Sure As Shiro

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HOW MANY TIMES has this happened to you?

You’re at an Ethiopian restaurant, surrounded by the awesome aromas of berbere and niter kibbee stewing in the pot, and you’re making your selections: a beef dish for sure – maybe a juicy siga wot – and a veggie combo. The menu has a dozen veggie selections, and you’re allowed to choose five on your beyaynetu. So you pick misir wot, fosolia, butecha, gomen and shiro.

Shiro wot in a shakla dest

But wait! You can’t choose shiro: It’s not one of the choices permitted on a beyaynetu. It’s a special dish, and you have to order it as a separate entrée.

So it goes at many Ethiopian restaurants around the country, and lucky is the diner who finds the place that lets you pick shiro on your combo.

Shiro – or shuro or sometimes shero – is a delicate blend of powdered legumes and spices, often made gently hot with berbere, and it’s considered by most restaurants to be a delicacy. So, too, do some Ethiopian chefs recognize its special nature.

And yet, in Ethiopia, many people see it as a dish you eat when you don’t have better things – meat especially, but also, heartier vegetable dishes like the ones that most Ethiopian restaurants let you choose on a combination platter.

A 1985 United Nations report says that “for the common families, shiro is the only thing used for making wot every day of the year, with the exception of some important festivals like the New Year, Mesqel, Christmas and Easter, at which every family will slaughter at least a chicken.” There have even been reports of people in Ethiopian prisons being served water, injera and shiro as their only meal.

Shiro is seen as peasant’s food, a staple,” Tsilat Petros told Westworld, an online Denver publication. “It’s like the less money you have, the more shiro you eat.” But she still loves the dish, even though her grandmother would sometimes serve it three times a day. “Most people eat shiro all throughout the week, but they would rather have meat,” she added. “Some of my friends here say, ‘Yes, I will eat shiro. But only with a side of kitfo.’”

Menkir Tamrat, my shiro sensei, understands that “shiro at times may have been thought of as a poor man’s food, meat and butter being for the rich. But,” he says, “it also holds its place among the rich during Lent periods when simplicity and humility are contemplated. The rich also dress it up at times with butter and meat during the non-Lent days when they might just be tired of the regular carnivore routine.”

Rashad Gaffar of Charlotte, N.C., worked with the Peace Corps in Ethiopia and blogged about his experiences with shiro.

Mitin Shiro in Ethiopia

“My host mom FINALLY started serving me more than cold shiro & potatoes for lunch & dinner,” he wrote. “It happened by accident. The last time she served it I ate just a little & told her I wasn’t hungry. She thought I was sick & started preparing different dishes the next day. The meals are still cold, but at least it ain’t shiro.” Not exactly an endorsement for the dish, although who can blame him for getting tired of it day after day, a circumstance that speaks to its ubiquity back home. And The Berbere Diaries, a blog written by an American mother of some adopted Ethiopian children, offers a few reflections on shiro and recipes for making it.

It seems that even honeybees like shiro. In a 2001 report, which calls Ethiopia “a potential beekeeping giant,” an Egyptian scholar found that “in an Ethiopian grain market, many honeybees were observed collecting from open sacks of shiro [chickpeas] as a pollen substitute.” No doubt this was shiro before the addition of berbere and other spices.

Dr. Asqual Getaneh, a professor of medicine at Columbia University, has written about the healthy benefits of shiro, which provides “both macro-and micro-nutrients – a low fat source of protein, carbohydrate, fiber, iron and folate, among numerous other vitamins and minerals.”

On the other hand, two Ethiopian scientists have found that berbere and shiro from markets in Addis Ababa contain aflatoxins, a carcinogenic fungus that finds its way into the foods during drying, storage and transport. In their 1996 paper, Habtamu Fufa and Kelbessa Urga say that although the risk is not widespread – in 60 samples each of berbere and shiro, eight and five, respectively, had aflatoxins – samples from open markets had more toxins compared to samples from government-owned shops. So they concluded that berbere and shiro traded in Addis Ababa are “high-risk commodities for which routine survey of aflatoxins may be necessary.”

And then there’s lathyrism, a neurotoxic disorder caused by “the prolonged over-consumption” of a particular amino acid contained naturally in peas, a team of Ethiopian scientists found in 2005. “For some farmers,” they write, “grass pea is an income-generating cash crop because of its high demand in central Ethiopia as a tasty adulterant for the preparation of shiro, the powdered form of grass pea.” But there’s good news: “It has been found that the small amounts of grass pea used in shiro and consumed in the form of a sauce to be served with injera (unleavened bread) is harmless,” especially if you boil the peas and drain the excess water, a process that “reduces the poison within the seed by 50 percent.”

