….whatever I can get my grubby little hands on.
In the beginning, this wasn’t a problem as, if you’ll forgive me for saying so, I was barely able to retain any of it. I enjoyed guilt-free double helpings of spaghetti, nightly, safe in the knowledge that some gastric upset or other later in the week would purge me of the unnecessary calories. In spite of my own super-human efforts at carb-loading and the default mechanism of every Ethiopian I came in contact with to overfeed me, I lost around a stone weight.
Presently, my stomach seems to have settled down and I am now running what at first must seem like the unlikely risk of becoming overweight in Ethiopia; a country (sadly) synonymous all around the world with famine.
So, how do I do it?! Below: the A-Z of my Ethiopian diet! My weight gain secrets revealed!
Avocados– Avocados of varying quality can be had all year round. Good for my weight gain as they are apparently fifty per cent fat (and one hundred percent delicious). A is also for Apple as we all know. I’d love a big, juicy, crisp, clean apple but we just can’t get them here. They can be got in the bigger cities, for a price. Ethiopian apples I have seen occasionally and they are like very tiny crab apples. Not very satisfying.
Berbere– This spice is ubiquitous in Ethiopian cooking. You can buy it in the shops but most ladies take pride in making their own special blend. The main ingredient sun dried green peppers which interestingly turn red in the heat. These are dried outdoors for days and mixed with other secret ingredients before being painstakingly ground by hand into the finished spice.
There are also many small mills in the town where women can get whole foods ground. When I moved in, the women in the compound quickly set giving me unwanted cooking advice. Generally, they suggested the addition of a little berbere to every dish. Nine months in and I can say I have truly assimilated as I now put berbere on just about everything. My favourite thing is popcorn covered with loads of it.
Bread– The short lived Italian occupation of Ethiopia had few lasting effects except perhaps in culinary terms. Pasta, coffee machines and confectionary are common even in the smallest towns. Any cakes I have tasted in Ethiopia are an absolute abomination but the bread, well that’s a different story altogether. The bread is sublime. Ambesha is the type of local bread which is also good. It is notable for its giantism. At any and all events the women will have whipped up a comically oversized round of this doughy bread which is then cut into large chunks by the visiting dignitary (sometimes me!).
Bananas- Available all year round and much tastier than the ones at home. I have one every day with breakfast.
Cinnamon, cloves and cardamom– These three spices are used to flavour tea here. The very small glass of tea is enjoyed without milk and with lots and lots of sugar. The spices can be bought whole at the market for a pittance and curiously they are packaged in pages torn from old school textbooks or exercise copies. Very “vintage” as we might say at home.
Coffee Ceremony- The word ceremony has connotations of a stiff, formal event when in reality most Ethiopians will hold a coffee ceremony as soon as look at you.
That is not to say it is a quick process or indeed that there is no ceremony to it. The fresh green coffee beans are first washed, then roasted, then ground by hand and then the coffee is brewed. It is served in tiny cups with so much sugar. You must drink three cups. The cups and saucers are usually washed in between each serving. The floor is spread with either fake or real grass, and incense of the kind used in the Catholic Church is wafted through the room. This brings me right back to St. Mary’s every time I smell it. It really is a lovely experience.
Doro wot- Favourite food of Ethiopians everywhere? Doro wot is chicken stew. The chicken is cooked in a very spicy berbere sauce for hours on end and served with boiled eggs on injera. (Having both the eggs and the chicken meat from whence they came in the same dish confuses me somewhat and would probably make a vegetarian cry).
Eggs– There are two types of eggs, as there are two types of chicken. Habesha and ferenj. Habesha chickens and their eggs are smaller- you could fit 6 or 7 of them in your hand- but they are far more delicious.
Foie gras– Did you ever see a picture of them force feeding a duck to make his liver fatty? It’s horrendous stuff. They shove a funnel down his throat and just pour the food down while the duck is helpless to stop it. I empathise with that duck. The neighbours last weekend admitted that they are actively trying to fatten me so my family doesn’t think I’m too thin. (…hopefully they’re not after my liver too?).
Gunfo– If someone suggests to you that you should eat some gunfo while in Ethiopia, tell them “it is against my religion” and then add very quietly under your breath “to eat something so heinous”.
