Singing for Your Supper: The Music of the Meal

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VERY OFTEN AT ETHIOPIAN RESTAURANTS, you’ll hear the culture’s music playing softly (or not so softly) through speakers sprinkled around the dining room. And while you may not realize it, some of those songs tell stories about the cuisine.

Ethiopian music has many sounds and uses a variety of instruments that are little known outside of Africa. But for the sake of music about food, the songs I’ve collected here – along with their videos – demonstrate three styles.

The oldest of them is the music of the azmari, men and women who sing traditional songs and accompany themselves on the masenqo, a one-stringed instrument, or the krar, which has five or six strings (the begena, another stringed Ethiopian instrument, has 10). Azmaris perform in bars, restaurants or wherever people want to listen to them.

“Of course, azmaris do not perform just for the love of music,” J.M. F Powne writes in a 1963 master’s thesis on Ethiopian music. “In court they expect food and keep, and generous largesse as well. In the marketplace or the inn they are given tips or drinks.” Ethiopians often refer to this as “cultural music,” and sometimes the musicians improvise their lyrics.

That’s not unlike hip-hop, which Ethiopian musicians have performed for the last few decades. Some of the rappers perform in English, but most of the biggest names in the genre sing in Amharic, the state language of Ethiopia and the country’s second most widely spoken. There are also rappers who sing in Oromo, the most widely spoken language, and in Tigrinya, the language spoken in the north of Ethiopia and in neighboring Eritrea. Young Ethiopian-Americans also rap in English, Amharic, or a mix of both.

Three traditional instruments: masenqo, krar, begena

Three traditional Ethiopian azmari instruments: masenqo, krar, begena

Somewhere in between these two is Ethiopian jazz, or Ethio-Jazz, a form that emerged in the 1950s and that incorporates the sounds of traditional jazz, traditional Ethiopian music, some Latin beats, and more recently, Afro funk.

Kay Kaufman Shelemay, a noted Ethiopian scholar, wrote a paper about musicians of the Ethiopian-American diaspora. Although she talks about musical performances at restaurants in Washington, D.C., she doesn’t discuss any songs about food. Simeneh Betreyohannes wrote a 2010 paper that explores the scholarship of Ethiopian music, and Ezra Abate has analyzed the Ethiopian scale system.

Here, then, are some videos by artists who sing about Ethiopian cuisine. I’ve embedded them from their original sources, so hopefully they’ll stay put there. Before the video for each song, I’ll tell you a little about it – in some cases, what little I know because most of them are in Amharic.

 

LET’S START THE SHOW with some English lyrics (more or less). In What Is Wot?, Wilbur Sargunaraj treats us to a cultural lesson and some Ethiopian hip-hop – even though he’s an Indian performer who’s been dubbed “India’s First YouTube star.” He shot this playful tribute video with the children at a school and orphanage in Ethiopia.

 

ETHIOPIANS IN AMERICA appreciate their culture’s cuisine, and in Still Eatin’ (On Shurro), Lil Nate and his crew sing about shiro, a delicious dish made with chick peas, berbere and other spices. No Ethiopian meal is complete without it.

 

JUST HOW POPULAR is shiro? Here’s another song, in English, by an Ethiopian-American who loves his mother’s cooking yet who can’t escape it – the aroma of it follows him everywhere. He calls his song Smell Me.

 

YOU CAN’T HAVE TOO MANY SONGS about shiro, and Ashenafi Kebede has created a lively one called Ere Shiro Fela, which means “the shiro has boiled” – that is, it’s almost ready to eat. The song is performed in Amharic, Gurage and a bit of Afaan Oromo. My friend Menkir Tamrat explains that cooking most Ethiopian dishes requires finesse, but with shiro, you just add the powder to the water and let it boil until it’s ready, as thin or as thick as you like it.

 

THE ETHIOPIAN honey wine t’ej is one of the oldest known meads in the world, and it’s cherished in the culture. Here’s a traditional song called T’ej Bet, or “t’ej house,” the name for a bar where it’s all t’ej, all the time.

