Ethiopia’s Potent Potables

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HOW DO YOU SAY ለጤናችን IN ETHIOPIA?

Oh, OK, it’s a trick question: That is how you say it. The word letenachin means “to our health,” and it’s the Amharic equivalent of skål, prost, salud, auguryo, zivjeli, sláinte, kippis, noroc and на здоровье. Or, in English, “Cheers!” – or maybe even, “Here’s mud in your eye.”

But what should you put in your glass when you raise it to make an Ethiopian toast?

Ethiopians have a few traditional alcohol drinks that go back thousands of years, and different cultures across Ethiopia use fermented honey and grains in different ways to create the diverse culture’s potent potables. There’s also a thriving commercial alcohol industry that makes and exports beer, wine and liquor.

Food and t'ej in Ethiopia

Food and t’ej in Ethiopia

The drink most widely known around the world is t’ej, the ancient mead, and perhaps the most ubiquitous drink in Ethiopia itself is t’alla, a traditional beer. Most people make these at home, but a few wineries in Ethiopia – and many around the world, especially in the United States – make t’ej. I know of no U.S. company that makes t’alla, perhaps because it’s much more of an acquired taste, although I’ve visited a few restaurants that make their own.

There are virtually no restrictions on the sale or consumption of alcohol in Ethiopia, according to the World Health Organization. You need no license to make it, no license to sell it, and you can drink it almost anywhere and any time. You can advertise it freely, too, although the government does restrict ads for spirits – but not wine and beer – on TV and radio.

And if you’re lucky, your potent potable will give you betam teru moqta, or “very good heat” – that is, a nice buzz.

Let’s take a look at some of the most common homemade alcoholic drinks in Ethiopia, followed by a look at commercially made wines, beers and liquors. Many of these beverages have been widely studied by Ethiopian scientists, and these notes merely offer an introduction.

T’ej. Nobody can document for certain when Ethiopians began to make t’ej. We know that gesho, the species of buckthorn that provokes fermentation and adds flavor, is native to Ethiopia, and that excavations at Aksum – the ancient culture of northern Ethiopia and southern Eritrea – have found remnants of gesho and writing that mentions honey wine in the third century A.D. This confirms that t’ej is at least nearly 2,000 years old. This earliest written record of t’ej was found in 1962 by the Dutch archaeologist A.J. Drewes when he translated some writing in stone, which he dates to the middle of the third century A.D.

Accounts from as early as the 16th Century, when European exploration of Ethiopia began in earnest, copiously document the presence of this special honey wine. These historic chronicles offer many sweet tidbits about t’ej: its production and consumption, and its place in Ethiopian society. Once a drink of emperors and kings, it’s now enjoyed by anyone who can afford the honey and gesho to make it. Some cultures in Ethiopia even use t’ej as a sort of sacramental wine in their religious practices, with the task of making it falling on a young man in the community.

Bereles for sale at a Virginia market

Bereles for sale at a Virginia market

T’ej is easy to make at home, and I’ve created a tutorial about how to do it. I’ve also created a separate website with a lot more information about t’ej. In Ethiopia, you’ll often drink t’ej at a t’ej bet (“house”), a bar that specializes in the popular drink.

Ethiopians drink t’ej from a berele, a flask-like vessel with a round bottom and a long neck with a hole at the top. This allows you to put your thumb over the hole when you’re not drinking to keep insects from getting into your sweet liquid. The berele seems to be only several hundred years old in the culture, and before that, Ethiopians drank from cow horns. Some isolated cultures in Ethiopia still do this today.

And by the way, “honey wine” has many different names in the 90 or so languages spoken across Ethiopia. T’ej is merely the name in Amharic: It’s mes in Tigrinya and daadii in Afaan Oromo. Many of these meads are made the same way, but from culture to culture, you may find gesho replaced by different fermenting and flavoring agents. For example, the Majangir people call their honey wine ogool and use the bark of the mange tree rather than gesho.

T’alla. This is the Amharic name for homemade Ethiopian beer, called farsoo in Afaan Oromo and sawa (or suwa) in Tigrinya. But it’s not like any beer you’re likely to find in America, even the stuff you might make in your basement.

A t'alla bet in Ethiopia

A t’alla bet in Ethiopia

You make t’alla by blending water with barley flour, wheat “berries” (whole wheat kernels), and gesho leaves or powder, as opposed to the gesho sticks and branches used for t’ej. You put the gesho into water for several days, put the wheat berries into a different container of water for several days and let them sprout, bake the sprouting berries until they get a bit crispy, add the wheat berries to the water with the gesho, turn the barley flour into a batter, bake it until it begins to dry a little, crumble it up, add it to the other stuff in the liquid, and then, hope it ferments and turns into beer – and not into a big horrible sopping mess, as it has more often than not for me.

In his 1991 study of t’alla, the Ethiopian researcher Samuel Sahla says that “every housewife has her own version of the recipe.” Women will clean the fermentation vats with the leaves of the grawa plant (Vernonia amygdalina) and smoke the vats with weira (the wood of olive trees, Ofee europaea). Fermentation happens in several stages, Samuel found, taking a new direction each time you add more ingredients, and finally reaching an alcohol content of between 2 and 8 percent. “The color of t’alla is determined by the housewife preparing it,” he writes, and the process takes between five and 15 days.

Making t’alla is almost exclusively the responsibility of women in Ethiopian homes and villages. An Ethiopian woman can sometimes make income from selling her t’alla and even own and operate a t’alla bet (just like the t’ej bet, only for t’alla). A pole with a can or other object on top indicates the presence of such a place (see photo above). Kerari is a milder type of t’alla, made by adding water at the end of the fermentation process. Ethiopians might let their children drink kerari before they’re old enough for the stronger stuff.

Amene Afework wrote a 2011 dissertation on t’alla and katikala (which we’ll get to in a moment) at Addis Ababa University. “These alcoholic drinks were previously prepared for home-based drinks and to colorfully celebrate cultural holidays,” he writes, “but the current economic hardship together with other factors forced women to use it as a commercial item. Most of the operators are in the productive age groups, illiterate, migrants and were housewives.” They go into this line of work, he found, because of economic need, divorce, lack of education and widowhood.

