Business brings me once again to Ethiopia, but despite the long-haul journey, I can’t be mad: Along with work comes the pleasure of eating. I’m very lucky, indeed, to have another opportunity to explore the culture and cuisine of this fascinating country, and delve deeper into its customs, ingredients, and flavors, which are unlike any I’ve experienced.
Though Asian food is my forte, I see a close kin in the cuisine of this idiosyncratic East African nation. Typical Ethiopian spices include such familiar names as cardamom, cinnamon, chili powder, fenugreek, and
turmeric, (not to mention fresh herbs like rosemary and thyme) but also new ingredients such as Bishops’s weed, black cumin and pine cone. The omnipresent spice mixture, berbere, heavy on the chili powder, combines many of these flavors into a very distinctive masala, and even their spiced butter, Ye’teneter Kiba, employs such ingredients as fenugreek, fresh basil, garlic, ginger, and white fennel. The taste explosion on your tongue is mirrored by the whole aesthetic presentation–small colorful mounds of food arranged on a huge round bed of injera bread, similar to a painter’s palette. Served on a lidded basket table called a mesob, the communal practice of eating off the same plate with your hands further enhances the dining experience.
After a morning landing, I looked forward to my first Ethiopian breakfast of the trip. Luckily, our hotel, The Intercontinental Addis Ababa served up a pretty tasty menu of ‘national food’ as they refer to the local fare. So here I am feasting on some stewed red lentils; doro wat (chicken curry); fried lamb, called “tibs;” and beet and cabbage; served with plenty of spongy, sour injera bread that is made with a sourdough starter and fermented for 2-3 days. If you don’t like this bread, you’re in trouble, because it’s usually accompanies every meal. Made of teff flour, a grass native to Ethiopia, injera is gluten free (because it’s not a grain) and supposedly highly nutritious. I’ve eaten injera at Ethiopian restaurants in the U.S., but it tastes so much better here–maybe because they actually use teff and not wheat as they do in the States. Of the different shades of injera, I prefer the darker one.
Being a predominantly Christian nation (since the 4th century AD) that follows the Eastern Orthodox church, Ethiopians take their religious holidays very seriously. I happened to be here in the week leading up to Easter and discovered that people actually fast for 2 months before this important holiday. ‘Fasting food,’ which is entirely vegan–made without any animal products–is eaten only once a day by those observing the fast. Though you can still get meat dishes at hotels and certain restaurants that cater to foreigners, the fasting menu is a natural feast not to be missed. Even the most hardened carnivore would be surprised at how much they enjoyed this meatless fare. Four of us ate lunch at a local place that served gommen (collard greens), yeatakilt wat (cabbage and potatoes), yedubba wat (pumpkin stew), and yesimir wat (hot split lentil stew), and the bill came to 145 birr (or about US $8.50).
Outside of religious holidays, however, I think Ethiopians enjoy their beef, lamb, chicken and goat, of which there was plenty of as well. They also enjoy a little entertainment with their meal, and Addis Ababa has no shortage of cultural restaurants featuring traditional song and dance along with the food. While this may initially seem as appealing as going to a ‘Medieval Times’ style restaurant in the U.S., traditional Ethiopian music and dance is actually good. Having a bite and a St. George’s beer or tej, the local honey wine, while you groove to the sounds and marvel at the agile dancers makes for a memorable dining experience.
Of course, you can’t finish a meal without coffee, for which Ethiopia has been known since antiquity. In fact, did you know that all coffee originated in the Kaffa region of Ethiopia (hence the etymology of the word: kaffa=coffee)? Located southwest of the capital, the Kaffa region is known for heavy agriculture, and coffee beans have been cultivated there since the 9th century AD. Much like the Japanese penchant for celebrating green tea, Ethiopians have an very involved coffee ceremony, lasting about 2 hours, which involves roasting the raw beans, brewing the beverage, and then serving it with popcorn and side of smoking frankincense.
Ethiopian food is so good I could probably eat it every day, but being a person who appreciates variety, I also had to check out what else Addis had to offer. It’s proximity to the Middle East makes Arab food a logical choice and when I discovered the Sana’a Yemeni restaurant, I had to give it a go. Located near a mosque, Sana’a is popular with the Muslim crowd, and while neither a hole-in-the-wall kind of place nor fancy, the great food speaks for itself.
We arrived just prior to the lunch rush, which was a good idea because the place filled up fast. It was kind of surreal to see the street protests in Yemen, live, on the big screen TV, as we ordered the Sana’a special, which consisted of a big plate of lamb and fragrant rice; a salad of tomatoes and onions; a bread halfway between nan and pita; and an excellent lamb broth for starters. The hunks of lamb meat were tender and falling off the bone, and came with two types of gravy, mild and moderately spicy. Rice was a nice change from the ubiquitous injera bread, and, we, of course, dug in with our hands. The food was not particularly spiced but simply prepared and delicious.
Speaking of lamb, it is not out of the ordinary to see huge flocks herded through the streets of downtown Addis. Due to the Easter holiday, however, you tended to see them on practically every corner. And chickens. Fasika, or Easter, it turns out is a major holiday for Orthodox Christians, and to celebrate and break the two month fast leading up to it, Ethiopians prepare their national dish, doro wat, a chicken stew (really a curry) made with copious amounts of onion, garlic, spiced butter, and berbere; as well as the traditional lamb. Instead of popping into the local supermarket and getting a cleaned, packaged Purdue special, however, Ethiopians, one and all, prefer buying the live bird and dispatching it themselves (or paying someone else to do it) when they get home. The same goes with the lamb. While some might have issues with this wholesale genocide of livestock, at least it impresses upon you the source of your food, which is definitely not some hormone-injected, assembly line-killed, shrink-wrapped hunk of dead flesh. No, these are live animals, who are giving up their lives for our sustenance, and killing them as humanely as possible and using all of their parts is a far better way to go than what I’ve seen in the movie Food Inc. Initially, I thought I wanted to be there when the animals I ate were dispatched, but I made the mistake of seeing our lamb the day before and kind of bonding with him, so I showed up just for the eating part. But a memorable feast it was.
I’d like to extend a special thanks to Ejigayhu “Gigi” Shibabaw and her family for inviting me to their home for Easter and sharing their customs and great food.
For more information about GiGi, check out this link: