At Café Sidamo, Ethiopian tradition serves up fresh cup every time

Oct 26th, 2009 | By | Category: Student Work

By MADELEINE BAIR

Oakland–As the sun rises over Oakland’s flatlands, Meron Temesjen tends a propane stove on the sidewalk of Telegraph Avenue, turning her head to avoid inhaling the fume of smoke and debris it emits. To a stranger, she looks like a camper who has wandered far from the trail.

But if anything is out of place it is the Ethiopian tradition of home coffee roasting which, in the year since she opened Café Sidamo, the 31-year-old has introduced to this central Oakland neighborhood and its steady flow of morning traffic.

“Neighbors like the smell,” says Temesjen, who goes by Mimi, as beans dance in the pan below, turning from a light green to a rich dark brown. Translucent skins pop off to the concrete and leave behind an oily veneer on the beans.

CafeSidamo-mimi

Meron Temesjen, owner of Cafe Sidamo, in her coffee shop.

In Mimi’s native Ethiopia, the preparation—and consumption—of coffee is a slow, deliberate process—nothing to be hurried by machine roasters or paper to-go cups. “Machines take all the flavor,” she says.  There, in the birthplace of the beverage, where nearly a dozen regions are known for their particular variety, beans are sold raw and roasted at home.

Mimi’s household, in a small town two hours from Addis Ababa, the capital, was no different. “Every morning I would do that for my mother,” she says, beginning when she was five years old. It takes about 45 minutes to roast a pan of beans, before letting them cool and sifting them in a basket to separate the loose skins.

For Ethiopians at home and those who gather in Café Sidamo, savoring a fresh cup takes at least as long, accompanied by a bowl of popcorn and good conversation.

“The process takes almost two hours,” says Mimi. “You have to take the time to enjoy it.”

That appreciation for making a good product is something Mimi learned back in Ethiopia, as the daughter of owners of a local hotel and coffee shop.

“I always wanted my own business,” like her parents had, she says. But that was difficult to imagine growing up in the 1980s, when her country’s name became synonymous with third-world famine. Basic resources could be there one day, gone the next. “Water, electricity—you have to struggle for everything.”

After Mimi graduated from high school, word of a letter from the U.S. president spread through town. Bill Clinton’s Diversity Visa program invited applications for a lottery offering permanent residency to immigrants from countries with low rates of U.S. immigration. Nearly a year later, Mimi learned she and her brother won, and they were soon in the East Bay, where an older sister had settled three years before.

A decade later, with the help of her husband and a small business development organization, Mimi saw her dream come to fruition in Café Sidamo, named after Ethiopia’s most famous coffee-growing region.

Tucked into a quiet strip of Telegraph Avenue, the café has the feel of a lounge, with artwork covering the walls, and a handful of tables so close together it seems they were designed to introduce patrons to one another. The chalkboard menu offers a variety of traditional American foods like pancakes, bagels, and roast beef sandwiches. But the coffee comes in one variety only: Ethiopian.

“It brings me close to my country,” she says. “When I see the coffee I know that it is from Ethiopia.”

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