Making t'alla in Ethiopia (drawing and photograph)

Making t’alla in Ethiopia (drawing and photograph)

The different cultures of Ethiopia all have their own names for their fermented beer-like beverages, many of which resemble t’alla with their thick, foamy, beer-like qualities. The alcohol content of these drinks is often very low, sometimes only fermenting overnight, and some cultures use them as food because of the grains that go into making them.

Borde, for example, is “an opaque, effervescent, whitish-grey to brown-colored beverage with a thick consistency and sweet-sour taste,” writes the researcher Kebede Abegaz, describing what sounds a lot like t’alla, as does his recipe, which includes a variety of grains, as well as grawa and weira. Shamita, too, begins with roasted barley, some linseed oil, a few spices and water. The people of the Begemder region call their beer-like drink korefe.

Katikala. You might call this the Ethiopian vodka: It’s clear, and it goes well with a mixer – although Ethiopians will happily drink it straight up. It’s made with largely the same ingredients as t’alla: water, gesho, germinated barley or wheat berries, and a meal or batter of some type of grain. But unlike t’alla, this is distilled, so it’s essentially a grain alcohol.

“In the villages,” wrote the scholar Ruth Selinus in 1971, “distillation is carried out with primitive equipment made of gourds and wood. Katikala is brewed in rural and semi-urban areas and is used by more commonly by farmers and semi-urban dwellers than by people who live in the cities. In cities, those who drink katikala are predominantly lower-class people or those who have become dependent upon alcohol and cannot afford to buy industrially produced alcohol.”

Endalew Addis wrote a 2007 dissertation on katikala in Ethiopia, finding that “katikala production and consumption has both benefits and problems. Some of the benefits are income generating and employment creation. On the other hand, katikala production has problems such as health problems mainly due to indoor air pollution, and poor educational performance of students or school drop out because of time competition and high labor demand. It was also found that katikala consumption has benefits to colorfully celebrate cultural festivals, and problems such as poverty, unemployment, family disorganization, and crimes and accidents.”

Traditional katikala production in Ethiopia, and modern production in Germany

Traditional katikala production in Ethiopia, and modern production in Germany

Other studies have found that distilling katikala in traditional ways, using wood-fueled stoves, exposes both people and the environment to harmful byproducts. Using wood to make katikala also contributes to the ongoing depletion of Ethiopian forests.

Commercial distilleries in Ethiopia don’t make katikala, so good luck finding any outside of Ethiopia – unless you live in Germany. Wilhelmine Stordiau of Frankfurt makes three varieties of Begena Tedj, which she sells in Europe and Canada, and she recently brought a katikala to market, the first such product I can find in the western world. Her katilaka is 42 percent alcohol, thus 84 proof.

Araqe. Once again we have an alcohol made with water, grains and gesho leaf or powder (just like the gesho in t’alla). But with araqe, you add various flavoring agents, and you end up with, more or less, an Ethiopian ouzo. In fact, most Ethiopians will use the name katikala and araqe interchangeable. The difference is the flavoring – and also the fact that several distilleries bottle araqe for commercial sale. With katikala, it’s always homebrew. Put another way: All araqe is katikala, but not all katikala is araqe.

Commercial areqe from Ethiopia

Commercial araqe from Ethiopia

The scholar Jon Abbink, in the Encyclopaedia Aethiopica, says that “the distillation process, yielding strong liquors like areqe, is a recent innovation, probably imported from abroad, or copied from resident Greeks or Armenians, during Menilek II’s reign.” That put it around the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Yeraswork Admassie and Yezana Amdework confirm this, and much more, in their 2010 book The Aräqe Dilemma, which explores the production, marketing and consumption of traditional distilled alcohol in Ethiopia. They say that araqe “is a ubiquitous feature of present-day Ethiopian society” and “more than the alcoholic drink of choice for people living in rural and small towns of Ethiopia [because] its popularity is on the rise even in the big towns and cities.”

Fresh from the home distillery, araqe is “pure spirit with a neutral taste and clear, colorless appearance,” the authors say. “Only when laced with flavoring and coloring compounds such as gibt’o, kosso flower and honey – before, during or after distillation – does it acquire a variety of positive tastes.” Gibt’o is the Amharic word for a flowering plant we call the white lupin, and kosso is a leaf that Ethiopians chew to kill tapeworms. Ethiopians roast the gibt’o seeds to remove the bitterness and then use them to flavor their araqe. They also might roast the gibt’o and eat them as a snack with alcoholic drinks, and some cultures even use gibt’o to make shiro. At restaurants where they serve araqe, you might find it flavored with coffee, milk, mint or lemon, among other things.

The alcohol content of araqe differs, of course, based upon who makes it and how long the maker lets it ferment and distill. It’s often around 30 percent, but some people will distill their araqe a second time, producing dagim araqe. It has a higher alcohol content, sometimes as high as 50 percent or more.

Although Ethiopians make araqe in traditional ways at home, some commercial distilleries have brought it to market. Pictured above, on the right, is a bottle of a brand from the Ethiopian liquor manufacturer National: In English, the bottle calls it “Double Ouzo,” but the Amharic above that says “double araqe.” The liquor has the aroma of anise, which is used to flavor traditional ouzo, but the bottle doesn’t list the liquor’s flavoring agents. It’s 43 percent alcohol, thus 86 proof. You can click the image of the bottle to get a closer look: The label pictures two moose, and in Ethiopia, this araqe is nicknamed enat ena lij – that is, “mother and child.” National makes about a dozen kinds of alcohol – including gin, brandy, and flavored liquors – and recently expanded its nearly century-old Addis Ababa facility.

Ethiopian companies make many beers and wines that they export around the world.

Ethiopian companies make many beers and wines that they export around the world.

Ethiopian Wines, Beers and Liquors. When you visit an Ethiopian restaurant in America, you can usually enjoy your meal with a variety of Ethiopian-made chabsi (alcohol). The country now exports a variety of beers, wines and liquor, and a growing number of Ethiopian-American businessmen – on the east coast, west cost and Midwest – distribute these products nationwide.

