EVERYONE KNOWS that you use nature’s cutlery to enjoy an Ethiopian meal – with a little help from the injera, of course. But don’t take the absence of forks and spoons to mean that the Ethiopian table is bare. There are plenty of other familiar culinary items in the Ethiopian home.
Here’s a look at some of the traditional items that an Ethiopian host or hostess uses to prepare and present your meal. There are also, of course, plenty of pots and pans, all with names in Amharic and the other languages of Ethiopia. But I’ll mostly round up the things that might not look like something you’d find in non-Ethiopian homes.
Mesob. In modern urban Ethiopian homes, families eat around a dinner table. In the most traditional tribal area, people sit on the ground to eat. But there’s something in between modernity and subsistence: the mesob, a woven round wicker basket that can sit as high as three or four feet tall. It has a lid, and when you remove it, there’s a place in the center for a tray of food. Each diner sits on a small stool, about eight inches high, called a barchuma, and everyone then eats from the common tray of food.
Large mesobs play the role of dinner table in a more traditional Ethiopian home. But mesobs come in many sizes, and the smaller ones may be decorative, or they can be good places to store household items. The smallest ones, called a mudai, can sit on a tabletop, and they make an excellent place to keep jewelry or nicknacks. Needless to say, the more colorful the mesob, the more craft that went into making it. The largest ones can take several months to make.
Some Ethiopian restaurants in America will have a few mesobs for people who want to dine in a more traditional way, although they’ll often be surrounded by more conventional chairs rather than low-to-the-ground barchumas, which can be rather uncomfortable by Western standards. Still, if you want a barchuma for your home that combines function with a more contemporary elegance, check out the ones made by Jomo Design Furniture, a company in Alexandria, Va., owned by a man born in Kenya to Ethiopian parents. Or you can learn more about the mesob and other Ethiopian crafts by reading Jacques Dubois’ short book Roots and Flowerings of Ethiopia’s Traditional Crafts. The basketry of Ethiopia’s Harari region in considered to be especially elegant and beautiful.
Gebeta. The Ethiopian meal comes to you served on a large round tray called a gebeta that’s topped with a piece of injera onto which your host places small portions of the many dishes you’ll enjoy at your meal. The gebeta then rests in the center of the mesob, or in a more modern home or restaurant, on an everyday dining room table. If you’re eating in someone’s home and you run out of a dish, you’ll probably be offered more – or your host will simply serve you more. In fact, if you keep cleaning your gebeta, your meal may never end. So it’s considered to be polite to leave a bit of food on the table to indicate that you’re finally full.
But customs are changing in Ethiopia – in fact, they have been for a while. In his 1965 book Wax & Gold, the eminent Ethiopian scholar Donald Levine surveyed 700 Ethiopians about their views on native customs compared to foreign ones.
Levine found that college-educated Ethiopians, who make up less than one percent of the population even today, were more likely to prefer “European” or “foreign” ways of doing things, which he defined as any variation of the Ethiopian custom of eating with your hands from a shared plate in the middle of the table. Although 80 percent of Levine’s respondents preferred Ethiopian food to non-Ethiopian dishes, 58 percent preferred to have individual plates in front of them rather than eating from a communal gebeta in the centuries-old Ethiopian way. I have numerous Ethiopian-American friends who confirm this today: Whereas the elders prefer a gebeta, their children prefer their own plates.
The word gebeta can have a variety of meanings in Amharic. The dictionary defines it as a large wooden cup or bowl, a basin for washing the hands, or a large wooden table. Gebet’a – spelled with a different Amharic “t” letter at the end – is also the name for an ancient Ethiopian game played on a rectangular wooden game board with 14 or more cupped indentations in two rows, and with a “home” for each player at the two ends. The cups have stones in them, and the object is to follow the rules and get as many stones in your “home” as you can. It’s played in many African cultures and goes by different names in the many African languages: mancala is a common name for it as well, and you can play the game online under the ancient Ethiopian name awari, or download a version of mancala. It’s fun to play after an Ethiopian meal.
Berele. This is one of the more simple, charming and elegant items of the Ethiopian table. It’s a vessel used for drinking t’ej, the Ethiopian honey wine, and its functional design helps solve a problem: How to keep Ethiopia’s myriad insects out of your sweet potable. The berele has a wide bottom, like a Florence flask, and a long neck with a small opening at the top. It’s easy to hold in the palm of your hand, and even the most petite thumb fits neatly over the opening. This keeps the insect out.
Ethiopians will sit for hours in a t’ej bet, drinking and engaging in conversation, which of course grows more convivial as the day or night goes on. If there’s music, someone will eventually dance with a berele full of t’ej on his head. Needless to say, he won’t spill a drop.
Visitors to Ethiopia began observing and writing about the berele in the 18th Century, but explorers before that don’t mention it, so it might be a more recent development. Ancient Ethiopians drank their wine from animal horns. Still, in 1942, the archaeologist A.J. Arkell studied four sites in the Eritrean city of Agordat, an ancient town proximate to Aksum, the first-millennium A.D. civilization that laid the foundation for modern Ethiopia. Arkell describes what he calls “large beer-pots with narrowed necks and out-turned rims.” This shape perfectly describes a berele, although Arkell’s vessels were clearly much larger. Arkell doesn’t explicitly date them, but he says they’re “probably contemporary with the New Kingdom in Egypt,” which places them around 1550-1050 B.C.
Wancha. This rustic item is a cup carved from the horn of a cow. It has a wide mouth at the top and narrows as it goes down to the bottom. Some wancha rest on a base and have finer carvings where the bottom of the cup meets the base. They can be very small (one ounce) or a little larger (six ounces), and they usually have a smokey aroma.