James McCann of Boston University has studied Ethiopian cuisine and culture for decades and has spent long stretches of his academic career living in Ethiopia. He tells me that shiro “has so many variations that are changing almost daily. Now feses shiro has to be differentiated from tegabino and bozena, and different places make it differently. But it is clearly now the national dish in terms of what everyone eats on a daily basis.” (More on these shiro varieties below.)

In Stirring the Pot, his book about numerous African cuisines and their cultural history, McCann says this: “The staple fare of the 1630s was a simple dish, shiro wet, common to diets of all economic classes and increasingly popular among urban populations of the twenty-first century: then as now, this was a simple dish of the poor, but much appreciated as well by the affluent.” McCann then offers a cookbook version of shiro, followed by a description of its preparation by an Ethiopian woman skilled in the art of her native cuisine.

Unmilled nech (left) and mitin shiro

“The simplicity of [her] preparation of this dish belies the astonishing geography of its ingredients and the complexity of its constituent flavors,” McCann writes about the woman’s detailed missive. “She uses onomatopoeia (tuk tuk) to suggest the sound made by the bubbling stew when it reached its proper consistency. She uses her hands to indicate amounts and how to stir or to taste. Written words convey little of the true sense of how to cook shiro wet sauce. Even a simple dish loses in the translation.”

Of course, there’s simple – and there’s simple. Here’s a list of the ingredients in one chef’s version of shiro: powdered legumes (peas, lentils, broad beans, chickpeas), berbere, chopped garlic, shallots, rue, basil, oregano, ginger, fenugreek, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, bishop’s weed, coriander and salt. You bake the legumes, grind them into a powder as fine as flour, add the spices, then bake them and grind them up some more. Then, when you’re ready to eat some shiro, you reconstitute the flour in water – about one tablespoon for every half cup – add a touch of vegetable oil, and heat it slowly, slowly, slowly until it thickens. Some Ethiopians like to make it richer by adding some niter kibbee just when it’s ready.

In Ethiopia, McCann says, cooks will listen for tuk tuk silo, that is, “when it says tuk tuk,” to determine when the shiro has reached its proper consistency.

I’ve never made shiro from scratch: I buy shiro powder in Ethiopian markets. Prices range from $6 a pound to $15 a pound or more, depending upon the “brand” and the market. Some markets in the U.S. import pre-packaged shiro from an Ethiopian company called Selam Baltena, and some simply buy it in large sacks from people they know back home, then re-package it in small plastic containers for sale at their stores. Shiro powder stays fresh for a long time, especially if you refrigerate it, so if you’re ever in a city with an Ethiopian market, you can buy as much as you like.

 

BEFORE YOU CAN FULLY understand shiro – the name used generically by many people for the powder or the finished dish – a vocabulary lesson is in order. As with all matters of Ethiopian cuisine, there are nuances.

Shiro in Amharic

Let’s begin with a question that’s impossible to answer: Where does the word shiro come from, and why is this the word for what it names? Linguists can trace words back to their first appearance, and they can show how words and languages evolve, but they can never know for certain why we call things what we call them. Simply put: Nobody knows why a nose is called a nose.

Ethiopian dictionaries define the word as the dish itself: for example, an online Amharic dictionary defines the word as “mixture of peas and beans,” and in Wolf Leslau’s definitive tome, it’s the terribly appetizing “mush made of peas.” This is certainly interesting, even amusing, but it’s no help in learning how the word shiro came to represent this dish.

Amharic, the state language of Ethiopia, is a Semitic language (like Hebrew and Arabic), and shiro is an Amharic word. Afaan Oromo, another widely spoken language in Ethiopia, is in the Cushitic language family, as is the well-known language Somali and the less widely spoken Agaw. The Amhara and Oromo people of Ethiopia are often at odds politically, and the Somali people of Ethiopia believe their region should reunite with neighboring Somalia. So language in Ethiopia (and elsewhere) is political.

In that context, the eminent UCLA scholar Christopher Ehret contends that the Amharic word shiro comes from “a very old Cushitic noun root,” soor, meaning porridge. Long story short: By way of an early form of the Agaw language, that old Cushitic “oo” vowel sound morphed into “shiro,” which means, in linguistic terms, that shiro in Amharic is a “loan word” from proto-Cushitic.