Ethiopian beers have become increasingly available in restaurants around the country. The brands you’ll find are Harar, Meta, Bedele, St. George, St. George Amber, Castel, Bati, Hakim Stout and Dashen. Occasionally you’ll also find Addis, an American-made brew that presents itself as “genuine Ethiopian-style lager beer.”

But Ethiopian beers taste pretty much like their American commercial counterparts – which, of course, tend to taste like one another. Hakim Stout is a dark ale – a “peculiar,” as the British call it – and the others are solid lagers. Personally, I like Dashen, which has a hint of sweetness to it that the others don’t have.

Several companies, all very competitive these days, dominate Ethiopia’s beer market.

Desta makes a variety of liquors sold in Ethiopia

Desta makes a variety of liquors sold in Ethiopia

BGI Ethiopia owns the St. George (4.5 percent alcohol by volume), Castel (5 percent abv) and Bati (4.5 percent abv) brands, so it can trace its origins (before many corporate mergers) back to 1922, when St. George appeared. Meta Abo Brewery, founded in 1963, and now owned by the British company Diageo (which makes Johnnie Walker and Captain Morgan), produces the well-established Meta (5 percent abv), on the market since 1967.

Harar Brewery, launched in 1984, and now owned by Heineken, makes Harar (4.25 percent abv), Hakim Stout (5.8 percent abv), and the non-alcoholic Harar Sofi. Bedele Brewery has made Bedele and Bedele Special (4.25 to 4.5 percent abv) since its founding in 1993. The country’s youngest beer, Dashen (4.5 percent abv), arrived in 2000, and it’s made in Gondar, the country’s capital for more than 200 years until the mid-19th Century. Eritrean restaurants in America often serve Asmara (5 percent ABV), a beer made in its namesake Eritrean capital since 1939, although it began its life as Melotti, named for its Italian colonial founder. New Eritrea Restaurant in San Francisco has promotional cards under its glass tabletops that boast: “We proudly serve the Eritrean King of Beers.”

BGI and its products hold 42 percent of the market share, according to a recent sector report, with the newest brewer, Dashen, coming in second at 21 percent. “Despite a sharp increase in recent years,” the report says, “per capita beer consumption in Ethiopia is still only a fraction of the level seen in neighboring African countries.” The average is four liters per person, compared with 59 liters per person in South Africa. This is no doubt because Ethiopians have such a long tradition of making and drinking homemade beverages like t’ej and t’alla. Still, the growth of the Ethiopian beer industry has been good for barley farmers, who have seen prices rise for their harvests.

As for who drinks these beers here in America, restaurant owners tell me that it’s mostly non-Ethiopians who want the full experience when they dine out. They cite a few reasons for this. Ethiopian-Americans who drink beer in restaurants can be snobbish about drinking Ethiopian beer because they feel they know it too well. “When you have gold,” Denekew Getahun, who distributes Ethiopian beer from Chicago, told me, “you tend to think it’s silver or brass.”

Nega Selassie, the co-owner of NTS Enterprises in Oakland, Calif., guesses that Americans down nine out of 10 bottles of Ethiopian brew sold in U.S restaurants. Ethiopians are more likely to choose Heineken or Guinness, and Nega thinks he knows why. “They feel proud to drink foreign beer,” he says. “It’s the mentality.”

Liquors made by National,  an Ethiopian company

Liquors made by National,
an Ethiopian company

The Ethiopian commercial wine industry is – at least for now – pretty much all in the hands of Awash Wineries, a company founded in 1943 and owned by the government for many years until it went private in 2013. The new owners are two companies: Blue Nile, which is Ethiopian, and 8 Miles, a private European investment firm that focuses on helping Africa and whose chairman of the board is the charitable musician Bob Geldof.

Awash makes most of the Ethiopian wines you’ll find in restaurants around the U.S.: the dry red wine Gouder, probably the best bet for American palates; the semi-dry (or semi-sweet) reds, Dukam and Axumit; and two white wines, the dry Awash Crystal and the medium dry Kemila. They’re all around 11.5 percent alcohol.

In 2008, the French company Castel bought some land south of Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, imported vines from Bordeaux, and began an initiative to produce some new brands of Ethiopian-made wines. The company uses Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah grapes for its red wines and Chardonnay for white wines.

Castel began marketing two lines of wine this year: Rift Valley Cuvee and Acacia Cuvee Prestige. The Rift Valley line will offer a Syrah, a Merlot, a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Chardonnay. The Acacia line will offer a dry red, a medium sweet red and a medium sweet white. The company plans to export about half of its product and to sell the rest domestically.

At least two brands of commercial t’ej exist today in Ethiopia: Nigest (“Queen”) Honey Wine, made by Awash Winery; and Tizeta (“Memory”) Tej, produced by an Ethiopian man who lived in Canada and returned home to begin his winemaking enterprise. Tizeta Tej isn’t available in America. Nigest Honey Wine is, distributed on the east coast by an Ethiopian-American businessman in the Washington, D.C., area. But Americans sometimes find its taste to be too sharp, so he can’t get too many Ethiopian restaurants to carry it.

Castel's new line of Ethiopian-made wines

Castel’s new line of Ethiopian-made wines

Zerihun Bekele of Alem Ethiopian Village, a restaurant in Milwaukee, Wisc., confirms this: He once sold Nigest Honey Wine but doesn’t any more because his customers favor the American-made brands of t’ej that he also sells (he lists Enat, made at a California winery, on the menu).

At least a dozen companies – among them National, Desta and Balezaf – make a wide selection of hard liquors in Ethiopia, although production is sometimes hampered by shortages of ingredients. Finding these alcohols in America is next to impossible, even at Ethiopian restaurants, where beer and wine imports from Ethiopia dominate the menu. From time to time, especially at Eritrean restaurants, you’ll find Zibib, an Eritrean-made ouzo that tastes like National’s araqe.

One of the more unusual enterprises is Abyssinia Vodka, made and sold in Ethiopia for a number of years, and now on the verge of export to America. There’s nothing especially “Ethiopian” about it, and Henok Yitbarek, the company’s owner in Ethiopia, says it’s based on a Russian recipe.

