Eating in Ethiopia
A Guest in an Ethiopian Home
Ethiopian restaurants are common in American cities, and their fare bears a strong resemblance to the real thing. Eating in Ethiopia in someone’s home is much different, and it offers many glances into the rich culture of this fabled land.
Soon upon arriving in Ethiopia's capital city, Addis Ababa, I am brought to the home of Mekedes and Serak for dinner. While we chat, Mekedes serves t'ej and t'ella. Historically reserved for the upper class, t'ej is a fermented honey beverage that's now served by all on special occasions, and sometimes not so special. T'ella is a murky brown, spontaneously fermented, slightly sour, leathery tasting homebrew that is common in the countryside and not hard to find in the city.
Before the meal Mekedes' niece, Meskerem, goes around the living room with a basin, a bar of soap, a pitcher of water and a towel. She tends to everyone as they wash their hands, an important step since the Ethiopians eat most foods with the hand.
The meal consists of several dishes: flattened strips of cooked beef, balls made of beef and flour (served without sauce), dinich wat (potato stew) and potato chips, with plenty of fresh injera, a spongy sourdough bread that is ubiquitous in Ethiopia. There is also kitfo: raw, coarsely ground beef prepared with kibi (spiced, clarified butter) and mit'mit'a (a flaming hot powder made from peppers, cardamom and cloves). Mekedes serves the kitfo “leb leb”, or very lightly cooked.
The Ethiopians' love of raw meat goes back many centuries. In Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile in the Years 1768, 1769, 1770, 1771, 1772 and 1773, the Scottish adventurer James Bruce claimed he saw three Ethiopians wrestle a cow to the ground, slice two steaks off its rump, patch up the wound, send the bewildered beast on its way and consume the meat on the spot.
Chunks of raw meat, called gored gored, are traditionally served at weddings with awazi, a sauce made from t'ej, red peppers, garlic, ginger, onion, cloves, cinnamon and other spices. In addition to the standard cake-cutting photo, wedding albums usually include a shot of the happy couple putting the knife to a side of raw beef. Gored gored is also found in restaurants such as Habesha, on the road to Bole Airport.
Ethiopians generally eat with the right hand ("If you eat left-handed, you are never satisfied," goes the saying) but everyone indulges my left-handedness. As a matter of fact, I often eat with neither hand, as Hirut hand-feeds me, a delightful practice called gursha. Eat at an Addis Ababa restaurant and odds are you'll see gursha practiced all over the room.
The Coffee Ceremony
After the meal Meskerem makes another circuit with the washbasin before preparing a charcoal burner for the coffee ceremony. The coffee paraphernalia sits on the floor, atop a layer of green grass.
Coffee is thought to have originated in Ethiopia, and it's an important export crop. The Ethiopian church forbade the drink at first, relegating it to Muslims and the Oromo ethnic group. This eventually changed, and coffee became widespread in the 1880s when Emperor Menelik II took up the habit. In Ethiopia there's no such thing as a bad cup of coffee. If you order it in a restaurant, you'll invariably be served a bracing cup of espresso.
Ethiopians love to take their time conversing over coffee, and are always happy for an excuse to conduct a coffee ceremony. Mothers often make coffee twice a day for their families.
Meskerem burns incense as she roasts raw coffee beans on a round griddle called a metad. She crushes the beans with a mortar and pestle and adds them to the pot, called a jebena. Water is added to create a thick, dark brew which is poured into small cups (sini) and sweetened with sugar. Ethiopians historically seasoned their coffee with salt, butter, spices and honey until the Italians introduced sugar in the 1930s.
The process is repeated until everyone has had three cups. "Tell her 'Konjo buna,' " Hirut whispers. This means, "Good coffee." In this case the object is politeness, but in some areas, such as the province of Tigray in northern Ethiopia, the hostess might continue to serve guests cup after cup until they indicate they're satisfied.
The Italians in Ethiopia
The Italian presence in Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea dates back at least to the time of Emperor Menelik II. There is still a profusion of spaghetti in this African nation. Even traditional Ethiopian restaurants serve pasta, and spaghetti is quite common in home cooking.
We take in a late lunch at the Guenet Hotel, a sprawling complex with several dining rooms. The clock reads 7:15, but it's actually 1:15 p.m. The Ethiopians clock reads 12:00 at what we would call 6:00 a.m. Our spaghetti lunch starts with rolls of various shapes. These and other forms of Western-style bread are called dabo.
The spaghetti is presented with meat and tomato sauces on the side; restaurants often serve it with sauce already mixed in. The spicy, hot spaghetti sauce at the Guenet Hotel clearly contains a red pepper spice mix called berbere. In my experience, Ethiopian spaghetti sauce varies from tepid to fairly hot.
Italians still do business in Addis Ababa, and they're often sighted in the city's pizzerias. Some of these restaurants are not at all Ethiopian except for the artwork on the walls. Others have an Abyssinian slant, such as Pizza Deli Roma in the airport area, which serves a tasty pie topped with quanta, a spicy dried beef whose hardness challenges the teeth.
The Ethiopian diet revolves around injera. Almost two feet in diameter, this spongy, sourdough flat bread is used to scoop up morsels of food. A meal is typically served atop a round of injera. It’s even used as an ingredient in dishes, such as quanta fir fir, that are eaten with yet more injera.
Injera is primarily made from t'eff, a small, highly nutritious grain indigenous to the Ethiopian highlands. Three varieties of t'eff are used to make injera. The most expensive injera, nuch (white), is found in restaurants. Most common is bunnamma (brown). Cheapest is tukur (black). Most injera is made only from t'eff, although people might adulterate it with white sorghum or millet to economize.
Ethiopians buy whole t'eff at a store, called a wufchobet, which specializes in grains. The store grinds the t'eff into flour at the time of purchase. At home a person mixes the flour with water to make a batter that is put aside for two to three days, then mixed with boiling water and poured from a pitcher in a spiral onto a metad (griddle) placed over a burner. Injera is not turned during cooking, hence one side has large bubbles and the other is smooth. Injera can be bought in Addis Ababa, but most Ethiopians prefer homemade because it costs much less and is thought to be of higher quality.
Newly arrived Ethiopian immigrants seem universally to dislike American commercial injera. In time-crunched America, no one makes it from scratch. American injera is not as sour as the real thing. It contains a significant proportion of wheat, and the t'eff that's in it is domestically grown.
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