 

FANTU MANDOYE’S JAZZY Min T’ej Alena, which means “no quality t’ej,” begins like an MTV video, with a “dramatic” sequence of some men arguing in a t’ej bet, and for a while it looks like a duel might break out (the effect of too much t’ej, no doubt). But soon Fantu’s performance begins.

 

IN THE KIDS’ SONG Injera BeAgelgel (እንጀራ በአገልግል), a group of youngsters sing and dance to azmari music and traditional instruments in a song about an agelgel, a traditional animal hide basket that Ethiopians use to carry food or to hold the injera that you serve at a meal. It’s sort of like an Ethiopian lunchbox.

 

HERE’S ANOTHER SONG about injera, this one done in the style of Ethiopian hip-hop by an artist who calls himself “Henockalypse,” and who dedicates the song to that “mom, grandma or auntie who makes you eat even though you’re full.” He made it with his cousin Mahlet. The song is called Injera Belachu, or “did you eat your injera?”

 

CAN YOU EVER HAVE too many songs about injera? Here’s a tune by King Tewoflos Production – that is, Teddy Tewoflos. They use the alternative enjera spelling (more or less), but we know what they’re singing about.

 

NOTHING GOES BETTER with injera than – well, just about everything. In Injera be Wet, which means “injera with wot” (i.e., spicy stew), hip-hop artist Royal Ema sings about injera, shiro, siga wot and other tasty things.

 

WHAT THIS NEXT SONG has to do with its title, Injera, Lentils and Kale, is beyond my ken, but Ras G and the Afrikan Space Program has created a video to go with it that has lots of food. This is the Shiro Mix featuring lyrics performed by Zeroh. The artists have also recorded an instrumental version of the tune.

 

HERE’S A WEIRD TAKE on Ethiopian food. The Atlanta-based Ethiopian-American artist Alex Girma has created some paintings with people dressed in outfits made of injera and dabo (bread), and someone has set images of his work to music. Guess it’s better than a real-life suit made of meat (with apologies to Lady Gaga).

 

THE BELOVED DISH doro wot has been the subject of many songs, and in Doro Doro Wet, hip-hop artist Henos gives it the royal treatment.

 

THE GREENEST VEGETABLE that you’ll find on an Ethiopian table is gomen – or as we call it in America, collard greens (although you can make it with kale as well). Tsehay Yohannes (or Yohanes) sings and dances about the staple dish that goes especially well with kitfo (raw ground meat). He calls his song Gomen Betena, or “gomen for your health.”

 

COFFEE CAME TO THE WORLD from Ethiopia when (the legend says) an Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi noticed that his flock became frisky after eating some strange little red beans. So naturally, Ethiopians like to sing about it. In the jazz tune Ethiopian Buna (that’s the Amharic word for coffee), the accompanying images vividly illustrate the country’s gift to the world.

 

COFFEE IS MORE than just a drink in Ethiopia. It’s a symbol of the nation’s heritage. The singer/composer Rehaset – born in Saudi Arabia to Ethiopian parents, now living and working in Toronto – is collaborating on a musical called The Buna Project that will explore her Ethiopian heritage. Here, she sings the song Buna.

 

BORN AND RAISED IN ETHIOPIA, where he learned English and French, hip-hop artist Rasselas moved to Montreal with his family and launched his career from Toronto, which has a big Ethiopian community. He called his 2015 album Injera Music, but only in the tune Doro Wot does he sing about food.

 

APPARENTLY ANYTHING that you can eat in Ethiopia inspires someone to write a song about it. In Dabo Kolo, the hip-hop group Arada Boyz rap about the crunchy snack of roasted barley often eaten after a meal or with coffee.

 

TOUCHES OF ITALIAN CUISINE made their way into Ethiopia during Italy’s occupation of the country in the 1930s, and one thing that stuck around is pasti – fried and lightly sweetened balls of dough (Ethiopian cuisine has no sweet desserts native to its culture). Ermias Tuka, joined by an Ethio-Swedish singer who goes by the name Addis Black Widow, recorded a song called Pasti Bet, or “pasti house,” and you can see those words (ፓስቲ ቤት) written on a building in Amharic at the start of the video. But apart from the title, the song doesn’t have too much to do with food.