“According to history,” the website explains, “Ethiopia’s legendary kings enjoyed homemade traditional vodka since the Aksumite civilization, and the wise monks used it for medical purposes.” The modern product dates back decades, but the distillers began selling its brand commercially in 1996. The company claims it’s “100% hangover free,” which is pretty good, considering it’s 80 proof.

Henok is the son of Yitbarek Alemu, an Ethiopian chemist who created the recipe for the Meskerem beverage company in Ethiopia. The vodka company’s website says that Henok acquired ownership of Abyssinia vodka after buying the recipe from Meskerem and “adding the original family recipe.”

Henok tells me that he’s working with an Ethiopian-American in Washington, D.C., to begin selling the vodka in the U.S.

T’ej in America. Although I recommend making your own t’ej to enjoy with your Ethiopian meal in America, I know that’s not always practical and often impossible. So it’s a good thing that you can almost always find American-made winery t’ej at Ethiopian restaurants across the country.

Araya Yibrehu co-owned Sheba, New York’s first Ethiopian restaurant, which opened in 1979, and more than a decade later, he pioneered the making of commercial t’ej in America. Born and raised in Ethiopia, he now owns Heritage Winery, located in New York City, and makes Axum Tej, along with several other varieties that you can buy in New York, Washington and other east coast cities.

Newer to the scene is Ayele Solomon, who just launched a honey wine called Bee d’Vine. Ayele doesn’t call it t’ej on the label, but he’s a native of Ethiopia (now a Californian), and the heart of his wine is Ethiopian. Also new, but on the east coast, is the “sparking honey brew” made by Lost Tribes. The company created its t’ej to honor and preserve the culture of the Beta Israel – that is, the Jews of Ethiopia, most of whom have emigrated from Ethiopia to Israel in the past 25 years. Both of these companies have charitable elements: Bee D’vine gives a share of its profits to help Ethiopians buy modern beehives, and Lost Tribes owns a 10-acre farm in Israel that will host sustainable ecological development and a brewery.

Some brands of t'ej made in America

Some brands of t’ej made in America

There’s also Seifu’s Tej, created by Seifu Lessanework for his Blue Nile restaurants in Detroit and Ann Arbor, Mich., and now sold nationwide; Enat Tej, made by a California man, and based on the recipe of his Ethiopian mother-in-law (enat is Amharic for mother); Sheba Tej, made by Brotherhood Winery in upstate New York; Regal Tej, made by Easley Winery in Indiana; Yamatt Tej, made in Oakland, Calif., by Menkir Tamrat; and several others. In Europe, you can buy Begena Tedj in many countries, or a t’ej made in Sweden but sold only in that country. A few other restaurants around Europe make and label their own t’ej as well.

Some restaurants in America will make their own homebrew, although always under the radar of state liquor laws that forbid it without a special license (if the state permits the sale of homebrew at all). These laws usually says you can’t sell homemade alcohol, and I’ve encountered a few restaurant owners who offer a glass for free to regular customers. I’ve seen many more that flout the law and sell it anyway. Sometimes it’s quite good, and sometimes it’s too sweet, which usually means it’s also too low in alcohol content. But it does give you a more authentic t’ej experience than when you drink the more refined t’ej – much of tasty in its own right, and always at least 12 percent alcohol – made by a winery.

 

IF THERE’S AN AMHARIC WORD FOR “COCKTAIL,” then nobody seems to know what it is. At least, nobody I know: I’ve asked some Ethiopian friends, and they tell me there’s no such word.

That’s probably because Ethiopians in Africa take their alcohol straight up. But Ethiopians of the diaspora own businesses that sell food and alcohol, and some of them have improvised, creating Ethiopian-themed cocktails as an additional revenue stream.

For example, the website for Begena Tedj has a page of a dozen recipes for cocktails that Stordiau has created and that you can make with her t’ej and katikala. The Arenguada (Amharic for “green”) blends t’ej, katikala and a sweet green pepper as “an extravagant decoration that keeps flies away.” A Bitcha (“yellow”) substitutes a yellow pepper for a green one and adds a few strawberries. The Neb (“bee”) blends the potables with grapefruit and orange juices. To make an Ethio Jam, mix katikala, t’ej and cane sugar.

Lost Tribes Brew created a sparkling t’ej in 2014, and on its website, you’ll find recipes for nearly a dozen cocktails made with t’ej (I suspect any brand will do). On the company’s t’ej cocktail page, click each image to see the ingredients and a how-two video for each one.

A Balezaf  brand liquor made in Ethiopia

A Balezaf brand liquor made in Ethiopia

At Demera, a popular Ethiopian restaurant in Chicago, the menu lists four house cocktails with Ethiopian themes. An Addis Ababa is a margarita that adds touches of cardamom and ginger, two common spices in Ethiopian cuisine. The Koshasha (“filthy”) is Demera’s take on the dirty martini, a blend of vodka, olive juice and “a fiery kiss of awazi sauce” – that is, a spicy red pepper sauce, more properly spelled awaze, made with berbere. It’s “hot to trott,” the orthographically challenged menu promises. And you don’t want to miss out on the Kaffe, made with coffee liqueur, Bailey’s Irish Cream “and our own brewed coffee.” It’s “dessert in a glass” from “the birthplace of the coffee bean.”

At Blue Nile in Minneapolis, a Crocodile Smile Martini is “not for the weak of tongue,” the menu says. It’s a “hot, hot, hot” blend of vodka spiced with berbere. There’s also a berbere version of the Bloody Mary.

You’ll find lots of Ethiopian-inspired cocktails at Sheba Piano Lounge in San Francisco. They go by names like Red Sea, Sheba Combo, Selassie, Abyssinia Storm, Harrar Cooler, Makeda Martini and Addis Champagne Cocktail. Some are named for cities in Ethiopia, some for historic figures, and the “Soloman’s Julep” for King Solomon, whom Ethiopian lore tells us had a child with Makeda – the Queen of Sheba. The wise old king’s drink consists of Jim Beam, fresh mint, sugar and soda.