NEVER BEFORE have I been subjected to such a crime against the senses. When I inquired as to what gunfo was the neighbours said, “Porridge?” Oh goodie, I thought, porridge!
Gunfo is NOT porridge, it never was porridge, it never will be porridge. What gunfo is is, a hot, uncooked, moist, flavourless dough served with a well of hot, melted, rancid, spiced butter by way of accompaniment. I wish I could erase it from my memory!
Apparently women who have just given birth are fed gunfo night and day to help get them back to their former strength. I think this is unwise given the fragile state of new mothers. Subjecting new mothers to gunfo might lead them to question whether there can be any future for their new born child in a world cruel enough to have invented gunfo.
I include a picture below. For your own safety, please take note and be on your guard. If you see gunfo in your area, please inform the responsible persons.
It looks like an evil eye- it IS evil.
Goorsha- Goorsha is at once, a sign of love, and a most terrifying prospect. My first experience of goorsha was at a male colleague’s house for lunch. There I was minding my own business when, whatever move I made, his hand was inside in my mouth! Feeding one another is a common sign of affection here between friends of both sexes. If, like me, you are against this kind of thing (affection) you should keep an eagle eye on your dining partner at all times. If you see them rounding up the tastiest morsels on the plate and crafting them into a little mound, tell an adult! It is more than likely the case that they are just about to shove it down your throat.
Injera– If it is possible to describe to someone what injera is like without them ever having experienced it, I will try here.
Injera is like a warm, damp, grey cloth. It is both spongy and chewy in texture and has a mild but tart aftertaste reminiscent of marmite. It is made from a self-fermenting grain called “teff”. And it is dangerously addictive. (You have been warned!)
Injera is round and usually served flat with accompanying “wots”; stews made of lentils and spices. No cutlery is used at meal times in Ethiopia and usually everyone eats from the same large serving plate. The eating of everything is managed by hand, using the injera as a scoop or mop. When I first saw this, I thought it was barbaric, but now that I am used to it, I see a certain poignancy in the way foreigners eat from separate plates.
Most wealthier Ethiopians have a pot belly, not because they are malnourished, but because they love injera. Even an otherwise very thin person can have a large pot belly. People eat injera for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
One of my favourite dishes is “Injera firfir”, where the injera is torn up into little strips, mixed with a little sauce and served in…another injera. Injera with injera, if you will. (It may not surprise you to learn at this stage that I too have an injera belly.)
I is also for invitations. There is nothing Ethiopian people love more than “inviting you”. If I had a penny for every time I have heard the phrase, “It is me to invite you” I would be a rich woman.
Juice is one of my favourite Ethiopian foods. It’s not so much juice as it is a fruit purée and it is generally eaten with a long spoon. With the squeeze of a lime on top, níl a sárú ann. I don’t know where they got the idea from or if they have been making these heavenly juices since the year dot but they are just that, heavenly. The juice is served in layers. Anything can be juiced but avocado and mango is my juice of choice. Having said that, if you’ve never tasted a guava fruit, put down whatever it is you are doing now and fly to the nearest country where they are in season. For me, it was love at first bite.
Kitfo and Coort – Coort and Kitfo are considered to be delicacies in Ethiopia. Coort is chunks of bloody, juicy, raw meat which is cut into very thin slices and dipped in spice/sauce before being eaten…raw. Please see stomach churning picture below of a friend’s lunch.
If coort is bad, I think kitfo is worse. It is raw minced meat sometimes mixed with herbs, spices, butter etc before being eaten…raw. I once accidentally ate a mouthful of kitfo. By the time I realised this, it was too late and the sensation and texture of the cold, raw mince meat against the inside of my mouth is something I am unlikely to forget.
Most Ethiopians love meat but most Ethiopians spend most of the year fasting from it. Orthodox Christians fast for a large portion of the year, for months at a time in fact. Easter is the most important time of the year and the fast is held for fifty consecutive days. You can imagine that by the end of this period, the psychological impact alone of being denied all meat and dairy products in a country of self-confessed carnivores is palpable.