 

ERITREAN CUISINE is the same as Ethiopian cuisine, and so is some Eritrean music. The Armed Mindz, an Eritrean hip-hop group from Oakland, Calif., sings Pass the Berbere in English and a little bit of Tigrinya, the primary language of Eritrea.

 

EVER THE SMART MARKETERS, the Coca-Cola company has created a series of snappy ads that play in countries around the world, each ad tailored to the culture and language of the country where it airs. Here’s one from Ethiopia, with scenes of everyday middle-class life and some Amharic sprinkled throughout, all set to the rhythm of a lively pop tune.

 

THIS FINAL SONG isn’t about food, but the performance does take place at a restaurant. The Krar Collective, an Ethiopian ensemble that performs traditional music, shared an intimate song at Muya, an Ethiopian restaurant in London that closed recently and whose owners now operate a catering business. And here’s the group performing at Rosalind’s, the oldest Ethiopian restaurant in Los Angeles’ Little Ethiopia, where the dancing was as spirited as the singing.

 

Harry Kloman
University of Pittsburgh

Summer of   ’15: North & South

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AS PART OF MY TRIP TO ATLANTA THIS SUMMER, I visited friends in Charlotte, cooked them an Ethiopian dinner (with homemade t’ej), and checked out two new restaurants that had opened since my last visit to the city. On the way home, passing through Asheville and Greensboro in North Carolina, I dropped in on two more. And on the way to and from Chicago a month earlier, I visited newer places in Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Grand Rapids. Here’s a roundup of what I saw.

Tsige's injera batter

Tsige’s injera batter at Nile

Charlotte’s Nile Grocery and Ethiopian Restaurant is – like the name suggests – a restaurant and market where you can get a full-course meal, fresh injera for takeout, and everything else you need to cook Ethiopian food at home. The word “grocery” coming first in the name makes sense: The restaurant portion is four small tables at the back of a well-stocked market.

Tsige Meshesha and her husband, Zerabruk Abay, opened their business as just a market 10 years ago and added a few tables for a restaurant about five years later. The couple comes from Adwa, a historically important city in the northern Tigray region of Ethiopia, and Zerabruk works for Kentucky Electronics in Charlotte. He earned a degree in textile engineering after completing studies first at Bahir Dar Polytechnic in Ethiopia and then at a university in Russia, where the coupled lived for a few years until the early 1980s.

Their market is copiously stocked with spices and other cooking items, and for $7, you can get a package of eight fresh injera. Tsige makes the injera herself in Nile’s kitchen using an array of mitads. For many years, she used the Heritage Grill, a product common in Ethiopian-American homes and sold online by Target. But a few years ago, Tsige said, something about the grill seemed to change, and the injera began to burn in the middle. She took pictures and wrote to the manufacturer – to no avail. So she began to use a mitad made by Niat, the Seattle-based company owned by an Eritrean-American man who invented the product (which he calls a mogogo, the Tigrinya word for mitad). Tsige also sells Niat mitads in her shop.

Now, with some glowing reviews on Yelp, the couple hopes to open a full-scale restaurant some time soon. Until then, Tsige will go on cooking at her current location and selling injera to Charlotte’s Ethiopians – a community of about 2,000 or 3,000 people, she estimates – and to her numerous non-Ethiopian customers as well.

Terhas offers a coffee ceremony at her restaurant

East African Cuisine’s coffee ceremony

A few miles away from Nile you’ll find East African Cuisine, which bills itself as “Ethiopian and Eritrean,” and it offers a few Italian dishes (like spaghetti and lasagna) that are typical of Eritrean-owned restaurants, a cultural remnant of Italy’s almost 50 years of occupation in the first half of the 20th Century. Its menu declares itself to be “Asmara East African Cuisine,” but the sign above the window in the small plaza where you’ll find it simply says “East African Cuisine – Eritrea – Ethiopia.”

