Written by David Farley
Ethiopia may attract visitors to its ancient underground churches in the north or the old walled city of Harar in the east. Writer David Farley went there for one thing: to drink some of the best coffee in the world.
The woman making my coffee was like a priestess. Sitting atop a one-metre raised platform where candles flickered and plumes of incense wafted towards the heavens, she roasted green coffee beans in a pan over burning coals.
Once they turned brown, she mashed the beans into fine grains and eventually mixed them with hot water in a javena, a traditional Ethiopian coffee pot, her tall headdress holding steady the entire time.
She picked up the bundle of frankincense and waved it, making deliberate sweeps throughout the surrounding area.
Welcome to the Ethiopian coffee ceremony. This is no quick cup of coffee. The beans are roasted and brewed on the spot. And then, as I was about to witness, the coffee maker (who, by tradition, is always a woman) pours three rounds of coffee, each one with its own name: 'abol', or first, is the initial cup, followed by 'tona', or second, before culminating with 'baraka', blessing. It's enough caffeine to make one's head spin. Especially noteworthy was that I was partaking in this distinctive coffee ceremony in the lobby of the Hilton in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, possibly the only hotel in the world where you can take part in such a distinctive activity.
But once you set foot in this ancient land, it all makes sense. Coffee is to Ethiopia what grapes are to Burgundy, or tea is to Darjeeling. No coffee-producing nation on earth can match the variety of coffee that grows in Ethiopia. Ninety-eight per cent of the different coffee varieties in the world naturally exist in Ethiopia. Further, there's the strong cultural tie Ethiopia has with the world's second-largest traded raw commodity, making this East African country of 85 million an intriguing place for the world's growing number of coffee aficionados. To the average Ethiopian, coffee isn't just a brown sludge that perks up the mind in the morning. It has a deep-seated java-drinking culture, a pre-sipping ritual bordering on spirituality.
After all, this is the birthplace of coffee. As the story goes, a ninth-century goatherd named Kaldi noticed his flock 'dancing' one day. When he realised the goats had been eating the cherries on a tree, he took some of the fruit to a nearby monastery. It didn't take long for the monks to realise the uplifting power of the fruit. And soon, as the story goes, coffee was born.
Which is why I am here. I skipped the famous tourist landmarks (the underground churches in north Ethiopia, the walled city of Harar in the east). Instead, I'm here to wander around Addis Ababa and drink coffee. Here, roads are flanked by chain-looking coffee shops where businessmen and 20-something couples sit around sipping macchiatos (the coffee drink of choice). After strolling the bustling streets, stopping for coffee at a 60-year-old café, Tomoca, and studying the map on the wall of the country's coffee regions, I pop into the National Museum of Ethiopia where theres a room dedicated to Lucy, the skeleton discovered in 1974 and the oldest human remains ever found.
That afternoon I meet with a friend of a friend, Aman Adinew. We sit outside his coffee shop, Kabu Coffee, located in the upscale Bole Road neighbourhood.
"I have plans to turn this into a chain, even opening some locations in the United States," he says. How could such a small coffee operator compete with the big boys like Starbucks?
"There are only a finite number of locations around the world that possess optimum conditions for growing coffee," he says. "Ethiopia is one of those places. Which is one of the reasons why we produce some of the best coffee in the world." Adinew, whose wife is the well-known singer Aster Aweke, has a coffee farm in the works in Yirgacheffe in southern Ethiopia. "It's going to be the most innovative coffee farm in the country. Im going to have an online streaming component so that people can watch the coffee grow and also so that they can really trace the origin of the coffee."
After meeting with Adinew, I stroll around Bole Road where it seems every second building is a future hotel, indications of Ethiopia's rising status as a tourism hotspot.
I pass more coffee shops, more hotels-in-progress, until I take refuge at Yod Abyssinia, a traditional Ethiopian restaurant. The baroque interior is crammed with colourful handicrafts. After a waiter pours soap and water over my hands at the table, I dig in – quite literally – there are no utensils in Ethiopian cuisine, so you scoop up the stewy delights with a spongy bread called injera. The lamb is rich from an abundance of niter kibbeh – a ginger-infused clarified butter – and the chickpea wat, a stew-like dish, is addictive. I'd eaten at Ethiopian restaurants back home in New York, but this was by far the best I'd ever had.
On my way out, I notice a woman in the back of the restaurant sitting atop a familiar-looking platform. She is getting ready to perform the Ethiopian coffee ceremony.
"Coffee?" she asks.
"Yes, please," I say and sit down on a stout stool ready for more java.
I'd already drunk several cups of coffee that day but when its this good, it's hard to say no.
Italian in Ethiopia
Bob Geldof, rocker for the Boomtown Rats and the man behind LiveAid, has called Castelli the best Italian restaurant in the world. U2 frontman Bono, ever the hyperbolist, has also reportedly chimed in, though tamping down his enthusiasm by relegating Castelli to the best restaurant in Africa. Actor Brad Pitt and former US President Jimmy Carter have also twirled their spaghetti here. Welcome to Castelli, a popular Italian restaurant in Addis Ababa that is, essentially, a relic of the failed Italian occupation of Ethiopia. The restaurant, first opened in 1957 (though some sources have put it at 1948), is still run by the Castelli family. The matriarch Rosella Castelli still runs the cash register up front. Come for the lunchtime aperitivo where fresh cheese and veggies are laid out. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner daily, except for Sunday.
Mahatma Gandhi St., Tel: +251 111 571 757
The idea of eating raw meat in Ethiopia seems like a questionable decision. But step into Yohannes, a restaurant that specialises in an Ethiopian delicacy, kitfo, otherwise known as raw hamburger meat. The meat is served in a cast-iron bowl and is scooped up with injera, the spongy bread locals use in place of cutlery. Kitfo is tasty and truly an only-in-Ethiopia experience.
Mickey Leland Rd., Tel: +251 91 214 0616
Addis Mercado – 'new market' in the local language Amharic – boasts over 2,500 retail shops and stalls and is 114 hectares in size. Some days, nearly 200,000 people visit, making this Africa's largest outdoor market. Nearly everything can be found for sale here: from traditional musical instruments to local crafts to livestock to coffee. Visitors can even partake in the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony here. The market is open from 8:30 to 19:00, Monday to Saturday. Located northwest of the city centre, it's recommended to take a taxi to the market.
A Coffee Tree Grows in Ethiopia
His name was Awol Abagojam and he was standing, machete in hand, between me and the very first coffee tree. I had driven here from Jimma, a town of 130,000 in western Ethiopia to drink coffee, visit coffee farms, and, hopefully, to see the very tree that gave birth to the multibillion-dollar coffee industry. It took about a 45-minute drive (best to hire a driver in Jimma). A billboard off the highway informed me that the 'birthplace of coffee Arabica' was just 10 km away, through the village of Keta Muduga. And so here I was idling in a car, with Awol Abagojam standing in front of me. Forty-something Abagojam, a coffee farmer, turned out to be a friendly fellow, escorting me to the coffee tree, which was unimpressive in sight – it stood about 3 m tall and its cherries were old and withering, like cotton pilling on an old sweater. It was impressive nonetheless to be in front of the birthplace of coffee. The best option is to arrange for a driver through your hotel.
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Distance: 2260 km
Flight Time: 3 hours, 35 minutes
Frequency: 3 flights a week