Nunu’s, an Ethiopian fusion restaurant in Toronto, serves a t’ej cocktail, the owner’s “ode to Ethiopian honey wine,” the menu says. It’s caramelized honey and pear purée, cinnamon, nutmeg, gesho, lime and rum. They can’t use homemade t’ej in the drink because that would be illegal, but Nunu makes t’ej and will sometimes share it for free with customers just to give them a taste. The restaurant also sells Ketsela Giorgis, a craft beer on tap made by Amsterdam Brewery in Toronto. It’s a stout made from the recipe that Nunu Ketsela’s mother used when she ran a big establishment in Nazareth, Ethiopia, that made t’ej and t’alla.

The website drinksmixer.com has a recipe for an Ethiopian Camel Basher – one part orange juice, one part vodka, and a dash of grenadine syrup – but there’s nothing particularly Ethiopian about it apart from the name. Or from Greg Seider, you could try a Grassland Vesper, “a delicate balance of gin, vodka, orange bitters and spiced Ethiopian honey wine syrup that evokes an age of African grandeur.”

And although this is a story of potent potables, I’d be remiss not to draw your attention to this recipe for a bowl of Ethiopian punch: 7 Up, grape juice, pineapple juice, lemon juice, orange juice, maraschino cherry juice and raspberry syrup. It doesn’t get much sweeter, so I’d recommend spiking it with kakitala or araqe.

As for cocktails in Ethiopia, my friend Menkir Tamrat tells me they’re rare.

“Some folks drink tonic water and just ask for vodka tonic,” he says. “When I was a teenager – no drinking age limit there, just an honor system – there was a mixed drink in Addis known by the name of green fire. I was too ignorant to ask or know what it was made from, but the color was green, as the name suggests. Must have been some crème de menthe in there, but it was cheap and got you drunk quickly.”

Menkir has even dreamed up a cocktail that uses his Yamatt Tej, which he makes and sells in the bay area of northern California. He calls it the Yamattini, and you make it with three ounces of gin, one ounce of vodka, and a half ounce (or more, to taste) of t’ej. “Throw in a twist of your favorite citrus peel and give it a whirl,” Menkir says. “Shaken or stirred.”

Harry Kloman
University of Pittsburgh

FOOTNOTE: The words at the top are the ways to toast in Swedish, German, Spanish, Somali, Croatian, Gaelic, Finnish, Romanian and Russian (na zdorovye).

Here’s a video of Ethiopians in a village of the Ari culture making araqe:

 

Here’s a video of Ethiopians making and drinking t’alla:

The Ethiopian Spice Rack

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IMAGINE ETHIOPIAN FOOD WITHOUT BERBERE, the red pepper powder that gives a spicy wot its palatable fire. And yet, there was a time when Ethiopians had to prepare their food without it, and even without many of the spices – some hot, some not – that we all enjoy in the cuisine today.

Scholars don’t know too much about the fine points of Ethiopian cuisine before the 13th Century, when “modern” Ethiopian history began with the creation of the Solomonic dynasty of emperors. But since then, written records have made research much easier.

A collection of spices used in Ethiopian cooking

A collection of spices used in Ethiopian cooking

What we know for sure is that Ethiopians owe a lot to foreign cultures that visited the country over the centuries, especially when it comes to spicing up the cuisine.

I’ll return to the story of where Ethiopia got its spices a little later. But first, here’s a look at some of the essential spices – the Amharic word is qemam – used in Ethiopian cooking, along with a quick look at the dishes in which you’ll find them.

And by the way, if you see anything here you’d like to add to your own spice rack, and you don’t live in a town with an Ethiopian market, you can buy unique Ethiopian spice blends – like berbere, mitmita and mekelesha – at many places around the country that do mail order business.

Two of the more well-known retailers are Brundo, in Oakland, Calif., and Workinesh Spice Blends, in St. Paul, Minn. The latter, founded in 1978, was the first company in the U.S. to make and sell Ethiopian spices. But it doesn’t have a website, so you’ll need to call or write for a price list: 952-303-6710, 3451 W. Burnsville Parkway, Suite 102, Burnsville, MN 55337 (ask for Lemlem). In 2012, the company collaborated on the creation of a wall calendar that had an illustrated page of information about Ethiopian spices. And new to the market is Qmem Quality Ethiopian Spices, which imports its products from Ethiopia, packages them for retail sale, and then shares the profits with the women in Ethiopia who made them.

The Ethiopian Spice Rack. Before we take a closer look at the unique spice blends of Ethiopian cuisine, let’s meet the basic ingredients – almost all of them familiar to the American kitchen as well. I’ll give you the Amharic names for some of the most ubiquitous spices along with their English names, as well as a few dishes in which you’ll find them. In some cases, the Ethiopian-grown version is a little different than the kind we get in the U.S. And of course, with the difficulty of transliterating Amharic into English, you’ll find numerous ways in the literature to spell these spices.

Korarima. This is the sweet, effervescent – and very expensive – spice we call cardamom. It’s essential to kitfo, the beloved dish made with raw ground meat – and you’ll find it in some of the Ethiopian spice blends that I’ll discuss just below. I have an excellent recipe for fasolia – a stew of green beans and carrots – that also calls for some korarima.

Freshly made berbere

Freshly made berbere

Zinjibel. You can’t cook Ethiopian food without ginger, and you’ll find it in many dishes. Even if the recipe doesn’t call for it, toss some in anyway to give the dish a little extra flavor. You’ll probably want to use powdered ginger when you cook, but you can chop some fresh ginger as well, and you can even put a few slices of fresh ginger in your t’ej just before you strain and bottle it.

Abish. This spice even has its own dish: minchet abish – ground beef pan fried with spices. We call is fenugreek in English, and it’s a staple of Indian curries.

Besobela. My Ethiopian friends tell me that this is quite different than the type of basil we use, but that’s how we translate besobela. To distinguish the two, Ethiopians will sometimes call this “scared basil” in English. It’s a must in any spice blend intended to make niter kibe.

Ird. This powerful deep yellow spice – turmeric to us – gives flavor to an alicha, the milder Ethiopian stew. Use it sparingly or it can easily overpower everything else. You’ll also find it in butecha and azifa, two vegetable dishes traditionally served cold.