It’s two years old, and its owner, Terhas (Terry) Goitam, knows she needs to advertise more to help business pick up. But she’s beginning to build a loyal clientele, and “once they come, they come back. I see so many familiar faces. That’s why I don’t want to give up.” She also caters weddings and other events in her roomy, handsomely decorated restaurant.

A native of Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, Terhas arrived in Charlotte in 1996, moved to Atlanta in 1999, and in 2003 returned to Charlotte, where she estimates the Eritrean population to be about 1,500. In a corner of the restaurant, she has a stage for conducting a coffee ceremony, and she sells spices from a small rack near the kitchen. You can also order her injera in advance for takeout.

A platter of food at Red Sea in Charlotte. Silsi is the deep red dish upper left.

A platter of food at Red Sea in Charlotte.
Silsi is the deep red dish upper left
.

Charlotte has three other restaurants, and I only had time to re-visit one: Red Sea, the city’s oldest, opened in 2001. It’s Eritrean, and it was as good as I’d remembered from a visit a decade ago.

My dinner – some chicken, some lamb, and a lot of vegetarian selections – was fresh, spicy and flavorful, and because the owner, Tekle Gebremoses, is Eritrean, he serves some things you won’t find in Ethiopian restaurants – for example, silsi, a deep red blazing hot dish made with tomatoes, onions, oil and berbere. Tekle says that because of the Italian colonization of Eritrean, his country’s cuisine uses tomatoes more liberally than Ethiopians do. The silsi is a treat on the restaurant’s veggie combination platters, and you can get a coffee ceremony there as well.

Heading back to Pittsburgh from Atlanta, I couldn’t resist taking a circuitous route that passed through Asheville and Greensboro, two lucky smaller North Carolina cities with a single restaurant each.

In 2008, a young Ethiopian-American and his wife, Judah Selassie and Getenesh Ketema, began a catering service and pop-up restaurant in Asheville that served for a few years before the couple left the area. So Addissae isn’t quite the city’s first Ethiopian restaurant, just its first-full time one.

Some art on the wall at Addissae tells a story of Ethiopian history.

Some art on the wall at Addissae
tells a story of Ethiopian history.

The restaurant’s owner, Neeraj Kebede, is an affable and thoughtful fellow from Gimbi, a city 270 miles due west of Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. But he lived in Addis as well before leaving the country in 1973 to attend college in India. He arrived in San Francisco in 1978, lived there for a long while, and about 10 years ago, he and his wife, Vicki Schomer, moved to Asheville, looking for a quieter place to live, and closer to her parents in Virginia where she was raised. The couple also owns Asheville Green Cottage Friends, an “eco-friendly” bed and breakfast they created in 2006, and Vicki is LEED AP certified and a green realtor.

Neeraj,who comes from Ethiopia’s plurality Oromo culture, says there aren’t many Ethiopians in the area – fewer than two dozen – but friends kept encouraging him to open a restaurant: The nearest ones are several hundred miles away in Atlanta or Charlotte (and, lately, Greensboro). So when he did, he persuaded an Ethiopian friend to be a cook, and they’re training others to do it as well. (He confesses that neither he nor his wife can cook Ethiopian food very well.) His injera is gluten free, made at his restaurant with teff and rice flour, but it took him a while to learn to make it properly. In the early days of his restaurant, which opened in 2014, he would drive to Atlanta once a week to get a supply.

During his first few months in business, Neeray told me, he had to turn people away. Most of those early customers were local residents, but tourists are now starting to find him. And that’s not easy: Addissae sits practically hidden on the narrow one-way Commerce Street, and although it’s just a very short walk from busy Patton Avenue – with its many shops, and its cafes and restaurants with live music that spills out onto the street – you don’t just happen across it. Addissae is a destination.

