• A cup of kawa daun coffee served in a coconut shell in Batusangkar, West Sumatra. (Getty Images/AFP)Source: Getty Images/AFP
In places where coffee plants are cultivated, the locals have a largely undiscovered secret.
Seraphina Seow

26 Sep 2020 - 7:16 AM  UPDATED 30 Sep 2020 - 3:37 PM

People in West Sumatra and Ethiopia have consumed an infusion of roasted coffee leaves for hundreds of years. But it's only now that the rest of the world is catching on. In February this year, the European Food Safety Authority approved coffee-leaf infusions to enter the European Union market.

In the highlands of West Sumatra in Indonesia, the brew is called kawa daun.

Kawa daun's story began during the Dutch colonisation in the mid-19th century when West Sumatra was designated as one of the primary coffee planting and cultivation regions.

Indonesian food historian Fadly Rahman explains, "The estate inspectors forbade coffee plantation workers from smuggling, stealing and selling coffee beans, and forbade farmers and natives from consuming coffee beans.

"So the people switched to making 'coffee' using leaves."

He says kawa daun reflects Indonesia's "bitter story of colonialism".

"But behind its bitterness, the people of West Sumatra still rejoiced and made coffee leaves into a favourite beverage believed to be able to generate stamina."

To make kawa daun, the leaves are sun-dried to reduce their bitter flavour. Then they're roasted for a few more hours and boiled in water. Its flavour surprises those who expect it to taste like coffee. It's more like tea and is imbued with a soft yet distinct aroma.

The infusion is served in coconut shells with a base made from bamboo, sugar, condensed milk and ginger. Egg can also be stirred in.

People often eat lemang [sticky rice], Sumatran durian, or fried banana while sipping the brew.

"Behind its bitternes, the people of West Sumatra still rejoiced and made coffee leaves into a favourite beverage believed to be able to generate stamina."

Cross the Indian Ocean and you'll find this method of brewing coffee leaves in Harar, East Ethiopia. Here it is called kuti.

Coffee was a prized commodity in the late 16th century to 19th century when Harar was the centre of trade between Ethiopia, the Horn of Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula. In her book Coffee Story: Ethiopia, Majka Burhardt explains that coffee beans were set aside for trade and only consumed as part of an elaborate ceremony.

Kuti became the Harari people's everyday drink, with some dedicating rooms in their houses for coffee leaf storage.

Hiwot Peters, the owner of Australian kuti company Eteaopia, explains how it is made.

"In the traditional way, the leaf has to be added to boiling water in a pot and boiled for at least half an hour, as it is believed that the more you boil it, the less bitter it becomes."

To flavour, a pinch of salt may be added before boiling and sugar can be mixed in to serve.

"It has a rather refreshing and sweet taste. It is similar to an earthy green tea but sweeter," says Peters.

In Harar, kuti can also be enjoyed by children under the age of twelve, as documented by Jeff Koehler in his book Where the Wild Coffee Grows.  

Peters says, "Being lower in caffeine than green tea and high in antioxidants, kuti is traditionally used to cure colds. Normally someone feeling unwell would take a rest with some kuti."

With coffee-leaf infusion entering the European food scene, we may see it in Australia soon.

Its low caffeine content may be enticing for those who down multiple cups of tea or coffee a day.

As Peters says, the coffee-leaf brew can be enjoyed whenever "tea time" strikes.

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