Imagine ducking into a small, nondescript cafe and suddenly finding yourself immersed in the aromas of frankincense and coffee beans slowly roasting over small stoves, with gentle voices speaking in Amharic from every table. A woman smiles shyly, welcoming you into another world.
No, you’re not in Ethiopia, but in your own metropolis of Portland, inside E’Njoni Ethiopian Café on North Killingsworth Street. In an area populated by Ethiopian markets, cafes, dressmakers and braiding salons, E’Nonji sits as comfortably here in Portland as it would in the East African highlands of Addis Ababa. Well known for its authentic Ethiopian cuisine, served on handcrafted round woven tables called mosebs, E’Nonji is also one of the few places in town where you can experience the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony.
Offered as a symbolic gesture of friendship and respect, it’s an elaborate process that evolves over about an hour (though you can request shorter or longer versions.) At your table, the beans roast slowly over a small stove, while frankincense wards off evil spirits, and the aromas mix exotically in a relaxing fog.
The server then grinds the roasted beans by hand in a bowl with a zenezena, similar to a mortar and pestle, and stirs them with hot water into a clay pot called a jabena. If you request it, she repeats the process three times, with the final one inducing a blessing to the person being served. Stay for the third one if the idea of being blessed by someone from the birthplace of coffee appeals to you. You won’t get closer to being honored in this way unless you’re up for a really long plane ride to another continent.
More Than Coffee
The Ethiopian coffee ceremony is an event in and of itself, but it’s certainly not the only thing to experience at E’Njoni. East African cuisine is renowned for its earthy spices, rich stews and communal eating concepts. It’s traditional to order several dishes and have them served family-style atop a large piece of injera, which is a spongy Ethiopian flatbread that essentially replaces silverware. Tear off a piece of the injera, and use it to gather tender bits of meats, veggies and sauces – then eat the entire morsel, and repeat throughout the meal.
If you’re feeling a little overwhelmed by the unfamiliar menu choices, then start with some basics (and remember that it’s family-style, so let your friends or family members each choose something to try). Most people consider Dora Wott to be the national dish of Ethiopia, so by all means ask for this spicy chicken stew, or the chef’s recommended version of it.
Two things to know about if you do decide to stay for a meal: berbere and awaze. Many dishes are flavored with berbere spices, and almost all Ethiopians and Eritreans request sides of awaze for dipping. Berbere is basically a mixture of spices, which can include chili peppers, coriander, ginger, basil, cumin, fenugreek and various more exotic African, Indian or Asian spices such as ajwain or radhuni. Awaze is a paste or sauce made with a base of berbere and oil, or sometimes with an Ethiopian honey wine called tej. You can also order a side of mitmita, which is a chili powder mix with a base of berbere and cardamom.
Know This: Coffee ceremonies are only available on weekends, and they’re by reservation only. Call a few days ahead of time to make a reservation for the coffee ceremony – preferably on a weekend, and in the afternoon. Regardless of how many people you bring along for the special ceremony, there’s a flat fee of only $14, plus $2 per cup served.