But once you get there, you can’t miss it. When Neeraj opens his front door, the aroma of his cooking wafts out onto the sidewalk, where he posts an Ethiopian flag as a sort of signpost. You enter into a foyer that’s also a small balcony looking down into the rustic and rooming dining space. Best of all, you can peek into a cooking area from the balcony and watch chefs prepare food and warm the injera on a mitad. The restaurant offers generous potions and some basic Amharic lessons on the walls.

Lunch at Taste of Ethiopia

Lunch at Taste of Ethiopia in Greensboro, N.C.

Although away from his homeland for more than four decades now, Neeraj has visited over the years. His mother still lives there, and his restaurant bears her name, a word that also means “my new,” referring to something new that you’re proud to have (like a baby). In fact, he has a framed black-and-white photo of her younger ’60s self hanging on the wall in the foyer.

A few hundred miles away, Greensboro, N.C., now has Taste of Ethiopia, its first restaurant, opened in 2013 by Lulit Kifle and her family. I talked with her brother, Bruk Kifle, after my tasty and filling $8 lunch special (spicy, juicy siga wot and two veggie choices).

The restaurant sits just off a busy road at the back of a small plaza, not too visible to traffic, in a part of the building that looks like a cottage, and if you take a table by the window, you can look out and across the street at a mini-forest. The walls inside are decorated with cultural artifacts and posters about Ethiopia. It’s all tables, with no mesobs, and Ethiopian music plays gently in the background.

The family works together at the place: Bruk, who was in banking in Ethiopia, manages the restaurant, handles purchasing, and even waits tables if the need arise; his mother, Azeb Sinke, cooks the food; and his father, Kifle Getachew, helps as well. They’ve all been in Asheville for three or four years, but Lulit, whose husband is a doctor, has lived in the city for almost a decade.

Taste of Ethiopia's rustic front door

Taste of Ethiopia’s rustic front door

Most people in Greensboro don’t know Ethiopian cuisine unless they’ve traveled to bigger cities, and Bruk said of their usually novice customers, “They’re so nice and so open and eager to taste Ethiopian food.” The one dish that draws some hesitation from his non-Ethiopian visitors is kitfo, the beloved (back home) dish of raw ground meat. It’s Bruk’s favorite, but only customers “well experienced with Ethiopian food, not first-timers,” will try it raw. He estimates that the area (including nearby Winston-Salem) has no more than 300 Ethiopians, most of them professionals, and they’ve lived there for a decade or more, so there’s not a lot of new Ethiopian immigration to the area.

As for the restaurant’s injera, his mother makes it, but it did take her a while to get it right on a smaller American-made mitad. Their regular injera mixes teff with self-rising flour, but they also offer gluten-free injera made only with teff. His mother keeps some batter on hand and makes pieces on the spot if people request it. They use a fleet of half a dozen Wass mitads, and they work fine, although the restaurant makes so much injera that they have to replace the devices every four to six months.

 

IN EASTERN OHIO, if you want Ethiopian food or spices, Columbus is the place to go with its community of numerous restaurants and markets – compared to just one restaurant and no market in the bigger nearby Cleveland.

But if you live in western Ohio, you can count on Cincinnati. Along with a very good market, the city has several restaurants, and the newest one – which I visited earlier in the summer on a trip to Chicago – is unique and delicious.

Gurmukh and Genet Singh

Gurmukh and Genet Singh

It’s called Elephant Walk, and it serves both Ethiopian and Indian cuisine thanks to its married owners: Gurmukh Singh is Indian, and his wife, Genet, is Ethiopian. The restaurant’s lunch buffet is magnificent: Accompanied by the breads injera and nan, you can eat your fill of half a dozen dishes from each cuisine, including such rarely seen Ethiopian dishes as inguday (mushroom) tibs and bedergan (eggplant) wot.