Tikur Azmud. Here’s another one you want to use cautiously: It’s cumin, a strong and flavorful spice. Not too many dishes use it alone, although it’s a key spice in duba wot (pumpkin stew). Once again, strictly speaking, Ethiopian tikur azmud isn’t quite the same as the cumin we use here. Tikur means “black,” and that’s the color of the seeds that you grind to make the powdered spice. In fact, nech azmud are the seeds of the white (nech) Ethiopian cumin plant, and they’re sometimes called Ethiopian caraway seeds, ajowan or bishop’s weed.

Kundo Berbere. We would call this black pepper: berbere is the general Ethiopian word for pepper, but used alone, that word means a special spice blend that we’ll get to in a moment. Kundo berbere goes especially well on the American table with chaw – that is, salt. Kundo berbere is the pepper species Piper nigrum (Latin for “black pepper”), but Ethiopians also use the species Piper capense to make another black pepper spice called timiz, which was the focus of a 62-page study in 2008 by Marion Avril. Both of these species grow in Ethiopia. The Piper longum species comes from India, and I’ve seen timiz linked with this species. Avril, however, asserts that timiz is Piper capense.

As for the meaning of kundo: It’s not in my dictionaries, and tikur means “black.” So I asked some Ethiopian friends what it means – and they said they’d never heard it by itself, only with kundo berbere. But finally, Stefanos Ghebrehawariat of Qmem, the spice import company, solved this mystery. His mother says it means “main,” and that makes sense: Long before Ethiopians had red-hot berbere, they had black pepper, which would have been the “main pepper” in their cuisine. I suspect it comes from the Amharic word qändänya, which one of my dictionaries defines as “main.” In fact, the better transliteration of the word is qundo, although it’s rarely written that way.

Nech Shinkurt. Literally “white onion,” this is the Amharic word for garlic, used in many dishes, and tossed into the mix at the beginning of the cooking process, when you’re simmering the shinkurt (onions) in oil or butter. And by the way, Ethiopians use shallots rather than larger onions in the most authentic cooking, although in America, red onions tend to take their place.

Mitmita is lighter and hotter than berbere

Mitmita is lighter and hotter than berbere

Dembelal. Coriander isn’t too common an American spice, but it shows up in some Ethiopian alichas and spice blends. Its aroma is somewhere between cumin and cardamom.

Krenfud. These are cloves, and they’ll often dominate a good mekelesha blend (see below).

OK, those are the basic herbs and spices that Ethiopians use. Now let’s see what happens when you put them together in various ways.

Berbere. This is the staple spice blend of Ethiopian cuisine: a brick red powder that every wot must have in order to be called a wot. The preparation of berbere begins by removing the seeds from chili peppers, drying them in the sun, grinding them into a power, and then adding small portions of garlic, ginger, sacred basil, cloves, fenugreek, cumin, cardamom and more, depending upon each chef’s recipe. The finished product has an aroma dominated by the red pepper, and you don’t need a lot of it to heat up a dish. I even use it in pasta sauces instead of crushed red peppers.

You can buy berbere all over the internet, but you need to be cautious: If you want the real thing, always buy it from an Ethiopian market, which usually imports it from Ethiopia. Some versions of berbere made outside of Ethiopia list paprika as their most abundant ingredient, and that’s just not pure enough.

Ethiopians use berbere to make a sort of simmer sauce called awaze, a blend of berbere, water and oil that you toss into the skillet to give some flavor to a dish like derek (dry) tibs (beef, chicken or lamb fried up in kibe with onions and peppers). Similar to awaze is delleh, which adds a spot of t’ej to the mixture. I have a dictionary that defines awaze as awaze and delleh as “red hot chili paste.” So the two names are somewhat interchangeable.

Mitmita. Hotter than berbere, lighter in color, and used in far fewer dishes, mitmita is a less complex blend of spices – and that’s why it packs more punch. Using the hottest of Ethiopian red peppers, you dry them in the sun, then grind them (seeds and all) into a fine power, adding a bit of a few other spices: cardamom, cloves, salt, sacred basil, and maybe some koseret, a sage- or oregano-like herb found in many African cultures. Some blends tend to be a bit salty, but mitmita is always blazing hot, so use it sparingly. It’s a great way to spice up non-Ethiopian foods, too, as an alternative to other red peppers or even to Sriracha, the wildly popular hot sauce invented in 1980 by a Vietnamese-American in California (and based on a Thai recipe created more than 80 years ago).

Mekelesha. The Ethiopian spice rack has numerous blends that you use to add extra flavor to a wot. The most common is simply called mekelesha, and it consists of a chef’s choice of ingredients: cardamom, cinnamon, black pepper, cumin, ginger, cloves, and maybe even some nutmeg. The word means, more or less, “to make tasty.”

Mekelesha is easy to create at home if you have the constituent spices, and you mix them in proportions that suit your taste (although the blends I buy tend to be heavier with cloves). You traditionally add mekelesha to your wot just a few minutes before it’s done so the effervescence of the spices remains when you serve the meal. A makulaya is a blend of spices used as a sauté at the beginning of a cooking process. Another variation of the spice blend is a matafecha. As far as I can tell, the three are relatively interchangeable, but you’ll find mekelesha most commonly sold in markets and cited in recipes.

Here are some of the many commercial berbere blends on the market.

Here are some of the many commercial berbere blends on the market.

Manteria. When Indians clarify butter – that is, gently boil it until the milk solids separate from the fatty oil – they add no spices, but the Ethiopian version, niter kibe, adds lots of them. Manteria is a term that refers to the blend of spices you mix and put into the butter while it’s clarifying (the verb manter means to clarify). You can also call this by the more generic term ye’kibe qemam, or kibe spice. Once again, it’s chef’s choice, but some of the most common manteria spices are onion, garlic, ginger, cardamom, black cumin, white cumin, turmeric, fenugreek and sacred basil. In Ethiopia, they also use koseret. The spices all need to simmer in the boiling butter for a while, and then you strain the mixture through cheesecloth to remove the spices before letting the deep golden liquid solidify.

Shai Qemam. This is the Ethiopian teabag, a blend of spices used to flavor tea (shai). You can make your tea with just the spices, or you can put them into black tea. Shai qemam tends to be expensive when you buy it “mixed” in an Ethiopian market, so just mix some yourself: cardamom pods, cloves and a cinnamon stick – use proportions to suit your taste.

