(Click on the images in this post to enlarge them.)

A FEW CENTURIES AGO, when European exploration of Ethiopia began in earnest, the high-minded men who took a bite out of a mysterious new culture and continent didn’t always appreciate Ethiopian cuisine and the customary method of eating it. They wrote with a mixture of amazement, humor, disdain and disgust at the sight and taste of spongy injera, spicy wots, and the piquant inebriant, t’ej.

Eating raw meat

In this post, I’ll share some snippets of what those explorers said about Ethiopian food, along with some late 19th and early 20th Century pictures culled from the journeys of other explorers. You can click on each photo here to see a larger version of it. I have a chapter about the reaction of ferenj (Amharic for “foreigners”) to Ethiopian cuisine in my book, Mesob Across America: Ethiopian Food in the U.S.A., and together these accounts show us how little – and how much – Ethiopian cuisine has changed since Western explorers began to document it.

Pounding pepper
to make berbere

Job Ludolphus, a German scholar, wrote about every aspect of Ethiopian life in his classic 1682 book, although he never visited the country, instead basing his comprehensive work on the published journals of others, among them an aged Ethiopian monk named Gregory, who lived in Rome. Some of Gregory’s source material has long been out of print, so Ludolphus’ amalgam is a valuable document.

“Their diet is not only very homely,” Ludolphus wrote, “but also far different from ours, for they feed either upon raw flesh, or half boiled. They covet as a daintie the half-concocted grass and green herbs they find in the maws of the beasts which they kill, and greedily devour those morsels, having first seasoned them with pepper and salt, as if the beasts better understood what herbs were most wholesome than themselves, a sort of diet which none of our Europeans will envy.”

Pounding coffee

Urban Ethiopians no longer practice such customs. But what Ludolphus writes next, they do: “Their bread they bake upon the embers, made in the fashion of thin pancakes. Their tablecloths served them for bread, which there was no need for the servants to take away, fold up or wash.”

♦ In his mid-16th Century book, a touchstone in Western literature exploring Ethiopian culture, Portuguese cleric Francisco Alvares found that the cuisine of his African hosts didn’t appeal to him. “Their food is raw meat,” he wrote, “and we could not bear to look at it, let alone eat; nor of the bread unless it was of wheat, or at least chick-peas.” The travelers instead had their servants prepare their meals – thoroughly cooked – although at times, to be polite, they were obliged to eat something of what their hosts provided.

Manuol de Almeida, a 17th Century Portuguese Jesuit, also marveled at this died: “Beef they eat raw, calling it berindo, and it is the food they esteem most highly. They put a great deal of salt and pepper on it, if they have the pepper, and the most important people who can have the gall of the animal that is killed squeeze it by hitting it often on the piece in front of them so the meat should soak it up well; they claim that it gives it a great relish.” And to wash it all down, “there is no conversation without the [honey] wine circulating and being drunk in turns until either they are laid out on the spot or else withdrawn, so much warmed up that they cannot easily find the door. The wine is really very mild and if it were drunk in moderation no harm could be done.”

Butter market

James Bruce, a Scottish explorer, published a vivid five-volume book of his journey in 1790, and he witnessed gursha, the act of one person feeding another at the table. “No man in Abyssinia, of any fashion whatever, feeds himself, or touches his own meat,” Bruce wrote. “The women take the steak and cut it length-ways like strings, about the thickness of your little finger, then crossways into square pieces, something smaller than a dice. This they lay upon a piece of the teff bread, strongly powdered with black pepper, or cayenne pepper. They then wrap it up in the teff bread like a cartridge.”

When the morsel is ready, the man places each hand upon his neighbor’s knee, “his body stooping, his head low and forward, and mouth open, very like an idiot.” The woman places the food in his mouth, “which is so full that he is in constant danger of being choked. This is a mark of grandeur. Having dispatched this morsel, his next female neighbor holds forth another cartridge, which goes the same way, and so on till he is satisfied. He never drinks till he has finished eating; and, before he begins, in gratitude to the fair ones that fed him, he makes up two small rolls of the same kind and form; each of his neighbors opens their mouths at the same time, while with each hand he puts their portion into their mouths.”

Selling red pepper

Henry Dufton, a mid-19th Century British explorer, observed the Ethiopians’ tolerance for spicy foods: “Not only do they use pepper on meats, but it is mixed in their bread, in milk, and even in the water they drink. It is here called berbere, probably from the Berber country to the north, where much is grown. On one occasion I was able to eat the hot dishes pretty well, but before my mouth had grown accustomed to it they were intolerable.”

Emilius Cosson is less judgmental in his 1871 account. He attested to the variety of breads eaten by Ethiopians, “some white, some brown, according to the corn they were made of.” To begin the meal, “a servant now came round and poured water over our hands out of a brazen vessel, after which he spread some kind of sauce on the bread in the basket before us, and we were invited to begin the repast. Everybody ate with their fingers, dipping bits of the bread, which was soft and spongy, into the sauce which pleased them best. The bread was in large wafers, about as thick as a pancake, and a foot and a half in diameter. There were more than a dozen of these wafers in each basket.”

Grinding corn

♦ “We ate with our hands,” the fin-de-siecle Russian explorer Alexander Bulatovich wrote in 1897, “tearing off little petals of injera and collecting with them large amounts of all sorts of food. My mouth burned from the quantity of pepper. Tears came to my eyes. My sense of taste was dulled. And we devoured everything indiscriminately, cooling our mouths, from time to time, with sour cream or by drinking a wonderful mead – t’ej – from little decanters wrapped in little silk handkerchiefs.” His book includes many more descriptions of foods and eating rituals, most of which he seemed to enjoy – or at least respect.

♦ In 1898, the Englishman Edward Gleichen described the way in which the “lower classes” took their meals. His host His host used his sword to slice huge chunks of meat off the hind leg of a sheep or some ribs of beef. “This he crams into his mouth as far as it will go,” Gleichen wrote, “and slices off the mouthful – with his sword – close to his lips. The upper classes, of course, take their food more tidily.” He found that Ethiopians eat very little fruits and vegetables, that they will “rarely touch, or even cook,” the variety of game birds available to them, and that “the honey they eat is good, but it is always full of comb, dirt, and dead bees.”

Village cooking

Certainly much has changed since then, and dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant in America doesn’t involve swords. In fact, there’s no silverware of any kind – a step forward actually, albeit one that some stubborn modern diners find to be off putting. But there’s still plenty of injera, berbere, t’ej and raw meat – all U.S.D.A. inspected, of course.

Harry Kloman
University of Pittsburgh