certainly not even going to try an explanation myself, but a Google search on "Ethiopian coffee ceremony" can yield plenty of information (including here) and some beautiful photos.  

What we were smelling was the roasting of the green coffee beans (which doesn't actually smell overwhelmingly like coffee, more like the chestnuts roasted on the sidewalks of New York, but nicer) and what we were seeing was the smoke that ensued from the process.  Once we poked our heads into the common room, we were of course invited to join in, and every day thereafter, whenever we smelled the smoke, we made sure to make it downstairs.  

I came to coffee late in life, perhaps not even 10 years ago, and the reason why seems to be that I had never tried any good coffee.  It turns out I am a coffee snob; once I had had good coffee, I was converted.  Fortunately, I don't need coffee every day, so it's not a crisis if I can't find a cup of good coffee.  

Sinadu was the cook at our agency's guest house and she was at the helm of the coffee making every afternoon.  Even just thinking back to her afternoon coffee (the coffee she made for us in the morning and kept in the carafe was not even in the same league), my hands start shaking.  It was that good.  The cups are tiny, but the stuff is potent!  Exactly what a new, sleep-deprived parent needed at 4 in the afternoon.  

The coffee-making in Ethiopia starts with the green coffee beans (technically, it does here in the US, too, but for most of the coffee-drinking population, the earliest in the process we start doing it ourselves is with the roasted coffee beans).  At coffee time, the beans are roasted in a little cup over a brazier and, when they are done, they are passed around so that everyone can take a whiff.  They are then ground with a mortar and pestle, added to boiling water, and boiled for a few minutes before being poured into demitasse-type cups, usually with a good amount of sugar in the bottom.  Incense is often burned during the ceremony and popcorn is almost always served.  It all smells divine.  

Thus, I was beyond thrilled when I turned to page 66 and discovered I'd get to try my own hand at making Ethiopian coffee, from scratch!  I ordered the beans from Brundo.com and had planned to make this last weekend, but ended up with a stomach bug.  I thought about doing it a couple of times during the week, but the only time I could do it was in the afternoon, and now that I no longer have two babies waking up every two hours during the night, I try to avoid strong coffee after noon or so.  

Late this morning seemed the perfect time.  We were home after gymnastics and a late breakfast/early lunch, and had some time to kill before afternoon naps!  

We started properly, with green coffee beans:

While I waited for my coffee beans to arrive, I did a little research on home roasting.  There are home coffee roasters out there, but they start around $80 and only have the one purpose.  While it was clear that I could just use one of my cast-iron skillets, in several articles, I saw mentioned this apparatus:

It's called a "Whirly Pop" and in addition to doubling as a coffee roaster, it can also serve its intended purpose as a popcorn popper (I like appliances that serve multiple uses, whether intended to or not).  We like popcorn in this household, especially the toddlers, one of whom just this past week announced, as we were making popcorn (which we do on the stove) "I love popcorn.  Because I'm 'opian."  Investing in the Whirly Pop made more sense to me, as it's important to maintain plenty of airflow around the coffee beans as they roast.  Plus, I'd read that the skillet method often leads to uneven results.  

green coffee beans in the Whirly Pop, waiting to be roasted!

Also in my reading, it was stressed that ventilation would be important when roasting the coffee beans, especially inside.  From our experience in Ethiopia, I knew that this would be true.  The articles I read insisted that a stove hood would be more than adequate.  I was a little dubious, so also opened the kitchen door and my husband turned on the fan and disabled our smoke detector, which is a little overzealous even on a normal day.  

It seems that 450 degrees is the ideal coffee roasting temperature, but I'd broken my thermometer when I made the dabbo qolo, so I just turned our electric cooktop stove element to about 7 or 8 and started cranking (or would that be "whirling"?).  Though the recipe only called for a cup of coffee beans, I threw in the whole pound, as I also needed to roast a pound of coffee beans for the yebunna t'ej (when I went to work on the t'ej, I had to augment with a cup of already roasted coffee beans that came from Addis; I should have ordered two pounds of the green coffee beans, rather than one).  

