“When you drink a cup of coffee ideas come marching in like an army” (Balzac)
Although I’m not often short of ideas, there is only so much you can do whilst waiting for the visa bureaucracy machine to do its thing, so what better way to pass the time in the Ethiopian capital than to partake in something so ingrained in Ethiopian culture that one is often synonymous with the other – a cup of coffee.
Tomoca is famous for being Addis Ababa’s longest running coffeehouse serving the Ethiopian need for quality coffee since 1953; it is frequented by the full range of Addis’ society; young, old, rich, poor, it seems that this coffeehouse with its unassuming, almost sad looking exterior and peeling paintwork is a real leveler, it doesn’t matter what is going outside in the ‘real’ world, inside at the coffee counter everyone is equal.
When we arrived, the coffeehouse was busy and alive with early morning chatter and high pitched clatter, as people gossiped and discussed the day’s news, and tiny glasses wobbled on their saucers. The atmosphere was thick with the intoxicating smell of freshly roasted coffee beans, which drew me in deeper like a cartoon mouse floating towards a lump of cheese. The wood panelled interior was dated, and the fading posters on the wall explaining the history and growing regions of Ethiopian coffee could do with an update, but this ‘lived in’ feel gave credence to Tomoca’s heritage, and confirmed that it was the coffee itself, and not the surroundings which is so ingrained in the Ethiopian psyche.
Fighting through the crowd to the till at the front of the shop, we paid for two coffees and were handed two square plastic tokens which we handed to the stern looking woman manning the counter next to the overworked coffee machine. Our plastic tokens were added to an intricate system of endlessly rotating saucers and cups to ensure everyone got their coffee fix. A perfect line of glass saucers were lined up on the counter, each dressed with a tiny silver spoon awaiting a cup to make the set complete. The straight line of saucers formed a barrier between the caffeine deprived clientele, and the all powerful servers – different coloured plastic squares identifying the type of coffee that had been ordered flew backwards and forwards as people crowded the counter so as not to miss out on their morning beverage.
When your drink is ready a tiny glass full of caffeinated nectar is unceremoniously put onto one of the perfectly lined up saucers near your plastic token with a surprising amount of force considering the glass involved, and then it is your responsibility to negotiate the ever mobile crowd with your unsteady, tiny, drink to find a space on the bustling tables – there are no chairs here, so we squeezed in between two old men animatedly discussing the freshly printed newspaper, and prepared for a taste sensation.
Intimidated by the potential strength of the coffee, we began to look around for the sugar, and as if by magic a bowl of the sweet stuff appeared from the crowds being carried aloft by an elderly gentleman in a white coat; this sugar guardian whose sole job seemed to be to redistribute the single sugar pot between the dozens of customers doesn’t hang around, and you have a matter of seconds to combat the bitterness before the man and his sugar dissolved back into the crowd.
Finally the coffee was ready to be drunk – the flavour was fresh, it was rich, and it was so strong the tiny cups were more than justified. The sugar offset the bitterness beautifully, and if you have opted for the macchiato, the small amount of milk helps to make the whole experience delightfully creamy – put simply, in my amateur opinion, this is a great cup of coffee. I would happily stay for another, if only to soak up the atmosphere, but with my body used to the more ‘dusty’ coffee offerings of Tanzanian ‘Africafe’ I decide it’s better for my health if I give it a few hours, and so shuffle out of my place at the table to make way for the next satisfied customer, and vow to return as soon as I have stopped shaking.
Andy Browning © 2016