One of the most iconic traditions within Eritrea, the coffee ceremony is an event of care, delicacy, and pride. From roasting the raw beans by hand, to passing around the pot to guests to indulge in the aroma, the long ceremony is a traditional social ritual of society that occurs in some families every morning and during times of special celebrations.
I was invited to attend a coffee ceremony by the mother of a local woman that my mom is friends with, Kisanet. As we sat around the small house, Kisanet helped to translate our English and her mother’s Tigrinya. We spoke about the beauties of Asmara, their family’s traditions in the outskirts of Eritrea, and even the traditional fashion of the country, all while sipping on Fanta and Coke.
The coffee ceremony in Eritrea starts by roasting the green, raw coffee beans over hot coals. The beans slowly start to turn brown, then to a dark brown/black color. Once the beans are roasted, the coffee maker walks around with the steaming pot and allows the participants in the ceremony to waft the aroma towards them. The beans smell delicious and fill the entire house up.
This is then followed by the grinding of the beans. Traditionally, a mortar and pestle are used but we used a coffee grinder today to speed up the process. Oh, modernity.
The grounds are then put into a special boiling pot called a jebena, made of some sort of clay, and boiled. After the coffee starts to boil and spills up over the top of the thin neck of the jebena, it’s poured into a separate container to cool quickly, then poured back into the pot until it boils up again. This is repeated several times.
While the coffee pot sits on the coals, the coffee maker prepares the small cups for everyone. They pour in sugar and milk (in this case dried milk powder), depending on the preferences of the participants. In order to avoid coffee grounds from entering the cup, a filter made from the hair of a cow’s tail is put in the top of the spout. Each participant is poured coffee. After the first sip, you must compliment the drink, otherwise they think that it is not good and they throw it out and start from scratch!
The coffee goes through three rounds, with the same grounds being brewed each time. Each round can have either one or two cups of coffee in it, depending on how much was made and what the participants prefer.
Our ceremony also included munching on some delicious snacks, including surgham seeds that were also roasted on the coals, popcorn (yes! popcorn is a traditional snack here!), and Ga’at, a typical breakfast dish made from barley flour with spices and yogurt:
And that was it! We went home extremely full from the Ga’at and energized from the three rounds of coffee pours. What a beautiful and fabulous experience.