And the linguist Grover Hudson of Michigan State University suggests that shimbra, the Amharic word for chickpea, could be an antecedent of shiro. The “b” in the word is a later addition, so the word might have evolved from shimra to shimbra. “But shimra must’ve had a variant with o, shimro, which became (by not uncommon phonological process) shiro,” he posits. Shiro, of course, is sometimes made with chickpeas.

So that’s the best we can do to say why the word shiro describes what it does. I might guess that shiro comes from shorba, the Amharic word for soup. But Ehret has disabused me of such layman speculation: “It is certainly not from the shorba root,” he says, “which derives from the proto-Semitic verb for ‘to drink.’”

With that out of the way, here’s a glossary of important shiro terms.

Shiro. Strictly speaking, this word means an unseasoned legume powder made from yellow peas, although increasingly, chickpeas have become popular as well. Some shiro blends use both, and some even add lentils or broad beans (fava beans). You may sometimes see the phrase shiro duket, which simply means shiro powder. Simple shiro is often eaten in Ethiopia by people who can’t afford the spices to make a more complex blend. Restaurant menus often use the word shiro to refer to the finished stew, but there are more precise words for that, as well as for the powder itself.

Selam Baltena shiro from Ethiopia

Mitin Shiro. This is the good stuff: the powder with spices added. Each chef has her (or his) own recipe, but in the many cookbooks that I own, the most popular spices seem to be ginger, cardamon and garlic. The most important one, though, is berbere, the Ethiopian red pepper powder. This gives mitin shiro its kick. The word mitin, by the way, means “measured.”

The next two are a little tricky – semantic variations of mitin shiro.

Nech Mitin Shiro. The word nech is Amharic for “white,” and this is a blend of mitin shiro without berbere, made for people who can’t stand the heat (kids, for example).

Kay Mitin Shiro. The word kay is Amharic for “red,” so this is mitin shiro with berbere, which makes it look redder and taste hotter. When you order shiro wot in a restaurant, this is almost certainly what you’re getting.

Shiro Wot. This is the finished dish: the powder reconstituted in water (plus a touch of oil), then slowly cooked until it thickens. Some cooks add more spices or even more berbere when they prepare the dish, or they may add chopped onions or even chopped tomatoes. You can finish your shiro wot (or wat or wet) by dissolving a dollop of niter kibbee in the stew just before you serve it.

Bozena Shiro. For a more balanced meal, add beef to the shiro wot to create this variation. This can be cubes of beef or ground beef. Some restaurants even serve shiro be kitfo – that is, shiro with raw seasoned ground beef.

Shiro wot, with doro tibs wot and diblik atkilt

Shakla Dest. Literally, Amharic for “clay pot” – a traditional item used to serve tikus (piping hot) shiro wot.

Tegamino. This is the Italian word for a small frying pan (called tegame in Amharic), and in some parts of Ethiopia, cooks will prepare their mitin shiro in such a pan and serve it from the pan. This variation is called tegamino (or sometimes spelled tegabino), although in restaurants today, the word is generally used (wrongly) to mean simmering shiro wot served in a shakla dest.

Doke. This is an Amharic term for an especially thick shiro wot. Thomas Leiper Kane’s Amharic dictionary defines it as “a low-grade sauce, pea flour porridge.”

Feses. This Amharic word means “it flows,” and McCann says it refers to a very thin shiro wot commonly found in Ethiopia.

Guagola. A verb that means “to be lumpy,” just what you don’t want your shiro to be. The related meguagel also describes this culinary faux pas.

Kochee Shiro. This is the Afaan Oromo word for the dish, where kochee is the word for stew.

Atar, shimbra, baqela/bakela. These are the Amharic names for the legumes most commonly used to make shiro powder: peas, chickpeas, fava beans, respectively. Lentils are called misir.

Finally, a few words about helbet and siljo, two legume powders that you might call first cousins (once removed) to shiro.

During religious fasting seasons, Ethiopians eat no meat, and the price of shiro rises, so they often like more vegetable selections. Preparations of helbet and siljo powders can vary, but helbet is generally made from misir and baqela, then spiced with fenugreek; and siljo is made from baqela, then seasoned with garlic, senafitch (Ethiopian mustard) and sunflower seed paste. Like shiro, each powder is reconstituted in water and stewed until it’s thick, although helbet is generally runnier than shiro, and siljo is usually thicker and sometimes fermented for a few days before consumption.

These dishes are more common in northern Ethiopian cultures. In fact, helbet (or hilbet) is the Tigrinya word for that dish. It’s called elbet in Amharic. And in the Moslem culture of Harar, they have a dish called hulbat marahk, a spicy stew of hulbat sauce with chunks of meat and injera.

