The Marvelous Pleasures of Ethiopian Food
I’m a closet foodie, something I admit with a somewhat guilty conscience given all of the hunger and food insecurity in the world. Nevertheless, as a closet foodie, my secret passion is Ethiopian cuisine. The fact that a country that has long been associated with recollections of famines has one of the most unique and flavorful cuisines is one of life’s strange ironies. (The Ethiopian famine was actually a side effect of political unrest. The country is food self-sufficient today.)
I was introduced to Ethiopian food in Boston, in the mid-1970s, by a friend who was from that country.
It was love at first taste.
We used to joke about my taking her home to meet my parents, just so I could say, “But, Mom, she’s Jewish” and she was, too. She was, in fact, much more observant than I was.
That restaurant is long gone, along with my Ethiopian friend, but I had an office in the middle of Central Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts from 1986 to 1996, in the same building as the Free Software Foundation. There were two Ethiopian restaurants within a two-block radius of my office, and I used to eat at them regularly for a period of ten years.
There is something ineffably unique about Ethiopian cuisine. If you have a well-educated palate (I grew up in New York, where it is impossible not to develop a well-educated palate if you want to have meaningful friendships or you want to get laid), then you will readily notice that there are elements of Indian, Persian and various Middle Eastern cuisines. Ethiopians use many of the same spices but they are blended together in ways that are also reminiscent of various Balkan cuisines….and Mexican chili sauces. There’s also an Italian element in Ethiopian cuisine, stemming from the Italian occupation of Ethiopia from 1935 to 1941. The 1935-1936 Italian-Ethiopian War was actually the first engagement in World War II between an Axis power and any other country, and therefore the actual beginning of World War II.
The fact that history doesn’t acknowledge that the Second World War really began in Ethiopia is part of an ongoing process through which Ethiopia simply never gets the acknowledgment the country deserves by virtue of its great antiquity. After all, scientists now believe that our remotest ancestors – the earliest iteration of modern human beings – were gestated in and spread out around the world from the place we now call Ethiopia. It is also the place where some people claim the Garden of Eden was located.
The heart and soul of Ethiopian cuisine is injera, a fermented-batter, carbonated flatbread made from teff flour with the texture of a firm but spongy pancake. Teff is an ancient grain and is in fact one of the most ancient of the ancient grains, having been cultivated in Ethiopia and Eretria for more than 6,000 years.
Injera is usually baked in huge cast-iron skillets (although flat griddles are also used) in clarified butter or vegetable oil, making the process more like frying a pancake than baking bread. The finished product has a winy, fermented taste and is used to both line the platters on which Ethiopian food is served, and as a utensil to scoop up the offerings on the platter. (You eat the underlying injera pancakes at the end of the meal, better than dessert.)
There have been numerous attempts to “improve” teff through bio-engineering, but the authentic grain – which is naturally gluten-free and very nutritious -is still widely available, and ir really doesn’t need improvement. In addition to being one of the first cultivated grains, it is the only grain that contains ALL of the amino acids, including the nine essential amino acids. putting it in the same class as quinoa. Like quinoa, it also features complete protein. You can literally live on this stuff.
Fair warning: Injera is highly addictive. If you like it on first taste, it will haunt you for the rest of your life. The bread is not widely available because it has a very short shelf life. While it is not carried in retail stores, it is available online but I haven’t yet tasted any mail order Injera. The only ways you are ever going to experience real Injera is by visiti9ng an Ethiopian restaurant or by baking it yourself…after fermenting the batter for as much as three or four days in a rather complex. failure-prone process.
Like Persian cuisine, Ethiopians make a lot of stewed dishes, with and without meat, with rich sauces and strong (but not burning hot) spices to flavor usually bland ingredients. Like Indian cuisine, Ethiopian cuisines are not complex mixtures of ingredients, and many dishes consist of only a single main ingredient. Lentils and beans are prominent in their diet but, unlike the Persians and the Indians, Ethiopia has no history of rice cultivation or consumption because their climate is not conducive to rice cultivation.
During the Ethiopian famine relief effort, there were stories about tons and tons of rice being left to rot on the docks because the inland transportation system was so poorly developed that there was no way to get the rice to the people. The only problems with that story are that (a) Ethiopia is a landlocked country and therefore has no docks and (b) Ethiopians were not accustomed to eating rice. The docks were actually in Eretria and Somalia, which stand between Ethiopia and the Red Sea, the Arabia Sea, and the Gulf of Aden, and are traditional enemies of the Ethiopians who once ruled them. The relief pallets were really flown into the country, but no one wanted the rice, at least at first.
Ethiopia has a strong religious-based vegetarian tradition, but meat, chicken, and fish are represented in their cuisines. (Since I don’t each fish, I can’t comment on that cuisine except to say that one should never eat fish more than 100 miles from an ocean.) Like Jews and Muslims, Ethiopians don’t eat pork and often don’t mix meat and milk.
Of course, it is impossible to describe the sensory experience of Ethiopian cuisine, but I will say that there is something pleasantly atavistic about dining on Ethiopian cuisine in the Ethio0pian manner, sitting around large platters filled with neatly separated mounds of a dozen different dishes, dipping your injera into each dish (with your right hand only) and letting the tastes roll over your tongue. It’s positively orgiastic.
That’s why we drove forty miles on Sunday afternoon to the Awash Ethiopian Restaurant in North Miami.. (Awash is an important river region in Ethiopia.)
We almost missed the place, although we have been there several times because we were approaching it from a different angle. Drove right by and right into a traffic jam caused by a major accident within sight of the Dolphin’s stadium. At first, I thought we had driven into game-day traffic. When I realized that the road was blocked, I u-turned out of there and started weaving around trying to find an underpass through the Florida Turnpike, when we drove right past the restaurant again.
Finally having connected with our dinner, we drove the forty miles back home, and then wolfed down the 10-course dinner in around ten minutes. We don’t talk much when we eat. We’re very serious about eating.
It was positively orgiastic, as previously predicted.
I had the leftovers – yes, there were leftovers – for breakfast today.
The second best breakfast I’ve ever had.
We’re already planning to do it again….real soon.
If you’re ever down in this neck of the woods, after the virus is over or we have all had our shots, I would be happy to take you to Awash for a celebratory repast. In Ethiopia, all meals are celebratory.
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