 

SO WHERE DID ETHIOPIA get all of these spices? How many have long been native to the land, and how many came from other places?

Ethiopia and India were trading partners before the Christian era, although there’s little documentation of exactly what got traded between the two cultures in those early times. There’s more evidence of it in the first century A.D., and many coins from Aksum – the ancient, proto-Ethiopian civilization – have turned up throughout the years in India, just as archaeologists have found Indian money in ancient Ethiopia.

Drying peppers to make berbere

Drying peppers to make berbere

The Periplus of the Erythraean [Red] Sea, a Greek trade manual written some time during the first century A.D., discusses trade between India and Aksum from the Indian point of view, noting items – iron, steel, belts, cloth, garments – that India exported through Adulis, a key Aksumite Red Sea port. The unknown author doesn’t mention spices. Two ancient geographers also noted the culture: Ptolemy (90 – 168 A.D.) mentions Aksum as the capital of a kingdom west of Red Sea ports, and Strabo (63 B.C. – 24 A.D.) wrote about the honey wine made by early Aksumites.

The preeminent Ethiopian scholar Richard Pankhurst has written that contacts between Ethiopia and India “date back to the dawn of history,” with India giving “cotton and silk, pepper and other spices” to the Ethiopians, who gave gold, ivory and slaves in return. Pepper is important here, for Ethiopians used it to add fire to their dishes before the arrival of cayenne by the 18th Century.

In her book The Emergence of Food Production in Ethiopia, Tertia Barnett notes that whereas coriander and fenugreek apparently had Ethiopian origins, other key spices arrived much later, when Ethiopia began to have contact with Europe. This includes the New World spice Capsicum, or cayenne, one of the varieties of chili pepper used to make berbere today.

But the archaeologist Sheila Boardman also notes that the Aksumites grew cress, a milder peppery native spice, which they probably used to flavor their wots along with rarer non-native black pepper.

“Cress is widely grown in Ethiopia as a medicinal and culinary plant,” Boardman wrote in Archaeology at Aksum, Ethiopia, David W. Phillipson’s account of a mid-1990s excavation there. “Before the introduction of New World spices, its seeds were widely used as the main flavouring in wot sauces, although the wealthy preferred to use black pepper, imported from Arabia and further afield.”

Pounding dried peppers  to make berbere, c. 1901

Pounding dried peppers
to make berbere, c. 1901

Boardman cites Sue Edwards, co-founder and director of the Institute for Sustainable Development in Ethiopia, as her source of information about cress. Edwards says that Ethiopians have long used such spices as black cumin, sweet basil and rue, as well as noog, which today gives Ethiopians an important cooking oil.

But even Edwards admits that it’s risky to extrapolate from these accounts of other cultures’ spice trade.

“There are many unresolved questions about the development of Ethiopia’s unique crops, particularly teff and enset,” she says. “It seems probable that teff was not used in the kitchens of the Aksumite nobility because it needs its own cooking technology.”

Catherine D’Andrea, of Simon Fraser University, has studied food in the Ethiopian highlands, and she concurs that scholars “know very little of the early history of spices and flavorings.” She, too, notes that berbere, a blend of spices, takes most of its taste from chili peppers, which the Aksumites certainly didn’t have.

So Aksumite wots, if they existed at all, were no doubt milder than today’s Ethiopian food, flavored first with cress and then perhaps with black pepper when cooks could get it.

The Aksumite empire went into decline in the latter part of the first millennium A.D. and then disappeared, leaving the emerging Ethiopia with no center for three or four centuries. Needless to say, there’s no written record of what people cooked and ate during these tumultuous culinary times. But eventually, leadership stabilized, and Ethiopia began to have contact with European cultures.

Spices for sale at Dire Dawa market in Columbus, Ohio

Spices for sale at Dire Dawa market in Columbus, Ohio

An Ethiopian embassy visited Europe in 1306 during the reign of King Wedem Arad (1299-1314), but the members of this earliest-known Ethiopian excursion to Europe didn’t leave behind much insight into their manner of eating. Then, beginning in the early 16th Century, European exploration of Ethiopia burgeoned, and the Portuguese led the way.

The Venetian Alessandro Zorzi never visited Ethiopia, but in the early 16th Century, he published a series of detailed itineraries of travel to and from Ethiopia based upon his research among monks who had been there. Most of these volumes discuss travel routes, but here and there they speak of food. Zorzi noted that merchant ships from other countries “bring all the spices except ginger, which is found in this land.”

In 1520, just as Zorzi was publishing his work, the Portuguese sent a mission to Ethiopia to forge relations with Prester John, the European moniker for Ethiopia’s Christian emperor. The Europeans used this name to refer to the Ethiopian monarch for many generations, and at the time of the mission, “Prester John” was Lebna Dengel (née Dawit, the Ethiopian form of “David”), who ruled from 1508 to 1540.

The missionaries spent six years in the country, and when they returned, Father Francisco Alvares wrote an invaluable account of their explorations. He spoke mostly about the religion and culture of the country, as well as his own tribulations. But sprinkled throughout his narrative are many morsels about food.

Alvares found that Ethiopians cultivated a wide variety of grains and vegetables, and he claimed that Ethiopians would trade almost anything for pepper. He described wots made spicy with cress, linseed, and in the case of the emperor, black pepper. In fact, Alvares says that black pepper was the gift most prized by the emperor when the Portuguese presented it to him. This surely means that Ethiopians didn’t have the red hot Capsicum in the mid-1500s. The fact that Alvares never mentions it further leads scholars to believe that it had not yet entered the Ethiopian diet.

Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher, an Ethiopian botanist and scholar, says that Capsicum “requires such extensive care that it dominates the farmer’s life, especially at the seedling production phrase. If it were present when Alvares visited Ethiopia, it would be expected that he would have noted it.” His 1984 essay, Some Important New World Plants in Ethiopia, notes that the Scottish explorer James Bruce, in his 18th Century account, specifically mentions Capsicum. Tewolde then reasonably concludes that “chili pepper was introduced into Ethiopia in the two and a half centuries from 1520 to 1770.”