The whole roasting process only took 10 or 15 minutes, tops.  

after maybe about 5 minutes of roasting - the color's changing!

After the above picture was taken, things started picking up.  The beans started softly popping, the chaff was flying off, and our kitchen was completely filled with smoke, despite the stove hood going full blast.  It smelled exactly like the guest house at afternoon coffee time!  

(I kept the lid up so I could keep an eye on the color)

One trick to roasting coffee beans is that they continue roasting a bit more while they cool down, so it's very easy to overshoot the roast for which you're aiming.


I was using as my guide my Starbucks Ethiopia Sidama (I know, it says "Sidamo", but we use "Sidama", and here's why), which is on the left.  On the right was the roast I ended up with...a little bit darker.  It really didn't end up mattering, but if I was aiming for a roast like the Sidama, I should have pulled it off of the heat a smidgen earlier.  It amazed me how these green, dull beans just metamorphosed into these gorgeous, shiny pieces of onyx.  

Once the coffee's roasted, you have to cool it because it's hot:

See that smoke?  Multiply it by about three and imagine it filling our entire downstairs.  Mmmmmmmmm.......

To cool it off, I took the colander outside and gently tossed the beans up and down.  While you can't see it, the coffee beans have fine outer hulls that pop off with the roasting.  They're very light, and while tossing the beans to cool them down, the chaff blows right off.  

I cannot adequately describe how great my house smelled.  Six hours later, and it still smells amazing!  My husband went out to sand and salt the sidewalk and came in saying that it even smelled like roasting coffee outside (with all the windows open to try to clear the smoke, it's no wonder).  

Grinding freshly ground, still-warm coffee beans?  Sheer decadence.  

At this point, I could have just fired up the Mr. Coffee, but I was going to do it the Ethiopian way, which, according to the cookbook, means adding some ground cloves and ground cinnamon:

I was a little worried about adding the spices.  I'd had the spiced coffee in Ethiopian restaurants before, and I didn't like it as much as I had liked Sinadu's un-spiced coffee.  But, I decided to stick with the recipe and I added the spices (I added them to the beans in the grinder before I ground them).  

Then I brought some water to a boil on the stove, added the coffee, and boiled for five more minutes.  I have no pictures of this stage because once you add the coffee to the water, it threatens to overflow the pot and I had to keep taking it off the heat and putting it back on as I adjusted the temperature so that it would boil, but not overflow.  My hands were a little occupied!

By this point, the toddlers were clamoring for some coffee.  It's not unusual for them to get a tablespoon or two with their milk; after all, their father in Ethiopia grows coffee himself and their family's coffee set had a place of honor in their tukul (a hut like the ones I have pictured to the right of the top of the posts).  As the girls watched me roasting the coffee beans this morning, I couldn't help but picture them watching their mother in Ethiopia roasting the family's coffee, had their life taken its originally intended course.  

(I transferred it to the Mr. Coffee carafe just to make it easy to pour)

Isn't it gorgeous?  I didn't fill the coffee cup all the way up, as I would with my regular coffee, because I assumed it was going to be strong, and I wasn't disappointed!  This particular mix of spices was perfect.  It didn't overpower the coffee (cloves, especially, can be quite overpowering), but instead lightly spiced it.  Because the coffee was boiled, not filtered, there were, of course, grounds:

the grounds left over at the bottom of the carafe

even the babies' cups had a fair amount of grounds

I don't know what it is about Ethiopian coffee, but it has this way of making me feel completely serene and all Zen, even with the accompanying palpitations, shaking hands, and weak knees.  This was really good stuff.  So good I'm wondering why I'm not roasting my own beans every time I want a cup of coffee (I read somewhere that, until the late 1800s, everyone roasted their own coffee).  Oh, yes, perhaps it's that smoke issue.....  


  1. mmmmmm
    saturdays in our house always equal freshly roasted beans. i totally agree that it makes you feel calm....

  2. Do you have an electric roaster, Rahel? I'm seriously considering one now because that coffee was just so good. If you have one, does it help with the smoke issue?