Mitad/mogogo. The Ethiopian home may have no more essential piece of cookware than this ancient injera-making device. The mitad has a large round flat heated surface onto which the cook pours the fermented injera batter. The bread cooks for a few minutes, and when it’s bubbly on top, it’s ready to place on a gebeta or to use on the side to grab food from your plate. The word mitad is Amharic, and in Tigrinya it’s a mogogo.
In traditional Ethiopia, a mitad is made of clay and heated over a wooden stove or fireplace. Modern ones are now electric, and Zekarias Tesfagaber, an Eritrean-American inventor living in Seattle, has invented a mogogo that he sells through his company’s website. Ethiopians in America also use the Lefse Heritage Grill as a mitad. The grills are sold in many Ethiopian markets around the country and also online at Target.
With care, your modern mitad will last a long time. But in Ethiopia, traditional clay mitads are prone to breakage. So in 2009, a group of graduate students from Stanford University went to Ethiopia and invented the Mighty Mitad, a steel band that wraps around the perimeter of a mitad and makes it almost impossible to break or shatter, as you can see in this video that the inventors made. Now sold in Ethiopia by an Ethiopian company, the Mighty Mitad costs the equivalent of about $3 to $4, less then the cost of a new mitad, and it’s been a great help to the families that have one.
The mitad has several items that go along with it. Its cover is called an akimbalo, and when the injera has fully baked, you get it off the mitad with a sefed, a large round piece of wicker that slides under the injera. Then, you can fold and cool the injera in your agelgel, except of course for the pieces you place on top of the gebeta and serve in your mesob.
Agelgel. This is the Ethiopian lunch basket: a round devise of thick sturdy leather, with a detachable lid held tight by a series of leather straps. You can sling it over your shoulder using its long leather strap, and inside, you carry injera or other foods. You can also use it at your dinner table as a way to serve your injera. Some are wider and flatter, some taller and rounder, and some have lids decorated with furry hides. They’re very commonly for sale all over the internet.
Chocho. This handy item is what you could call an Ethiopian milk jar: round on the bottom, with a narrower neck, it’s used to transport and pour beverages. They can be made of clay, or basketry often decorated with leather and cowry shells. If you’d like to own one, just go to Ebay, where they’re often for sale.
Ye’qand mankia. Just when you thought Ethiopians didn’t use cutlery, along comes the ye’qand mankia, which literally means a spoon (mankia) carved out of a cow’s horn (qand). The Gurage people use this long-handled tool to eat kitfo, the wildly popular dish made of seasoned raw ground meat that’s spread from the Gurages through all of Ethiopian culture. You can eat kitfo with injera and your hands, but you can also use a ye’qand mankia to scoop up the meat – which you can order lebleb (lightly cooked) or yebesele (fully cooked) if you don’t want to eat it raw.
Jebena. Legend has it that an ancient Ethiopian named Kaldi discovered coffee in the Ninth Century when he noticed his goat jumping around energetically after eating the berries of an unusual plant. Coffee in central to an Ethiopian meal, and the coffee ceremony is a cherished ritual.
The jebena is the piece of clay pottery used for making and serving coffee. It has a big round bottom with a pouring spout, a long narrow neck, and a handle for pouring. Inside the neck, there’s a strainer to keep the coffee grounds from escaping when you pour. At the table, your jebena sits on a small wicker mat called a matot, and to grind the coffee beans before boiling them, you use a mukecha and zenzena, the Ethiopian mortar and pestle.
Sini. Forget the big clumsy mug scrawled with “Jaaaaava!” from one end to the other. When you enjoy coffee in Ethiopia, you drink it from a sini, a delicate cup that fits nicely in the palm of your hand. It may not hold much coffee, but then, it doesn’t need to: Ethiopian coffee is very rich, and at a traditional ceremony, you must enjoy three cups: the abol (“first”), the hulategna (“second”) and the bereke (“to bless”).
Rekebot. This is a low table that’s used to bring the many sini to the table when it’s time to serve the coffee. A more contemporary rekebot might have drawers in the bottom to store your sini and other items. A Canadian company, Zeinco, makes a modern-styled rekebot. They call it a Bunn Table, from buna, the Amharic word for coffee. The spelling of this item can vary, but rekebot seems to be the most common one out there.
Biret mitad. Before you can make your coffee, you have to roast the beans. This is done with a biret mitad, a large round metal wok-like item that you place over a flaming hot hearth to do the job. Simply put the beans into the griddle and hold them over a flame, tossing the beans around to heat them evenly. Then, crush the roasted beans with your mukecha and zenzena, put them into the jebena, and once it’s brewed, pour the finished coffee into the sini and serve on the rekebot. You can also use the biret mitad to cook food over the flame – for example, biret mitad tibs, or chunks of beef tossed with onions and peppers.
By the way, biret mitad in the Amharic version of the device to roast coffee, and menkeshkesh is the name in Tigrinya for a similar device. Niat Products of Seattle, Wash., sells items like the menkeshkesh and an electric mogogo, using the Tigrinya names because Zekarias, their designer and the company’s owner, is from Eritrea. A menkeshkesh looks somewhat different: It has a long handle with a small cup at the end of it for the beans, which you then roast over the flame (see photo above).
Itan. If the aroma of the meal isn’t enough to stimulate your senses, you can burn some itan, the Ethiopian incense. You do this by stoking some hot coals in a clay holder called a girgira and then placing the itan on the coals.
So now, at last, it’s time to eat. Plop yourself down in a nice hard barchuma and belly up to the mesob – injera in one hand (always the right one), and your berele of t’ej in the other.
University of Pittsburgh