IMAGINE AN ETHIOPIA without Ethiopian cuisine. Was there ever such an unappetizing place? When did Ethiopians begin to prepare spicy wots and serve them atop spongy injera? And when did they begin to wash it all down with copious quantities of t’ej, their famous honey wine?
As I write, in much greater detail, in my book, Mesob Across America: Ethiopian Food in the U.S.A., nobody really knows how this cuisine emerged because very few written records of dietary habits exist from thousands of years ago. But scholars who have studied the ancient cultures of the land we now call Ethiopia and Eritrea have other evidence to document when the various elements of the cuisine began to emerge.
The most prominent of these cultures, called Aksum, began its ascent in the first century B.C., was famous among its contemporaries by 300 A.D., and had faded into the mist of history by around 800 A.D. Almost two millennia later, we know that the food of Aksum was the nascent cuisine of Ethiopia.
In the fourth millennium B.C., agriculture emerged in the fertile highlands of what’s now western Eritrea and the Sudan. It then spread to the lowlands and eventually the plateau of Ethiopia, although it wasn’t called Ethiopia back then. By the first or second millennium B.C., these proto-Ethiopians ate sorghum, wheat, barley and possibly teff, along with many other grains, vegetables and pulses (lentils, peas, fava beans, chick peas and more).
The language scholar Christopher Ehret suggests that these cultures may have had teff more than 5,000 years ago: He’s compared ancient Cushitic and Semitic languages of Ethiopia, and he speculates that teff “began to be cultivated at least several millennia before Christ, and possibly as early as the Near Eastern shift” – that is, about 5,000 B.C. Teff was a “local independent invention,” Ehret says, originating in the “northern and eastern fringes of the highlands” of Ethiopia in ancient times.
A variety of archaeological evidence confirms teff in Aksum early in the first millennium A.D., and probably in pre-Aksumite cultures of the first millennium B.C., when they had the proper cattle and plows to harvest it, although there’s no definitive physical evidence of teff that early. Teff, of course, is the grain required to make injera as we know it today.
The kings of Aksum drank t’ej and beer in the third century A.D, a knowledge that comes from inscriptions on Aksumite stones translated in 1962 by the Dutch scholar A.J. Drewes in his book Inscriptions de l’Ethiopie Antique. His revelatory work requires no reading between the lines: The ancient inscriptions that he deciphers tell us explicitly what some Aksumites ate.
“Memorandum concerning the food of the royal court according to the law of the country,” begins one text, written in the middle of the third century A.D., less than a century before the height of Aksum’s power under King Ezana (321-360). The inscription goes on to describe the victuals: There’s virgin mutton, virgin beef, honey, wheat, beer, bread, a bucket of butter and – best of all – honey wine.
Next up: injera. When do we know for sure that Aksumites baked it? Ethiopians today make their injera on a large round skillet called a mitad. In modern cities, these are often electric; in the country, the injera bakes on a clay mitad placed over an open flame. But regardless of the technology, the principle is the same: Making a piece of injera requires a big round skillet.
Enter Neville Chittick, whose 1972-74 excavations at Aksum yielded myriad treasures. In a close look at the pottery from the Chittick site, archaeologist Richard Wilding discovered some Aksumite mitads, placing them in the late fifth or sixth centuries, thus some time before 600 A.D. “The presence or absence of so basic a piece of specialized equipment,” Wilding writes, “might tell much of the diet and the principal cereal crop of Aksum.” That cereal crop is teff.
In all of Chittick’s collection, Wilding found only three pieces of mitad. They’re 30 to 40 centimeters in diameter – that’s 12 to 16 inches, the size of a piece of injera – and they’re shaped like the mitad that Ethiopians use today, with a flat surface and raised edges.
Finally, Wilding makes it clear: “Unless a metal tray was used in the early period, only to be replaced later by pottery, the cereal teff was not used for the manufacture of injera until the late fifth or sixth century, and not extensively until after that date.” He further notes that “none of the items so far recovered in metal from Aksumite sites has been at all appropriate to the service performed by a mitad,” and he admits that it’s “tempting to associate the appearance of the mitad with the initial extensive use of teff as a staple cereal.”
It’s more than tempting: It’s the strongest piece of evidence we have about the origins of injera and the Ethiopian way of making it.
Between the artifacts of Aksum and the dawn of modern Ethiopia in 1270, little was written of what and how the people of this land ate. The ninth through 13th centuries were times of political turmoil, and the eminent historian Edward Ullendorff wrote that this period was “enveloped in such impenetrable darkness owing to the political upheavals which occurred at that time and which greatly disturbed the continuity of Ethiopian history.” The history of Ethiopian cuisine suffered along with everything else.
Then, in 1270, a leader named Yekuno Amlak seized power and took hold of Ethiopia’s destiny, establishing a dynasty that remained virtually unbroken for more than 700 years. Emperors lived like kings, and they had bountiful banquets to trumpet their power and status. From this opulence, an important document emerged in several editions throughout the centuries, and it’s a feast of information on Ethiopian cuisine as we know it today.
Called the serata gebr, which means “the proceedings of the royal banquet,” it describes the royal banquet, or gebr, of Ethiopia’s middle ages, as early as the reign of Amda Seyon I, who ruled from 1314-1344. The document is written partly in an earlier form of Amharic and partly in Ge’ez. This all makes translating it a challenge.
In a seminal 1988 essay, the German scholar Manfred Kropp published a manuscript of the serata gebr and, in an essay preceding the text, discussed its contents and revelations. Kropp can’t say exactly when his text of the serata gebr was written, but it seems to have come from the era or Zara Yakob (1434-1468). Its mention of Amda Seyon, who ruled a century earlier, documents how royal traditions survived from emperor to emperor.
Kropp’s serata gebr provides “a detailed list of the daily royal table, which is astounding for its variety of bread, vegetables, and drink.” Full menus appear, and they include bowls filled with wot, injera, and rations of beer and honey wine, sometimes served in vessels of silver or gold. So by the 14th or 15th centuries, Ethiopians ate pretty much as they do today.
The excerpt from the serata gebr pictured above mentions chicken (dohro: second line, last word, and elsewhere), dove (ergeb: third line, third word), and perhaps not as appetizing, vulture (amore: fifth line, sixth word). The last word of the excerpt is senafitch, the word for mustard or the mustard plant.
T’ej has been around for 2,000 years, and in Yekuno Amlak’s time, Ethiopians probably drank their honey wine from horns. But several hundred years ago – nobody knows exactly when – the berele appeared. It’s a vessel with a wide round bottom and long narrow neck, and the drinker places his thumb over the hole at the top of the neck to keep insects from diving into the sweet liquid.
Beginning in the 16th Century, Europeans began to visit Ethiopia and to write accounts of the culture they witnessed. Ethiopians of this era regularly served spicy stews atop injera, although they probably used the local spice cress to give their meals some heat. Black pepper, imported from India, was very rare and treasured, and red pepper – the species Capsicum, used today to make berbere – along with other spices, came to Ethiopia a few centuries later through European visitors. Copious records exist in European writings to document all of this.
So even if Aksumites made teff injera, they probably couldn’t have made the same kind of fiery wots or milder alichas of the Ethiopian cuisine we know today, all of which depend upon red pepper, ginger, turmeric and other Western spices for their heat and zest. Aksumite wots, if they existed at all, were no doubt milder, flavored first with cress and then with black pepper when cooks could get it.
All we need now to complete the picture is an Aksumite recipe book, a lacuna that will forever remain the great unknown of the earliest Ethiopian cuisine – a mystery wrapped in an injera.
University of Pittsburgh