Rites and traditions: Eritrea and the coffee ceremony

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Eritrea is a country in northeastern Africa bordered by Ethiopia, Sudan and Djibouti. The capital, Asmara, is known for its Italian colonial buildings, such as Saint Joseph's Cathedral, and for its Art Deco structures.

In Eritrea there is an almost unavoidable tradition called the coffee ceremony. It is the women who prepare the coffee ("buna", to be pronounced [bouna]) according to an ancestral ceremonial which lasts about an hour and which generally takes place at the end of the afternoon. They offer this drink as a sign of hospitality to family members, friends, guests, daily or during festivities.

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The green beans from neighboring Ethiopia are first roasted in a pan over a fumello (small fire) or menkeshkesh (grill pan). The scent of incense or arabic gum that is burned next to it mingles with the coffee vapors and, once the beans are roasted, the women offer these perfumed vapors to each participant to smell.

Then the grains are placed in a large wicker dish and sorted to remove excessively burnt grains. The toasted grains are then pounded in a mortar and poured to infuse in a jebena, a black terracotta coffee maker filled with boiling water, which rests on a foot of recycled metal or wicker.

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The coffee infusion is then poured into another container to cool while the grounds remain in the jebena thanks to a filter placed inside, at the entrance of the pouring spout (this filter is most often formed of horse).

Then the coffee is poured back into the jebena and brought to a boil to infuse again with the grounds and the operation is repeated several times before serving.

Finally, the hostess serves coffee for all participants in small cups placed on a tray; she pours the coffee by moving the tilted jebena without stopping (to avoid stirring the grounds) until each cup is full.

Eritreans usually consume very sweet coffee accompanied by popcorn. When invited, it is mandatory to drink at least three cups before taking leave: To depart from this rule is a sign of rudeness and affront.

Carole G

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