Addis Ababa, 6 a.m. Walking out of the International Bole Airport, the chilly mountain air tickles the nose and pricks the skin. This is Africa, why is it so cold here? Sitting at 7546 feet in altitude, Addis Ababa is the highest capital in Africa and the fifth highest in the world. It is also home to unique ingredients and spices.
Addis: Journey into the Exotic
Hop in a blue Lada taxi with seats covered in purple synthetic fur. Get on the newly finished Bole Road and prepare for a culture shock. Addis, as locals call their beloved capital, brings together all the elements of what makes Ethiopia a unique country.
Hints of every era, every faith and every past struggle permeates the city. Coptic priests in ancient white dresses mingle with hurried businessmen and students dressed in the latest fashion. At every turn it seems, there are symbols of the country’s ancient history and the present economic boom. But one thing is sure to never change in Addis: delicious coffee and exotic food.
The Home of Coffee
If Ethiopia is believed to be the Cradle of Mankind, it is also the birthplace of coffee. Discovered in the mountainous province of Kaffa, Arabica coffee beans get their mild aroma from the highland climate. And here in Addis, you get your cuppa from the source.
Excellent coffee can be found in every restaurant and coffee shop in the city, but for some of the best brew in town, head to Tomoca. Inside the small coffee-house, patrons mostly ask for a macchiato. It’s a favorite among locals and a remnant of the Italian influence.
The Coffee Ceremony
While Japan has its tea ceremony, Ethiopia has its coffee ceremony. In every home, the woman of the house has mastered the art of roasting the beans, grinding them and brewing the coffee in front of visitors, friends and family up to three times a day. The smoke of the roasting coffee is fanned around for the pleasure of guests and fresh coffee is enjoyed in tiny cups often with a branch of rue (a herb similar to hops). Popcorn sprinkled with sugar typically accompanies the aromatic brew. A fundamental part of Ethiopian culture, the coffee ceremony is an event not to be missed. You can also experience the coffee ceremony in most restaurants in Addis Ababa.
Japan has its tea ceremony.
Ethiopia has its coffee ceremony.
A Traditional Ethiopian Meal
Head to the old Ghion Hotel for a culinary experience in pure habesha fashion. Once a glorious hotel, its commodities do not live up to most travellers’ expections today, but its restaurant still serves fantastic traditional food and great dinnertime entertainment.
A waitress in traditional Ethiopian dress brings a large silver bowl of water and everyone takes a turn at washing their hands. As food is shared in a single plate and eaten without utensils, this is mandatory step!
Made of hot peppers dried in the sun, which are ground with as much as 20 different spices, each household has its secret berbere recipe.
The feast then begins. A large platter is placed on the messob, a traditional small woven table. Such as a painting, colorful mounds of varied stews and salads are laid out in front of us. Scoop up the savory morsels with a piece of injera and prepare for an instant flavor overload. Slow-cooked wot – a spicy stew made of different meats or legumes – fresh tomato and lentil salad, vegetable stews and stir-fried beef are devoured in no time. It’s decadent, and with Ethiopian music in the background and entertainers dancing the eskita, the evening is a complete sensory and exotic experience.
The ever-present flat bread called injera is made of teff, an endemic plant, which is also the smallest grain in the world
Shop at Merkato
In Addis, a visit to the Merkato is a must. The largest open-air market in all of Africa, anything and everything can be found there. As our guide Brook says, you can even buy a soul here. Mounds of spices, rows of trinkets and decorations, dried skins of unknown animals, tires, fresh produce, souvenirs – the display is endless and eclectic.
At the Merkato, you can even buy a soul.
Addis Ababa is a city full of history, a unique place where somehow, one can travel in the past while witnessing the future taking shape. Still, some things here will never change. Like the promise of a good coffee and unforgettable flavors.
For a day in Addis Ababa, check out these spots. Some do not have a Website, so I’ve provided links to Tripadvisor:
Top View Restaurant (for the view overlooking the city), Megenaga, Addis Ababa
Tomoca (for the best coffee) Wavel St, Piazza, Addis Ababa
Yod Abyssinia (for some of the very best Ethiopian cuisine) Bole Medhaniyalem Area, Addis Ababa
Cupcake Delights Bakery (fun spot for desserts)
Bole, opposite to Beer Garden Inn, Addis Ababa
Ghion Hotel (this is an old hotel and run down, by many standards. However, its restaurant serves excellent Ethiopian cuisine and hosts beautiful traditional dinner shows, and its gardens are famously beautiful)
Bole area, Addis Ababa
Merkato (for a visit in the biggest open-air market of Africa; this is not to be missed!)