Spices and more for sale at a market in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia

Spices and more for sale at a market in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia

Surveying Alvares’ work, Tewolde asserts: “If chili peppers were present in Ethiopia at the time, there is no doubt that the wot described would, as now, have been made from this plant rather than from cress seed, and Alvares would have noted that. He also notes that, in Lebna Dengel’s kitchen, it was black pepper that was used and not cress seed. James Bruce, writing about Ethiopia in 1769 to 1771, mentions chili pepper by the name of cayenne pepper which, mixed with black pepper, was used in spicing raw meat.”

Tewolde even reflects on the similarity between papere, the word for pepper in Ge’ez, the ancient language of Ethiopia, and the more recent berbere.

In his 2009 essay, A Brief History of Ethiopian Spices, Fekadu Fullas goes way, way back to define “Ethiopia,” citing references to spices as long ago as the 28th Century B.C. But the ancient people of that era used the Greek word “Ethiopia” – meaning “burnt face” – to refer to darker-skinned cultures from African to India, so some of this isn’t too helpful in tracing the emergence of spices in the Ethiopia we know today.

Fekadu does include a list of modern Ethiopian spices and their countries of origin. Among the spices of African origin, he lists onion, garlic, fenugreek, coriander and korarima, the Ethiopian cardamom. Chili pepper, he says, came from Anglo-European visitors, and South Asian cultures contributed ginger, clove, black pepper, basil and nutmeg. West Asian cultures gave Ethiopia mustard and cress early in its history (back in the day of Aksum), and cumin and rue later in its history, although Fekadu doesn’t define “early” and “late” with years or centuries.

Niter kibe simmering with spices

Niter kibe simmering with spices

And he notes: “In a study published in Bioscience, it was indicated that Ethiopia is one of the 10 countries in the world where spices are used the most, in particular in meat-based recipes.”

In 2010, the Ethiopian Ministry of Trade published a report, The Spice Sub-Sector in Ethiopia, that examined spice exports in the country and laid out a detailed plan for increasing it.

“Spice trade is a commercial activity since antiquity and is perhaps among the very few pioneer commodities traded internationally,” the report says. “During the ancient Ethiopia kingdoms, notably Aksum, Ethiopia was very much involved in spice trade, and spice was perhaps among the top few pioneer export commodities Ethiopia traded internationally by then. Ethiopia was on the ancient spice trail from India and was visited by Arabian and Persian spice traders who left their mark on the cuisine.”

And yet, only 2 percent of Ethiopian exports are spices, and more than 80 percent of the country’s spice harvest is used domestically. “Despite Ethiopia’s long history in spice trade, [exports] remain minimal and low,” the report says. “Except pepper (Capsicum annum), spice cultivation is traditional, with no improved seed or planting material, and it is not market oriented. The contribution of spice to the national economy is not significant.” A market profile of Ethiopian spices examines all of this.

Ethiopia’s meat industry today accounts for about 55 percent of the country’s spice consumption, the retail sector for 35 percent, and the catering sector for 10 percent. The most common type of spice grown is the chili pepper, usually just called “pepper” by Ethiopians: the Marekofana variety, long and dark red in appearance, has a 50,000 rating on the Scoville scale that rates the heat of peppers, and the Mitmita pepper is small, red and even hotter. These are the varieties that today become berbere and mitmita in Ethiopia.

Spice exports don't make up a significant part of the Ethiopian economy, the government reports.

Spice exports don’t make up a significant part of the Ethiopian economy, the government reports.

In a 2014 study, a group of four scholars looked at spices grown in the home gardens in the Ethiopian highlands. They identified six key spices and found that “the species being grown in home gardens of nearby villages, their cultivation, marketing, preparation of the spice mixes and dishes, are traditional to the women only. Apart from their socio-economic importance,” the study says, “these wild herbs have bright potential for poverty alleviation, improved women’s contribution to family income, and small farmers’ adaptability to climate change.”

Spices are so integral to Ethiopian cuisine and culture that scholars around the world study their history, cultivation and use. The Netherlands-African Business Council has even issued a fact sheet about the key spices of Ethiopian agriculture and cuisine. “Spices are essential oils that give foods and beverages flavor, aroma and sometimes color,” the report says. “The term spice refers to any dried plant product used primarily for seasoning, be it the seed, leaves, bark or flowers. They can be marketed whole, ground to a powder or in the form of essential oils and oleoresins.”

And for a thorough study of spices in Ethiopia, have a look at P.C.M. Jansen’s 338-page Spices, Condiments and Medicinal Plants in Ethiopia. He published the book in 1981, but things probably haven’t changed all that much in the use and classification of spices in Ethiopia. “The words ‘spices’ and ‘condiments’ are used here to denote plants or plant products that are used to flavor food or beverages before, during or after their preparation,” Jansen writes. His book – which includes many photographs and illustrations – rounds up all the familiar spices and looks at them in microscopic scientific detail.

Worku Abebe published an essay in 2006 that discusses some of the health benefits of the spices found in Ethiopian cuisine, although he does say that “some of the information presented remains to be further established.”

The peppers used in berbere and mitmita, Worku says, can relieve spasms, increase circulation, reduce cholesterol, serve as an anti-coagulant, and help soothe a peptic ulcer. Dembelal (coriander) helps with flatulence and cramps, relieves indigestion, and can serve as an aphrodisiac. Abish (fenugreek) will lower blood glucose and cholesterol, relieve indigestion and gastritis, soothe gum abscesses, boils, burns and ulcers, and induce milk production. Tiqur azmud (black cumin) relieves spasms, is an anti-microbial and a diuretic, and also helps prevent cancer. Erd (turmeric) is an anti-oxidant, an anti-inflammatory (even for arthritis), and can lower cholesterol and help with stomach pains or indigestion.

“The information contained in this article is far from complete,” Worku concludes, very wisely, “and readers are encouraged to conduct their own search for a better understanding of the health effects of spices.”

Excellent advice. Or better yet, just eat a lot of Ethiopian food and see how good it makes you feel inside.

Harry Kloman
University of Pittsburgh

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