Buna Bliss: Salam Cafe in Germantown

Discovering the slow art of Ethiopian coffee

America runs on coffee. We often use caffeine to boost our productivity. But in other cultures, coffee is used to slow down, spend time with loved ones, and appreciate your surroundings.

I recently attended a buna — a traditional Ethiopian coffee roasting ceremony — at Salam Cafe in Germantown, where I learned about the significance of the home-brewed espresso in Ethiopian culture. Hayat Ali, the owner of Salam Cafe, spoke about how there’s no such thing as a coffee shop with 16oz or 32oz coffees in Ethiopia.

Coffee is traditionally made at home in small cups, sitting down, and is a long, peaceful process. Salam Cafe hosts a buna on the first Saturday of every month but is also open for food, coffee, and takeout Monday through Saturday from 10 AM to 8 PM. In Ethiopian culture, a buna is more than just a cup of coffee; it’s a cherished tradition that brings family and friends together to share stories, laughter, and, of course, freshly brewed coffee. The host roasts coffee beans over an open flame, filling the air with a rich, aromatic scent.

Then, the beans are ground by hand and brewed in a traditional clay pot called a “jebena.” This process isn’t rushed; it’s a slow and deliberate affair that can take up to an hour. With each sip of the robust and bold espresso, the warmth of community and the depth of Ethiopian culture are savored, making the buna ceremony a deeply meaningful experience for participants.

At Salam Cafe’s buna, community members gathered around the jebena and got to know each other as we enjoyed the coffee. We laughed, talked about our lives, and embraced the unfamiliarity of sitting in a room full of strangers. The coffee was served with small snacks, popcorn, and a traditional soft, thick bread, as the coffee is too strong to be enjoyed on an empty stomach.

Salam Cafe opened about 2 years ago in Germantown and has become a local favorite for authentic Middle Eastern and Ethiopian food. Ali’s original restaurant, Alif Brew and Mini Mart, has served the West Philly community for over three years. Ali’s sibling, Mebruka Kane, founded and runs Doro Bet, which opened in September 2022 in the Cedar Park neighborhood in West Philly.

Ali moved to Philadelphia nearly 20 years ago and loves how it feels like home. Philadelphia has a significant Ethiopian community, with several thousand Ethiopian immigrants living in the city, mainly concentrated around South Philadelphia. For Ali, this has helped her take more pride in her Ethiopian roots than ever before since, as an immigrant, she felt the need to be more intentional about practicing her culture. This has carried over to teaching her two daughters how to cook Ethiopian food and brew coffee.

As for the food at Salam Cafe, nothing was left but crumbs. We were served a beautiful platter with split peas, beef, collard greens, hard-boiled eggs, and beans on top of a thin, porous, crepe-like bread called injera, which is frequently served with Ethiopian dishes. In addition, we enjoyed fresh pita and bean dip and sambusas filled with chicken and lentils.

At Salam Cafe, it’s not just about the food (although it’s unbelievably delicious) – it’s about diving into a cultural experience. So, next time you’re craving something beyond the ordinary, swing by for a bite and a brew, and let the flavors take you on a trip to Ethiopia right in the heart of Germantown.

Salam Cafe
5532 Greene St
(215) 660-9780
Follow @salamcafephl on Facebook and Instagram

☕💙 Fast Facts: Ethiopian Coffee 💚💛❤️

  • Ethiopia is considered the birthplace of the coffee plant and coffee culture. It is thought that coffee was discovered in Ethiopia as long ago as the ninth century when a goat herder named Kaldi noticed that his goats became energetic after eating some red berries from a shrub. He tried the berries himself and felt the same effect. He then brought the berries to a monastery, where the monks roasted and brewed them into a drink that helped them stay awake during prayers.
  • Coffee plays such a heavily ingrained role in Ethiopian culture that it appears in many expressions dealing with life, food, and interpersonal relationships. One common Ethiopian coffee saying is “Buna dabo naw,” which translates to “Coffee is our bread.”
  • The buna ceremony involves meticulous steps and traditions, including using an incense burner, washing and roasting coffee beans, brewing in a jebena pot, and serving in handleless cups called sini. The host, usually a woman, performs the ceremony in front of the guests, who are expected to praise the quality and aroma of the coffee.
  • The buna ceremony typically consists of three rounds of coffee, each with a different name and meaning:

–  The first round is called abol, which means “first” or “beginning”. It is the strongest of the three, and is for pleasure.
–  The second round is called tona, which means “middle” or “second”. It is slightly milder than the first, and is meant to foster contemplation.
–  The third round is called baraka, which means “blessing.” It is the mildest of the three, but is believed to bestow blessings upon those who drink it.

What do you think? Have you been to Salam Cafe for coffee or tried any of their dishes? Please share below in the Comments, or catch up with me on Instagram @gingersliketoeat. If you enjoyed this feature, please check out last month’s column with my list of top romantic restaurants in Philadelphia.

About Eleni Finkelstein 23 Articles
Eleni Finkelstein (aka @gingersliketoeat on Instagram) is a South Jersey and Philadelphia-based food blogger and journalist. She loves traveling, trying new foods, and cheering on Philly sports teams. You can check out her book, "Eat Like a Local: South Jersey" on Amazon.

1 Comment

  1. I wouldn’t normally think to partake but your writing is so engaging I think I need a cup of that Ethiopian coffee!
    Thanks Eleni!

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