• Traditional Ethiopian coffee is worth exploring (SBS Food)Source: SBS Food
Australia is a coffee-obsessed nation, but how much do we know about the origin of this beloved beverage?
Siobhan Hegarty

21 Apr 2017 - 2:07 PM  UPDATED 4 Mar 2020 - 11:43 AM

With our cold-drip brews, single origin lattes and ‘deconstructed coffees’, Australia is a land of plenty when it comes to caffeinated choices. Since the mid-century migration of Europeans, we’ve sipped on cappuccinos, slammed down espressos, and savoured rich, viscous blends à la Turkish or Greek. Asian cultures, too, introduced their versions of coffee: be sweet and icy, Vietnamese-style; or from a quirky Japanese can. But despite this coffee exploration – and the fact you can find Arabica beans at your local McCafe – few of us have experienced coffee in its original context.

Ethiopia is widely recognised as the birthplace of the Arabica plant and, yes, coffee. Generally found at altitudes between two to 2.5 kilometres above sea, the evergreen shrubs produce a red fruit, known as the cherry. Within these scarlet fruits you’ll find two seeds (the beans) surrounded by membrane and sweet pulp. Flat with a slight groove, the tiny beans are pale green upon harvest. It’s only after the roasting process coffee beans develop that shiny, chocolate sheen.

"In Ethiopia we still we do it in djebena [clay pot] and it’s still, I think, the best coffee.” 

Watching beans undergo the colour-changing process is something Tinsae Yigletu is very familiar with. As the founder of Djebena Coffees, she regularly performs the Ethiopian coffee ceremony for friends and family at home. She’s also known to delight caffeine enthusiasts at markets and events across Sydney. Surrounded by woven baskets and dressed in traditional garb, Tinsae’s pop-up “stall” is a visual experience as much as a flavourful, aromatic one.

“I know there are a lot of ways of doing coffee today,” she says on her visit to SBS. “[But] in Ethiopia we still we do it in djebena [clay pot] and it’s still, I think, the best coffee.” 

Like a good wine, coffee is filled with subtle distinctions dependant on geography and farming choices. Limu beans, for instance, which come from the synonymous region in Ethiopia’s south, are sharp, yet well-balanced, with a pleasant sweetness. It’s also common to add a sprig of rue (also known as tena adam) to your cup of coffee. The fern-like herb possesses an unusual aroma, and is said to remove any bitterness from your cup. The typical Ethiopian coffee ceremony will have one more tasty element: popcorn! Fresh from the stove, the airy bites are served with coffee in homes and restaurants alike. Some Ethiopians also roast chickpeas as an alternative snack, but popcorn gets the popular vote. 

Tinsae Yigletu wants to bring the richness of Ethiopian coffee to Australians

“I really like Sidamo [coffee] for the freshness and the taste,” Tinsae says of her favourite Arabica varietyIt’s like wine or chocolate.”

As you may have guessed, Tinsae’s business is named after after the djebena (also spelled jebena), a handmade earthenware pot used to brew and serve coffee in Ethiopia and Eritrea. Before stovetops existed, clay cooking utensils, such as the djebena, were used to prepare meals and drinks.

For a country that loves on-the-go lattes, the Ethiopian coffee ceremony is a true commitment. The process, which involves washing, roasting and grinding the beans – and that’s before you brew! – takes between 40 minutes and an hour. In Ethiopian homes, coffee is only made by women, as they are more likely to be home. Tinsae says the ritual is performed at least once daily, sometimes three or four times. More than a tasty beverage, ‘coffee’ is viewed as an act; a gathering that brings families, friends and even neighbours together.

Since relocating from Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, to Australia’s Blue Mountains, Tinsae has been passionate about sharing the flavours from her homeland with an Aussie audience. 

“My mother or my aunty would send me to invite three or four neighbours around us,” she recalls. “Women would stay at home looking after the kids, so mainly they would get together, but if there was a man at home he would also join in.”

“They would talk about news, TV shows, what is happening in the neighbourhood, the kids, the schooling or who they’re meant to visit, all these kinds of stories.”

Since relocating from Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, to Australia’s Blue Mountains, Tinsae has been passionate about sharing the flavours from her homeland with an Aussie audience. Aside from her coffee company, she teaches Ethiopian cooking classes at the Auburn Community Centre.

Traditional Ethiopian coffee can take up to an hour to make

Dinner with Tinsae’ is her latest project: a pop-up restaurant of sorts, hosted in her own home. Channelling a Little Paris Kitchen vibe à la Rachel Khoo, TInsae will cook for groups of 10-12 and serve up Ethiopian specialties like injera (pancakes), dhal and the “national dish” doro wat, a red chicken stew.

“Australia has many cultures and cuisines. I love Thai, Vietnamese, Italian and all that,” says Tinsae. “But that’s what I’m trying to do. I really want to present Ethiopian food in the way these others have been presented.”

“Through private dining… people can come in and experience the Ethiopian food, the music and the culture of coffee.”

Tips to mastering Ethiopian coffee at home

  1. Wash raw beans by hand with warm water to remove impurities, then drain
  2. Transfer the beans to a pan on the stove top over a medium heat
  3. Let the water evaporate and when the beans become drier, shake the pan
  4. Continue roasting the beans, shaking every so often, until the turn dark brown
  5. Turn the heat off, then tip your beans into a mortar and pestle or coffee grinder and grind to a smooth powder
  6. Place the powder into a stove-safe kettle or a djebena (Ethiopian clay pot), if you have one, along with water, using your discretion for measurements and ratios. Heat until the vestibule sings 
  7. Take your pot off the heat and allow it to rest for 5-10 minutes so the coffee particles can settle.
  8. Pour your coffee into small cups (espresso or Turkish coffee size).
  9. For an extra special flavour, add a small sprig of rue (tena adam) to your cup.  
  10. Grab a bowl of popcorn and enjoy!

Hungry? Check out our Ethiopian recipe collection here.

Head to The Chefs' Line for a lowdown on African cuisines, recipes and more! 

Ethiopian eats
Ethiopian red chicken stew (doro wat)

A wat or wet is an Ethiopian red stew that uses the red chilli-spice mix called berbere and spiced ghee called nit’r kibbeh, and begins with a rich onion base. It's best made a day ahead to allow the flavours to intensify. This dish is traditionally served on top of injera bread.

Ethiopian flatbread (himbasha)

This traditional flatbread, scored in a decorative wheel pattern, has a unique sweet-savoury flavour, the sweetness being balanced by heady cardamom. It is commonly eaten in Ethiopia for breakfast after mass, and is also a popular addition at celebrations.

Eggplant and tomato salad (smpougov aghtsan)

This salad is a favourite for the Malkasian family. It’s a great dish to put on the table as a shared starter with some flatbread.