Image: Amy Scott

After a meal spent scooping lamb, beef, and vegetables into delicate injera bread at Blue Nile Ethiopian Restaurant, order the traditional coffee ceremony. Soon a clay pitcher of scalding hot coffee will arrive, alongside two cups colorfully adorned with painted African figurines, a large bowl spilling over with popcorn, and an overwhelming waft of incense.

While at Blue Nile the coffee-brewing process happens behind the scenes, in Ethiopia it’s all part of the experience, a ritual performed at least three times a day. The ceremony’s host starts proceedings by spreading fresh grass across the floor and burning incense to clear the space of evil spirits. Coffee beans are then cleaned and roasted over an open flame and ground using a mukeycha and a zenzena, tools that resemble a mortar and pestle. Next, the grounds are mixed with boiling water in a jebena, a special clay vessel. The host pours the coffee from vessel to cups in a single long stream to keep the dregs in the pot, serving popcorn or peanuts alongside the beverages.

This tradition goes back thousands of years. Coffee was purportedly discovered by Ethiopians around the ninth century, when, legend says, goats first tried the beans, their instant energy observed by their herder. Word spread of the power of coffee beans, and soon villagers were roasting and grinding them, mixing them with water to make a beverage they could easily enjoy anytime, especially among friends and family members.

“All day, every day, coffee is our food,” says Meri Kidane, who works at Blue Nile for her aunt, owner Tina Embeluv. “Morning, afternoon, and night, it’s just about gathering, a family get-together kind of thing.”

The point is to take it slowly and enjoy your company. The first sips may be harsher, as you may not be used to the more acidic, fruitier taste of Ethiopian coffee beans, but with each round you add more water to distill the zip and dull the flavor a bit. There are typically three servings with each ceremony, and the final round sipped from the handle-less little cups is said to be a blessing to those who drink it. As for the popcorn? “It will make you thirsty,” says Kidane. The solution to that? Well, more coffee of course.

Blue Nile Ethiopian Restaurant

Upper Kirby | 3030 Audley St, bluenilerestaurant.com