 

A FEW YEARS AGO, I gave up on making shiro wot. Mine just never turned out right. But then I asked Menkir for advice on how to make it, and since then, it’s been perfect every time.

The key, Menkir taught me, is patience: You have to let it simmer down very slowly from a runny liquid into a creamy stew. I was also using too much mitin shiro and adding the powder to the water too soon.

For the best results when you make your shiro, use one tablespoon of powder for every four ounces of water, and perhaps a tablespoon or two of oil for every 12 to 16 ounces of water. But bring the water and oil to a boil first, then turn down the heat, slowly stir in the powder, and let it cook for up to 45 minutes, stirring every now and then. I’ll add a tip of my own to this: When you stir, use a wire whisk rather than a spoon.

Some cooks will add chopped onions to the stew, and some even add finely chopped tomatoes, but Menkir says that tomatoes in Ethiopian cooking “came directly from Asmara [Eritrea] and the Italian influence. You don’t find it once you leave the main roads.” There are no different names for shiro wot that has onions or tomatoes in it.

Menkir is a man who knows his shiro – so well, in fact, that he makes it himself from scratch and sells it to restaurants through his new company Timeless Harvest.

“I feel that authentic, consistent and sustainably produced shiro should be available in North America,” he says. “We can’t wait for the container to unload our shiro at the port of Oakland, or for a friend or relative to bring a Ziplock bag of shiro on a visit to America. I started Timeless Harvest to do just this, among other things.” He sells it now exclusively to Finfiné Ethiopian Restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., and has plans to widen his market in the next phase of his enterprise.

Menkir says his children enjoy shiro, but he admits that when he was their age, he didn’t like it all that much. But from listening to him tell stories about life back home, the loss was clearly his.

“As a kid,” he recalls, “I watched my mother go through the whole shiro powder preparations meticulously. Unfortunately that was never documented. She made some of the best shiro: She had special small dists [pot] made for some occasions when she served shiro b’kibbee for breakfast. It will come to the table, still bubbling, in the same dist it was made. I guess shiro, in a way, is part of who I am.”

He’s since come home to shiro, and he now appreciates it for the “flavorful presentation” of its nutritional legumes, and for its sheer convenience. “It’s a pre-cooked product that can quickly be turned into a nice warm dish very simply,” he says, adding with a smile: “It will fit well into Rachel Ray’s 30-minute meals very easily. If you can boil water, then you can make shiro.”

He notes that shiro powder has typically been cooked twice by the time it gets to you: The whole legumes are parboiled to remove the outer skin, and they’re lightly roasted to allow them to dehydrate before being milled into a powder. “So when you make your shiro at home,” he says, “it’s cooking for the third time. We have one over re-fried beans.”

Menkir has met people who register surprise when he tells them that all shiro isn’t necessarily the spicy kay mitin shiro. “Netch shiro is not nearly as common as kay shiro,” he says. “It’s generally made for folks on medication and kids who can’t quite handle the berbere in kay shiro yet.”

But he prefers the spicy stuff, both for its flavor and its convenience. “All the aromatics, herbs and spices that one usually adds when making wot are incorporated with the legumes during the drying and milling,” he says, “precisely to make the product the closest thing to an MRE – meals ready to eat, as they say in the U.S. Army.”

Leyou Tameru, an Ethiopian lawyer and writer, grew up loving shiro made by her mother and grandmother. “The one thing I know about shiro,” she tells me, “is that everybody eats it, but it’s the most difficult thing to make. It tests your cooking capacity. In Ethiopia, if a woman makes good shiro, then she’s a good cook.”

But she’s especially fond of some regional varieties. In the northern city of Mekele, “they make amazing shiro with butter. They put some meat in it sometimes, and they are popular for making the best shiro.” And in Bahir Dar, a city on the southern shore of Lake Tana, the shiro is thicker, “almost powdery, like mashed potatoes, or even denser,” Leyou says. “They don’t put as much water in it, and they use more kibbee.”

McCann, too, has encountered this variety, “a lump in the shape of a half football served without the clay pot – strange and heavily garlicked.” A restaurant he visited recently in Bahir Dar calls it tegabino on its menu, which also offers the thinner feses variety of shiro.

Harry Kloman
University of Pittsburgh

Watch a video of an Ethiopian cook making shiro wot (in Amharic, with subtitles in 12 languages).

 

Here’s a step-by-step recipe that includes onions, tomatoes and garlic.

 

Here’s some doke shiro making the tuk tuk sound as it cooks.

