There's a fairly active nightlife scene in most larger cities, but it's only in Addis that you'll find the variety that produces places of any real quality. Tej (a locally produced honey wine) is one local alcoholic drink that is definitely worth trying, and places serving tej are often focal points for local nights of drinking and (sometimes in Amhara regions) azmari, a hugely popular local form of interactive performance. And then there's coffee – that rather fine Ethiopian invention and one that will form a regular feature of your days in the country.
Ethiopia has a well-founded claim to be the original home of coffee, and coffee continues to be ubiquitous across the country. As a result of Italian influence, macchiato (espresso with a dash of milk), cappuccino and a kind of cafe latte known as a buna bewetet (coffee with milk) are also available in many of the towns. Sometimes the herb rue (known locally as t’ena adam, or health of Adam) is served with coffee, as is butter. In the western highlands, a layered drink of coffee and tea is also popular. If you want milk with coffee, ask for betinnish wetet (with a little milk).
Ethiopia finally has a museum dedicated to its most famous export: the Kafa Coffee Museum.
The Coffee Ceremony
The coffee ceremony typifies Ethiopian hospitality. An invitation to attend a ceremony is a mark of friendship or respect, though it’s not an event for those in a hurry.
When you’re replete after a meal, the ceremony begins. Freshly cut grass is scattered on the ground ‘to bring in the freshness and fragrance of nature’. Nearby, there’s an incense burner smoking with etan (gum). The ‘host’ sits on a stool before a tiny charcoal stove.
First of all coffee beans are roasted in a pan. As the smoke rises, it’s considered polite to draw it towards you, inhale it deeply and express great pleasure at the delicious aroma by saying betam tiru no (lovely!). Next the beans are ground up with a pestle and mortar before being brewed up.
When it’s finally ready, the coffee is served in tiny china cups with at least three spoonfuls of sugar. At least three cups must be accepted. The third in particular is considered to bestow a blessing – it’s the berekha (blessing) cup. Sometimes popcorn is passed around.
Tej & Other Alcoholic Drinks
One drink not to be missed is tej, a delicious – and sometimes pretty powerful – local ‘wine’ or mead made from honey and fermented using a local shrub known as gesho. Tej used to be reserved only for Ethiopian kings and their courts and comes in many varieties. It’s served in little flasks known as birille.
There are several breweries in Ethiopia that pump out decent beers, including St George, Harar, Bati, Meta, Bedele, Dashen and Castel. Everyone has a different favourite, so explore at will.
Though no cause for huge celebration, local wine isn’t at all bad, particularly the red Gouder. Of the whites, the dry Awash Crystal is about the best bet. Unless you’re an aficionado of sweet red, avoid Axumite. Outside Addis Ababa, wine is usually only served in the restaurants of midrange hotels. Castel Kuriftu Wine House and Restaurant in Ziway is well worth the excursion in particular.
If you’re not catching an early bus the next morning, try the local araki, a grain spirit that will make you positively gasp (some travellers liken it to a stronger version of Greek ouzo). The Ethiopians believe it’s good for high blood pressure! Dagem araki is twice-filtered and is finer. It’s usually found in local hole-in-the-wall bars.
In lowland Muslim areas, shai (tea) is preferred to coffee, and is offered black, sometimes spiced with cloves or ginger.
Most cafes also dabble in fresh juice, though it’s usually dosed with sugar. If you don’t want sugar in your juice or in your tea or coffee, make it clear when you order. Ask for the drink yale sukkar (without sugar). Bottled water is always available, as is the local favourite Ambo, a natural sparkling mineral water from western Ethiopia.
In the Somali regions in the east, camel milk is a speciality. Locals claim that it gives most foreigners the shits, but we can happily report that our stomachs are stronger than that!
Finally, in the Omo valley region of southern Ethiopia many tribal people start the day with a calabash of fresh, warm blood straight from the neck of a favourite cow. It sounds disgusting, but fans will tell you that not only is it full of goodness it also makes you very strong. In fact, the male members of many Omo tribes frequently gorge on it in the build-up to a stick fight in order to make themselves as strong as possible. And no harm is done to the cow: they use a miniature bow and arrow to pierce a vein in the neck and the cow appears to suffer no permanent damage.