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A Caffeinated Ceremony of a Different Flavor

April 24, 2009


JebenaThere is a traditional ceremony performed in nearly every home in Ethiopia and Eritrea in which the bright red bean of a tree that grows wild in the mountains (called Bunna in Amharic) is roasted over a coal fire, ground with mortar and pestle and then infused in boiling water to produce a thick, dark, invigorating liquor. A special black clay pot called a jebena is used for brewing and serving to the guests, starting with the eldest among those attending. In its customary form the ceremony takes place over the course of hours, and involves three separate, distinctly named servings of the brew: Abol Bunna, Tona Bunna, and Baraka Bunna. The final round is considered to bestow a blessing upon the drinker, hence the word baraka, which means “blessing.” The preparation and consumption of this drink is always accompanied by incense, most commonly frankincense, which is harvested locally from the trees that yield the aromatic liturgically-used resin.

The transformation of this bean into use as a beverage began in the Kaffa region of Ethiopia centuries ago and a tremendous amount of the country’s economy depends on it today. As with most other beverage ceremonies throughout the world, there is a close tie with religion, in this case Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, practiced in the area since the third century AD and still the majority religion among Ethiopians. The ornate brass or silver processional crosses and cross-shaped churches carved out of solid rock in the town of Lalibela bear witness to the richness of Church history. The bunna ceremony and the plant at the center of it have been major elements of Ethiopian cultural life for a great deal of that time, although there have been periods during which the Church elders sought to ban its use as it was at times considered too closely associated with Islam.

The most popular legend goes back to the 3rd century. Here it is said that a young goat herder, named Kaldi in oriental literature, noticed to his amazement that after chewing the bright red berries from a tree his goats pranced in an unusually frisky manner. Kaldi tried the berries and enjoyed their stimulating effect. A monk noticed Kaldi and decided to try the berries with his friars. They all felt alert during their night prayers. As news of the stimulating effect of the berry spread, people began chewing the berry before prayer…

– from this article

In the Bunna ceremony, milk is never used, but sugar is added generously. Sometimes salt is added to the cup instead. Food items such as roasted popcorn, barley or bread are served as an accompaniment throughout. After each of the rounds is ready, the woman hosting the ceremony pours the liquid from a height of at last a foot above each round, handle-less ceramic cup, using a method similar to the Moroccan style of pour for mint tea, aerating the brew and creating a fine foam on the top. The result is a wonderfully subtle, fragrant and complex brew, as far from that unpleasant stuff that comes out of a machine at your local Seven-11 as it could possibly be.

For additional information on the Bunna Ceremony read this article on Epicurean.com and this article on iKhofi Roasters’ website.

photo above by Adriana Lukas, used under the Creative Commons license

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