 

And finally, Chef Asmerom brings some humor to making shiro – in Amharic.

Novel Cuisine: Food, Ferenj & Fiction

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THE NEXT TIME YOU DECIDE TO RELAX with a good novel set in Ethiopia, you may find yourself craving a meal before you get to the end: Storytellers can’t seem to resist describing the country’s unique cuisine in the middle of the action.

T’ej, injera, doro wot, coffee: It all turns up as ferenj writers weave authentic descriptions of Ethiopia’s legendary cuisine into their often very fanciful fictions. Even TV’s animated first family, The Simpsons, memorably found their way to an Ethiopian restaurant – just Marge and the kids, of course (Watch the video).

In the late 1930s, the African-American journalist George S. Schuyler wrote two mystery novels, one set in the United States, one set in Ethiopia, and both with plots and themes that he hoped would stir support for Ethiopia’s fight against the Italian occupation of their country.

In Revolt in Ethiopia (1939), the novel’s hero, a wealthy African-American oilman, sneaks an Ethiopian princess back into her homeland, where they share a meal with a brave rebel leader in a small town on the border with Sudan.

Describing his characters’ first meal on Ethiopian soil, Schuyler writes:

A servant entered with a great bowl of turtle soup. Then came excellent river fish, followed by giant snails cooked in palm butter thickened with cassava flour. Gourds of cool palm wine were soon emptied and refilled. The pièce de resistance was a great haunch of rare beef, which the Dedjasmatch carved with a huge razor-sharp hunting knife. For dessert there was watermelon, followed by excellent Italian cognac.

This fictional repast samples three elements of Ethiopian cuisine: The raw beef is typically Ethiopian, the cognac shows the Italian influence, and the dishes (and beverages) made of palm and cassava are more Sudanese, a characteristic found in those far western parts of Ethiopia that border the Sudan, where this scene in the novel took place.

In the best-selling autobiographical novel Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese – born and raised in Ethiopia, the child of Indian parents, and now a medical doctor in America – has a sweeping and dramatic story to tell, so there’s very little time to dine. Verghese mentions basic food items like injera, wot and t’ej here and there, mostly in passing.

We do learn that not just any butter will do when making Ethiopian food in America. Someone has to bring kibe from Ethiopia, for “without butter from cows that live at altitude and graze on high pastures, your wot will taste of Kroger or FoodMart or Land O’Lakes.”

In Ethiopia, Verghese describes a meal, but he explains the food that he mentions, perhaps assuming an audience for his popular novel that doesn’t know the cuisine:

She held out a five-birr note. “Take bowl to Sheba Bar and fetch please doro-wot,” she said, naming the delectable red chicken curry cooked in Ethiopian peppers – berbere. Her Amharic was crude, and she could only speak in the present tense, but doro-wot was a term she’d mastered early. And doro-wot had occupied her dreams her last few nights in Madras, after so many days of a pure vegetarian diet. The wot came poured onto the soft crepelike injera and there would be more rolls of injera which Hema would use to scoop up the meat. The curry would have soaked into the injera that lined the bowl by the time Gebrew brought it. Her mouth watered just thinking of the dish.

The scene ends before the meal arrives.

Nega Mezlekia left Ethiopia at the age of 25 in 1983 and moved to Canada, where be published Notes from the Hyena’s Belly, a harrowing memoir of his life back home. Then came his first novel, The God Who Begat a Jackal, set in late 18th Century feudal Ethiopia.

There’s not much mention of food in the book, but we do see “mugs of steaming coffee-leaf brew laced with salt and ginger.” These leaves are called koti, and Ethiopians use them to create a hot drink just as they use tea leaves. The flavorings are local customs, and some people find the idea of salt in coffee to be distasteful. A few paragraphs later, the lady of the house serves a meal, beginning with the ritual hand-washing ceremony:

With a mug of warm water in one hand and a washbasin in the other, I helped the men bathe their hands. A stack of injera, drenched in lentil stew and large enough, in fact, to feed a small army, was placed before the two of us. Mam sampled the food, as tradition required (easing the guest’s mind that he was not being poisoned), before retreating to the corner. Mam and I sat beside the fire, sharing a small plate. From time to time, she rose to top up the men’s mugs and sprinkle what little remained of the stew on their injera.

In his 1955 novel Rogue’s Gambit, the British novelist and screenwriter Alan Caillou (née Alan Samuel Lyle-Smythe) tells a thrilling story of post-war intrigue between the British, the Italians and the Ethiopians. It’s a quickly paced novel, but of course, there’s always time for a meal.