Situated along a one-way stretch of West McMillan Avenue that hosts trendy restaurants and shops, Elephant Walk serves the best Ethiopian buffet I’ve ever had: moist tender doro tibs, spicy chunks of white meat surrounded by onions and peppers; misir wot, the popular red lentil dish, rich with ginger; kik alicha, well-cooked split yellow peas; tangy inguday tibs, with thick slices of mushroom joined by onions, tomatoes and green peppers; bedergan wot with carrots; and the traditional gomen for a dose of greens. I also sampled two Indian dishes: chicken tikka masala, creamy and effervescent; and the unusual tandoori wings.

Both cuisines use clarified butter in their meat dishes. But where Indian ghee is just butter, Ethiopian niter kibe adds spices during the clarification process. My young server said the restaurant uses kibe in its Ethiopian dishes, but rather than ghee in the Indian recipes, “they use ours,” she said – meaning that the Indian cooks use kibe rather than ghee. This hints at who wears the culinary pants in the Singh household.

About four miles from Elephant Walk, you’ll find Merkato Market, a small but remarkably well stocked shop that sells several “brands” of injera made by women in the community, along with many big round ambashas (a doughy leavened bread), all the necessary spices to cook an Ethiopian meal, plus shiro and even bula. It’s out of the way, and from the outside, it looks like a slightly run-down mini-mart. But the owner, Ashenafi Jimma, is friendly, and his shelves are full of good things, a fortunate business for Cincinnati to host, both for its Ethiopian and non-Ethiopian residents.

 

IN INDIANAPOLIS, St. Yared’s joined two other very good restaurants in 2013. It’s the enterprise of Haile Abebe and his wife, Etenesh, who cooks the food, and who says her mother and sister make the restaurant’s berbere in Ethiopia. Haile, who has a degree in biochemistry, worked at Eli Lilly for many years, but he retired from his job soon after opening the restaurant to play a bigger role in operating it. When I visited in July, I chatted with their son Gobezie, who’s off to medical school soon.

The restaurant, along with the family’s adjoining Global Village Coffee shop, sits in a mini-plaza along Fall Creek Road, which runs through the upscale Fishers/Geist neighborhood, a community of old and new houses that are set back from traffic on lush green tree-covered parcels. The coffee shop opens at 6 a.m., and the tastefully elegant restaurant serves lunch and dinner. There’s a full bar, but their t’ej is homemade, Gobezie told me.

St. Yared's and Global Village Coffee in Indianapolis

St. Yared’s and Global Village Coffee in Indianapolis

Finally, I passed through Grand Rapids, Mich., this summer and popped into Gursha, the newest of the city’s four Habesha restaurants (three Ethiopian, one Eritrean). Located in a dowdy strip mall, it had the homey feel of a diner, but it gets great reviews from patrons and local writers.

I chatted with Kasa, the owner, whose menu includes the unusual komodoro fitfit, described as a “cold tangy salad of injera, vine ripe tomatoes, garlic, red and green onions, and green peppers” – a description that appears word for word on the menu of the much older Ras Dashen in Chicago, as do a few other descriptions on the Gursha menu. Doro is chicken, but the description doesn’t mention it, and the owner couldn’t find the English words to explain komodoro. But my friend Menkir Tamrat could: komodoro is a sort of Ethiopian malaprop – a misspelling of pomodoro, the Italian word for tomato.

Gursha also has a dish called qelulu, steak cut into small pieces and slow cooked with shallots, garlic, ginger, berbere and other spices. Menkir didn’t know what that might mean, but it’s very similar to a word that means to pile or stack very high, so it could mean it’s stacked with lots of meat.

Gursha features weekend buffets, and on Valentine’s Day, it offered a special buffet with a discount to couples. (What could be more intimate than a little bit of gursha?)

I got to the restaurant between meals, so I didn’t stay for dinner. Still, I wanted to try something, and when I saw kategna on the menu, I requested an order. The owner told me they were out of it. That’s odd: kategna is just toasted injera smeared with berbere-spiced niter kibe, and I can’t imagine an Ethiopian restaurant not having those three essential ingredients. But I didn’t question him, and I ended up having some excellent spicy Cajun pizza that evening. So maybe next time.

Harry Kloman
University of Pittsburgh

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