Coffee is one of the most consumed beverages in the world. It could be found in almost every country or city. To Ethiopians, maybe no variety of coffee can surpass that of their own. But there are places that remind one of home, and the traditional ways of brewing coffee. The Ethiopian themed Belgian Restaurant, Toukoul, which tends the culturally astute, is one.
I cannot tell or guess what prompted the BBC’s senior journalist Zeinab Badawi to present her recent rather fascinating history of Ethiopia, from the origins of mankind and ancient Ethiopian civilisation to the era of the Princes and the Axumite kingdom – spanning over three thousand years.
Ethiopia, the land of origins, is mentioned at least 38 times in the Holy Bible. At a time when the Ethiopia of yesteryear is under threat of disintegration by tribalism, Zeinab Badawi has done us a favour, perhaps knowingly.
With this in mind, I went out and about to visit Toukoul Restaurant, located in Brussels, with some friends and my son in law. Before long, my mind had moved on to more contemporary issues, like the coffee market.
I was having a hard time debating the subject of the origin of coffee when my driver told me that he had learned Uganda was the largest coffee exporting East African country. He knew little about coffee’s origins – in the south-western province of Ethiopia, Kaffa, where the goat herder, Kaldi, first discovered that his goats were seen to have enjoyed chewing certain berries, which I, all those years later, enjoy.
Another contentious encounter was with a Brazilian lady who scoffed that coffee was largely from Brazil and little from elsewhere. Countries like Vietnam have become latecomer exporters of coffee. The trouble is that they do not differentiate between coffee arabica and robusta.
The story of the origin of coffee continues with Arab traders across the Red Sea, where it gets the names “arabica” and “robusta”. Coffee plant requires hard work and time to reach its best quality. Although it originated in Kaffa, people from the Hararghe province exported coffee directly to rich Middle Eastern countries.
Let us now come back to Brussels, the capital of Europe, so to speak. The central part of the city is crammed with sky scrapers and high rise buildings, most of which are branch offices and commissions.
One could walk only 5 or 6 minutes to the north and arrive at Toukoul. There is not a better place in all of Belgium. The name refers to a traditional Ethiopian hut. People from all the member countries and various embassies are curious to know the culinary experience of Ethiopian dishes. They find it convenient to pay a visit to this restaurant and enjoy the taste of traditional foods.
The enterprising proprietor is an architect by profession. He might have thought Toukoul could be the best thing to display at the centre of European Union (EU) skyscrapers.
Coffee making, the hard way as it were, is exhibited in a room at noon time. Roasting takes the longest period. Grounding, as an exception to the rule, is done by a machine. The traditional clay coffee pots are quite a view in themselves. People yearn to know what it is like to sip coffee from a clay coffee pot.
Large plates are used to lay the food. Injera, the typical Ethiopian bread baked on an Ethiopian clay oven, is made from Teff, a special grain that is ground to form flour, mixed with water. It needs time to sort of ferment, before it is brought to a hot oven, and covered with a lid made from aluminium, unlike the old lid made from dried cow dung or Aknballo.
Baking is done in a single go, or one at a time. It takes not more than a minute or it will be overbaked. After all these details, what remains is for the injera to be eaten. Foreigners find it difficult to wrap or roll injera around a specific type of stew. There is a way of using fingers to break the injera on a typical stew. The best and easiest thing is to put an assortment on a plate leaving the remaining job for the tourist. But these days, people have come to use forks and knives.
At last, coffee, made the way I had earlier described, is sipped.
Coffee export these days seems to be undergoing an expected complication. Under the new arrangement, coffee beans can be bought directly from the truck. How these can be done is not known. The complications are not clear either. Why is export of coffee such a challenge?
Coffee is different from other cereals or grains. In fact, experts in the field claim that Ethiopia is a country where many varieties grow. Out of these varieties, a few taste better than others and hence sell at better prices. The new proposal of selling coffee directly from coffee trucks begs more questions than it answers.
Incidentally, it should be noted that the quality of coffee differs from place to place. Transaction directly from a truck does not give the option of sorting out the quality of that particular load. Coffee requires the highest possible care from collecting the berries, washing them, drying them on clean beds far enough from the ground so that the beans do not absorb the flavour or smell of the soil. That means all types of coffee cannot be valued as the same variety.
I went through all those details with good reason. Whether it is at the Toukoul restaurant in Brussels or in Germany, coffee cannot be consumed just because it is black or has milk. In fact, the very skill required to make coffee, starting from roasting, grinding and boiling takes longer than expected. It also has to settle longer than tea. Some people know how to make coffee, the way it should be made. Toukoul is blessed with such talents. It is located at the best place EU has to offer. Coffee is best in the hands of talented brewers.
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