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January 14, 2008

Ethiopian Food Primer

The two women staffing the front desk at my hotel were eating when I came down to use the internet and shared their food with me. One fed me.

This is not so unusual. If you’ve eaten Ethiopian or Eritrean food (but don’t confuse the two, or you’ll surely upset someone), you know the gig: The staple of the Ethiopian diet is ingera, a flat, dense but bubbly ‘bread’ which is rather like a huge slightly sour pancake and is made from tef flour. Tef is a grain not unlike wheat, found only in this region of the world. And eating can be a very communal venture. The ingera is spread on a round platter and the main course goes on top of the ingera. You then break off pieces of the ingera and use them to scoop up the food on top—only with your right hand, mind you. It’s common to share a platter among several people, and if someone else in your group’s food comes before yours, they will offer up theirs to get you started until yours arrives. It’s not rude to accept. I love this.

The main courses vary a bit depending on day and religion. Ethiopian Orthodox Christians fast every Wednesday and Friday, and for the 40 days before Easter, and for a few days here and there besides. Fasting means no red meat, no poultry, and no dairy, and I think technically no food before a certain time of day (10? Noon? 3?), but some things just aren’t very practical in the field. On fasting days, there’s shiro (bean paste), lentils, other grains that look like lentils and are just as good, and, if you’re somewhere where you can get greens, greens. (Not many greens in Afar—they just don’t keep.) Oh—and ingera. I mean, in addition to the base ingera. You can have fir fir ingera, which is ingera soaked in vinegar and chopped up. You can also get pasta with a wonderful red sauce, spiced up with berberi, their staple spice, and *this* dish is actually usually served in a bowl, no ingera involved, *but* if you’re Ethiopian you may want to order this pasta served over ingera, and I’ve seen this more than once.

Meat dishes are usually spicy and rich. The pride of Ethiopia is doro watt, or chicken sauce, which takes a long time to prepare and follows some strict rules, like that the chicken is cooked in twelve pieces. One of my colleagues on the trip, when describing his ideal woman, said, “She must be able to prepare a very good doro watt.” In fact, I think it was the first thing he said. “What if there are only eleven pieces?” I asked. “Oooooohhh….” I was told that a husband will count the number of chicken pieces and if there are fewer than twelve, it means she is giving a little something away…like, more than just a piece of chicken, from what I understand.

But I’ve only had doro watt twice, so while it is the pride of Ethiopia and cooked for special occasions, it’s not exactly the most common fare. Much more common is tibs, which is chunks of red meat. Could be beef, could be sheep, could be goat. Some tibs are, for me, exquisite—tender and flavorful and moist and all around wonderful. Most tibs are, for me, not so exquisite—dry and chewy and fatty goat chunks. Still, that’s just me. Some people love all of them. Tibs are often served with a little pile of berberi (or something similar) beside the pile of meat, and you can dip your ingera and tips in this powder. Quite good.

Ingera. Some people love it, some people can’t stand it. If you’re Ethiopian, of course, you love it. My take on ingera: Yes, of course I like it! …Just not every day.

Posted by beth at January 14, 2008 8:48 PM

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