Early in the book, whilst still in England, the characters plan their covert operation, and we get the first hint of cuisine:

Metcalfe said: “Fly to Aden. By dhow to Berbera. Truck to Hargeisa. Jig-Jigga, the Madar Pass and Harrar. . .”

“Best coffee in the world,” Dinesen said. “We might pick up a truckload.”

Then, it’s on to Ethiopia, and 30 pages later, there’s a meal. It begins when their cagey adversary, Ras Guggla, invites the men to drink some t’ej during the stressful task of discussing a deal to sell some guns:

He led them into an inner room and clapped his hands. As two women came in, they sat down on sheepskin-covered benches, and the women poured the fine golden drink from tall glass bottles into metal tankards and handed them to the men; first to the Ras, then to Metcalfe, then to Pender. They drank slowly, feeling the warm, smooth liquid spread its slow fire through their limbs. . .

Metcalfe said lightly: “It is as easy to talk now as at any time. Your t’ej is strong. We may not be able to press so hard a bargain later.”

The two women lingered in the doorway. They kept their eyes fixed on the tankards, and as one was half emptied, it was as rapidly filled. The time passed slowly, Pender was thinking, If we don’t get some food inside us soon, to soak this lot up…and at last a servant came, touching the ground with her forehead, craving permission to bring in the food. The dishes, great round steaming platters, were carried in by young girls, and with them came the officer of the Ras’s Army.

After a bit more conversation, it’s time to eat. Caillou doesn’t name the dishes, but we know these entrees as doro wot and tere siga, along with plenty of t’ej, and served to Metcalfe by means of gursha:

One of the young girls, smiling, pulled a leg from a braised chicken, wrapped it in a flat pancake of bread, dipped it in rich red sauce, and held it out to Metcalfe. She giggled and shook her head as he tried to take it from her. Pender said: “Open your mouth, you fool!” And he obediently and affably held his mouth open while she placed it carefully between his teeth. It was tender as butter and as pepper-hot as a charcoal fire; he felt the tears streaming to his eyes and the perspiration spotting his forehead, and Pender said conversationally: “You grow excellent peppers here, Your Excellency.”

There were hard-boiled eggs in oil and some of the red-hot sauce, and spiced cheeses and rolled-up slivers of raw red beef, then more chicken, roast and fried and boiled and braised, and more beef and more cheeses, and t’ej and more t’ej, then honey and cakes and sweets and dates and more honey, then t’ej and yet more t’ej, till Metcalfe felt his head swimming.

The Ethiopians were eating steadily, drinking and chewing, chewing and drinking, and still the food was brought in, food and more food out of all gargantuan proportions. Metcalfe said thickly: “I feel we shall not discuss much business today, Ex…Excellence…Excellency.” And Ras Guggla nodded and said: “First we eat and drink. Talk afterwards.” Metcalfe tried to stop drinking, but the t’ej was forced upon him in so charming a manner that he feared to offend his hosts.

Next morning, Metcalfe has a monster headache, for which Pender suggests more t’ej. “It’s a prime virtue of tej,” he says. “Kills its own hangover.”

And by the way, an Ethiopian friend tells me that there is no such name as “Guggla” in Amharic, but there is the name “Guggsa.” For the sake of fidelity, I’ve left it the way Caillou wrote it in his novel. And if, in fact, the author simply erred, I may know why: To the untrained eye, the Amharic letters for “l” and “s” look somewhat alike, so perhaps that’s why Caillou made the mistake. Or perhaps not.

Edmund P. Murray clearly knew a lot about Ethiopia when he wrote his dark sprawling romantic adventure novel Kulubi (1973). Morsels of food and drink pop up all throughout the book.

The longest eating passage comes early, when Murray introduces us to Hilary Blankenship, a raffish pilot well versed in Ethiopian culture, and very fond of Ethiopian women:

He had come to enjoy Ethiopian food with its hot spicy stews scooped up in pieces of flat, sour bread, its liquors brewed from honey and gesho…He knew none of its countless languages and dialects well, not even Amharic. In the same style, he had ignored the local food until from the hands of an attractive young matron he savored his first gursha, a serving of strongly peppered wat daintily wrapped in a strip of pancake-like injera, placed in your mouth by another as a sign of affection and hospitality.

He soon yearned for wat made from chicken and lamb or beef at every meal and began to regret dinners at home or meals in hotels and restaurants on his flights to Europe. A Gurage girl who took care of his five children introduced him to kitfo, chopped beef and peppers taken raw or lightly cooked in thick butter. He had sampled it first late one night in the servants’ quarters behind his ten-room villa.