Those with money enough to buy it gorge on meat once the lengthy fasting season is over. Over-excitement on the eve of the breaking of this tremendous fast led one of my Ethiopian facebook friends to post this picture below to wish us all a happy easter. Call me a traditionalist but I would have rathered a picture of a lamb frolicking in a meadow or a daffodil. Happy Easter everybody! Uuugh.
Lentils– These form the basis of some “wots”.
I can’t be bothered to cook lentils as it involves washing them, picking the stones out of them and boiling them. They are delicious though particularly so in samboosas (local name for a samosa). Sometimes the neighbours knock on the door in the evening after I’ve had my dinner with a few of these bad boys. Or with “cookies”; deep fried bits of dough. The “cookies” are not great but the samboosas, I can never say no to. During Ramadan they came in the evenings with offerings of dates, as the Prophet is said to have broken his fast with them.
Milk- I only have powdered milk. The grazing is not good enough here and the cows not in a healthy enough condition to be producing enough for a fresh milk industry. Little boys of the neighbourhood do collect fresh milk in the mornings for their families from a “shop” nearby. They come back with little half-litre stainless steel canisters of it. As yet I am too frightened to chance this unrefrigerated, unpasteurised milk but as I am a bit of a hippy, it will probably only be a matter of time before I do.
Mint– It was pathetic how overjoyed I was to discover a patch of mint growing up through a crag in the concrete outside a local volunteer’s house. It’s the little things like this that make my food life a little less mundane here, that and stocking up on foreign food whenever I’m in Addis.
Oranges– The same the world over; sometimes they taste like oranges, sometimes they taste of absolutely nothing. Why?
Potatoes– They’ve got spuds! They’re no “guaranteed-balls-of-flour” but they’ll do. Those light skinned, soapy ones.
Q is for Queen
Red onions- Onions are red here, there are no white onions. The word for onion in Amharic can be translated as “red onion” and the word for garlic can be translated as “white onion”. That’s all you need to know about onions J
Shorba– When I asked the neighbours what shorba was they said, “Soup?” Oh goodie, I thought, soup! Shorba however is not soup. It is a local grain akin to our porridge which is cooked in far too much water until the liquid attains a glue-like consistency. The broth is heavily seasoned with both salt and sugar which inevitably reminds one’s palate of a crude homemade rehydration solution for diarrhoea and as soon as you have made that connection, to continue eating it is impossible. I won’t have shorba again.
Sugar– Ethiopians are addicted to sugar- there are no two ways about it. Tea and coffee are a very important part of Ethiopian culture and both are served with far too much sugar. In one tiny serving of tea there may be 5 teaspoons of sugar. Seriously! Despite the fact that so much sugar cane is grown here, there are occasional sugar shortages in Ethiopia which put everyone in a black humour. Before a recent trip to Addis, I innocently inquired of the neighbours, “Do ye want anything brought back?” The reply came, “Oh God, we do, yes, could you bring us back fourteen kilos of sugar please? Here’s the money”. They weren’t joking! I asked Abebu how much sugar she used a month and she quoted me 5 kilos!!!
Tomatoes– “In the beginning; there was the word”. And tomatoes. When I arrived first and for a long time afterwards all we could get with any regularity was tomatoes. I ate spaghetti with homemade tomato sauce every night. I said EVERY night. Then, one dark, dark day, the tomatoes went bad. They had black spots on them which invaded and destroyed the lovely fleshy inside bits too. When the tomatoes went bad I thought I’d have to be checked into a rehab. Somehow I managed, difficult as it was, and now the tomatoes are back and they are a delight! So shiny and juicy and plump! Welcome home my dear sweet friends. My weekly intake is back up to one and a half kilos. If anyone reading this knows of any identified dangers of eating too many tomatoes they really should let me know, thanks!
Vegetables– At some times of the year it seems like tomatoes and onions are all I have to work with. At other times the market may have a quick little flourish and you can get cabbage, beetroot, carrots, potatoes, corn-on-the-cob and lettuce.
Water– No comment.
X is for Xylophone.
Yoghurt– There is no yoghurt.
Zeitun– Amharic for guava. Code for nectar of the Gods.
And there you have it folks! The A-Z of my Ethiopian diet 😀