In The Lands Of Coffee

Photo by Tzer Haw
I gave our orders to the kedai kopi proprietor as he wiped his sweaty forehead with a white Good-morning towel.

Flipping it over his shoulder, he yelled to the back of the shop, “Kopi susu DU-A! (two milk coffee)” His round belly raised proudly into the air, almost bursting the threads on his white singlet.

His powerful voice, reverberating within the four walls of the shop, came to a crescendo at the last word.

Babara, my visiting Canadian friend, covered her ears with her palms. “Wow, he’s so loud!”

“You ain’t see nothing yet! Watch how the man there makes our coffee!” I nudged Mary to turn her head to the back area of the shop.

The man, dressed just like the proprietor, was standing in front of a big round bronze pot with cooking gas burning menacingly underneath. He grabbed the handle of a long bronze spoon and – Pang! -- flipped open the pot with the other hand. Boiling water bubbled noisily inside.

Without a single grimace at the mass of steam rushing onto his face, he dipped the spoon into the pot. Next, he lifted a long cheesecloth sack with a bamboo handle out of a big yellow tin mug.

The end of the sack bulged slightly with coffee grains. He held the sack high in the air and poured hot water from the spoon. The water streamed into the yellow mug without spilling a single drop. Then he rested the sack by the mug and let it soak in the hot water.

He placed two short white ceramic cups with faint blue designs on two white saucers and dropped a small teaspoon into each cup. He poured condensed milk into the cups and poured coffee from the yellow mug into the cups. He filled the cups to the brim till the coffee spilt over onto the saucers.

The proprietor, with the towel still on his shoulder, gracefully brought the saucers with the cups to our table. He placed them onto the table with a slight bang, spilling more coffee onto the saucers. “Liong mun (Cantonese: 2 ringgit)” He held out his palm.

Mary was enchanted by what she saw. “Wow! This is neat! That guy made the coffee as if he was doing something simple!” She took a deep breath of the coffee aroma. “This smells really good! It’s so fresh! Do I drink the spilled coffee from the saucer too?”

“In coffee shops like this, they do every thing so fast that the coffee comes spilled on the saucers. We just leave it there for good looks!“

Mary dipped her finger into the spilled brew and tasted it. “Uum, it has a strong earthy taste, unlike the Ethiopian coffee which has floral and winey flavor!”

Mary grew up in Ethiopia, an East African country. Her family went back to Canada when she was 16. Her family loves coffee. When I visited their home in Canada, I was shown a whole closet full of jars containing gourmet coffee beans and blends from all over the world.

There were South American, African and Indonesian coffees in a wide range of roasts and special flavors. I was treated with freshly brewed coffee and Ethiopian travel stories all day long.

I showed Mary how to stir up the condensed milk before drinking.

Like her family, Mary couldn’t stop talking about coffee while drinking it. “Do you know that Ethiopians believe that the world’s coffee originated from Kaffa province, their most prominent coffee growing province? The Yirgacheffe people, a minority sect of Coptic Christians, grow coffee as they have for centuries, in terraced plots worked by the entire family at the extreme altitude of 8,000 feet!

My brothers and I picked coffee during one of our school holidays when we visited the province. We were the center of attention in the village. The local kids surrounded us, admiring our clean hands as theirs were oily from years of squeezing red coffee beans!”

Mary sipped the coffee slowly as she once again showed me the world she knew.

“The word “coffee” is said to come from the word “Kaffa”. There’re many legends about the origin of coffee. The most popular one is about Kaldi, a farmer who noticed that his goats became noisy and naughty after chewing the bright red berries from a tree. He ate some and felt an upsurge of energy. He brought the berries back to his village, boiled them in water and fed them to his lazy sons. They immediately became restless and started to work around the farm. And so coffee spread to the rest of the country and to the world!"

Mary took a sip of the coffee, closed her eyes and let it course down her throat slowly. “This coffee tastes like heaven! Uum!”

Her Ethiopian coffee spirit shone through her smiling eyes when she finally opened them. “Do you know Ethiopians are among the highest coffee consumers in the world?”

“Ethiopians can live without electricity, cars or other luxuries, but they can’t live without coffee. Unlike the kedai kopi here where customers eat and drink fast, the Ethiopians sit around for hours, taking time to appreciate the coffee as they socialize. Coffee is so important to their social life that social gatherings and visits must start off with a century-old coffee ceremony near the host’s mud house.”
“The ceremonial highlight is the roasting of the beans. They must be roasted just right, otherwise the coffee tasted flat or acidic. The men in my village grew and harvested the coffee all by hand but it was the women who roasted the beans at home. Roasting the beans to their peak of flavor took years of experience. Daughters learned from their mothers before they got married. “

“During the ceremony, the guests sat on stools in a semicircle in a compound often surrounded by banana trees. The circle faced the stove, a small implement made of two bricks. The lady of the house would take out a bag of green coffee beans from among her treasure troves of food in the house. She then lit a fire in the stove to roast the beans on a mighat (a tin saucepan). Lumps of frankincense or myrrh were added to the coals, filling the air with perfume."

“Everyone watched the roasting as they chitchatted. The beans were considered done when the oils were just breaking out from the skin. The hostess then carried the pan around to the group. Everyone must make elaborate gestures to smell the beans and say, “Good, good!”

She then ground the beans in a wooden urn, or with pestle and mortar before she boiled the fine powder in a jabana (a round bottomed, ebony-colored clay pot). The powder was used to brew coffee only once. After letting the grounds settle, the coffee was poured into small cups with sugar and fresh milk."
"I could never get used to the traditional way of drinking the coffee with salt and rancid butter but the Ethiopian coffee appreciation spirit is sure with me everywhere I go!” Mary emptied the cup in one gust.
She turned to the back area of the kedai. “Kopi susu DU-A!” Her voice reached a high pitched at the last note. Stunned, the drinks man looked across the room at Mary. Mary repeated her order. He smiled as the mass of steam from the pot rushed onto him.

by Chong Sheau Ching


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