At the wedding of a hostess he’d been dating, he had first dared brundo, the raw meat of a freshly slaughtered bull hacked still warm from sides of the flesh carried among the guests on poles by servants. A secretary from Gojjam brought him his first taste of white liquor called katikala in a flask prepared by her mother in the countryside. The daughter of the restaurant owner taught him to forsake beer for t’ella and t’ej.

This passage certainly establishes the credentials of the character. But at the same time, it gives inexperienced readers a compact glimpse of Ethiopian dietary habits.

Alan Scholefield’s The Hammer of God (1973) tells a story of Tewodros II (1855-1868) – called Theodore in English – the mighty-cum-tragic Ethiopian negus whose glorious ascent and ignominious fall comprise a fascinating passage in 19th Century Ethiopian history.

But even doomed emperors need to eat, and at the end of Book One, the British visitors to Ethiopia finally come face to face with Tewodros, who’s in the middle of enjoying a horn of t’ej:

Theodore finished drinking and gazed down at him thoughtfully. Then, abruptly, his black eyes seemed to catch fire. He dashed the half-full horn to the ground. His face became suffused by rage. “Who are you?” he shrieked. “I don’t know you!”

Fortunately, the ravenous emperor’s rage passes quickly, and Book Two of the novel begins with the mealtime ritual of q’wirt and a swig of areqe::

The King held one end of a long strip of raw, still steaming meat in his mouth, took the other in his left hand and stretched it above his head so that his face turned to the roof. Then, with his right hand, he caught up a sharp sword with a hooked, scimitar-like blade and slashed upwards across his face; as he did so he closed his eyes. The blade sliced cleanly through the brundo about two millimeters from his lips. He opened his eyes. He began to laugh. He choked on the meat and washed it down with a draught of areqe.

One of the servants came running in with a thin shaving of raw meat about a yard long, cut from the still-hot corpse of a newly slaughtered beast, and held it for Sears as he gripped one end in his mouth and slashed through the meat as close to his lips as he dared.

Eating raw meat in Ethiopia, c. 1896

“No! No!” the King laughed. “Try it with your eyes closed!”

He slashed again, keeping his eyes closed until the last moment, when panic forced them open. He laughed. The King laughed. Lord Lamming sat there, frowning.

Yohannes ran in with a strip of brundo which he proceeded to douse heavily with red pepper. He offered it to Franklin, who shook his head. He had eaten brundo many times but now, sitting beside Lady Lamming, he found that his appetite for the raw meat had vanished.

In deference to the Lammings the King ordered some of the brundo to be grilled on the open fire in the room and the smell of seared meat and the smoke from the burning fat joined the other smells: of incense, of sweating bodies, of mouldering, damp brickwork; the smells of straw and wet thatch, of raw meat, of fermented honey, of chopped capsicums, of pitch flambeaux.

More food was brought into the pulsing room; more beasts were slaughtered just outside the doorway, their agonized bellowing mingling with the noise of the guests who, thinking they might be forgotten, were shouting with food-filled mouths for more. Great gumbos – the horns of the Sanga oxen – of hydromel were quaffed and bottles of areqe, which Franklin had described to Lady Lamming as more like sloe gin than the areqe drunk in the Near East, were passed from hand to hand. So plentiful was the supply of meat that the guests ate very little of the chappatti-like teff which came in round panniers, using it instead to wipe their hands on, then flinging it down on the rush floor, where it was snatched up by the servants.

An Ethiopian meal probably doesn’t get more vivid than that, although it seems a terrible shame to waste fresh injera by using it as a napkin.

There’s very little time for a meal in Cry Wolf (1976), Wilbur Smith’s novel about two men – an American and a Briton – who help the beleaguered Ethiopians in their fight against an invading Italian army in 1935. Smith, who was born in North Rhodesia (now Zambia) and currently live in London, explores the country’s culinary culture in a scene that begins with the slaughter of an ox.

The bellows would cease abruptly as the blockman swung his long two-handled sword and the carcass fell with a thud that seemed to reverberate through the cavern. A vast shout of approval greeted the fall of the beast, and a dozen eager assistants flayed the hide, hacked the flesh into bloody strips and piled them onto huge platters of baked clay.

The servants staggered into the cave, bearing the laden platters of steaming, quivering meat. The guests fell upon it, men and women alike, snatching up the bleeding flesh, taking an end between their teeth, pulling it tight with one hand and hacking free a bite-sized piece with a knife grasped in the other. The flashing blade passed a mere fraction from the end of the diner’s nose and warm blood trickled unheeded down the chin, as the lump was swallowed with a single convulsive heave of the throat.

Each mouthful was washed down into the belly with a swig of the fiery Ethiopian tej – a brew made from wild honey, a liquid the colour of golden amber, with the impact of a charging buffalo bull.

In deference to the appetite and tastes of foreigners, they were offered in place of raw beef, an endless succession of bubbling pots containing the fiery casseroles of beef, lamb, chicken and game that are known under the inclusive title of wat. These highly spiced, peppery but delicious concoctions were spooned out onto thin sheets of unleavened bread and rolled into a cigar shape before eating.

This all describes a very typical Ethiopian-novel meal, and like Scholefield, Smith documents the potentially dangerous ritual of q’wirt and the vivid act of killing your dinner just moments before it’s served.

Finally, the French writer Jean-Christophe Rufin travels from Paris to Cairo to Ethiopia in 1699 for his novel The Abyssinians (1997), a tale of Louis XIV’s embassy to what was then a mysterious ancient Christian kingdom in Africa. The sojourners didn’t know what to expect from their visit with Emperor Iyasu (1682-1706), and they learned about injera, wot, tej and the mesob at their first grand meal in the country, although Rufin doesn’t use any of these terms.

They ate dinner in an enormous room set slightly below street level. After entering through a low door they were greeted by a middle-aged woman, tall and wearing a long white cotton dress embroidered with a multicolored cross. She showed them to a narrow alcove separated from the rest of the room by muslin curtains. It was the custom in Abyssinia never to eat in public, for fear that a stranger’s look might introduce evil spirits into their bodies through the food. During meals, therefore, the inn was transformed into a series of adjoining cotton-walled cells where small groups of diners gathered, screened from the eyes of outsiders. Once the meal was over, the veils were pulled aside and the whole room came into view, with the various groups sitting on stools or carpets around colored wicker tables.

The travelers dined on a flat cake a cubit in diameter. It was made of teff, a cereal grown in the Abyssinian uplands and allowed to ferment until it was tangy. The whole was then covered with a quantity of heavily spiced sauces. Drink was served to them in round, long-necked pots. It was a smooth liquor of honey and water that seemed harmless but befuddled their minds in an agreeable way.

A few days later, still not assimilated, the visiting emissaries get a startling lesson on the custom of gursha while dining with some more experienced visitors:

During the afternoon, Demetrius brought them several flattering invitations to dine in aristocratic houses in the city. They accepted one for that very night and found that their hosts had provided everything imaginable to honor them: delicious foods, quantities of mead, and a small group of musicians and singers. Poncet, who had taken many notes that afternoon, was able to pursue his observations of local customs.

He noticed that men customarily made little effort to lift food to their mouths. A female dinner partner would generally prepare a mouthful for the man beside her and, as Abyssinians used neither spoons nor forks, fed it to him with her fingers. He watched with genuine terror as a slave girls set down the flat cake and sauces at the table and his neighbor kneaded a portion of it into a ball with her long, gold-ringed fingers. She then dipped it into the red liquids, which were virtually swimming with hot peppers, and stuffed the whole thing decisively into Jean-Baptiste’s mouth. Opposition was useless, despite the burning sensation he immediately felt. He accepted the second mouthful with his eyes full of tears.

Women cooking in Ethiopia

The same treatment was being meted out to Juremi at the hands of a graceful girl on his right. The other men appeared in no way shocked at these signs of forwardness. But they reproved Poncet and his friend in the strongest terms when either tried to stop the force-feeding on the paltry grounds that they were no longer hungry.

This ordeal continued until their torturers concluded that the two had eaten their fill – or perhaps until the moment when, on the basis of past experience, the cruel ladies judged their charges were about to collapse. Their insides on fire, the Frenchmen were doused with floods of mead, overheating them completely. The guests then began to disperse around the house. Some went out onto the terrace to drink coffee under the moonlight. But Poncet’s stern companion motioned him to follow her, while Juremi went off in another direction with his own companion.

They both thought they were being led to a washroom of some sort, where they might splash water on their faces, as their eyes were still stained with tears and their lips inflamed by strong spices. Instead, they found themselves in dark apartments hung with tapestries and strewn with cushions. Their hostesses silently undressed them, then, just as they had taken over the management of the travelers’ nutritional needs, so they addressed their other desires.

If that doesn’t make you want to run to an Ethiopian restaurant, then you might as well just eat hamburgers for the rest of your life.

Harry Kloman
University of Pittsburgh

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