TIRED OF THE SAME OLD vegetarian selections on your beyaynetu? Can’t face another night of misir wot, kik alicha, tikil gomen, fosolia, or even the delicious and always-popular shiro?
Well, then, how about a nice hot steaming gebeta covered with a hearty portion of gegebsa, a side of kerseta, and then some merekita for a bedtime snack?
Ethiopians who can afford to eat well dine on the dishes we know from restaurants, along with numerous other cultural dishes made from ingredients familiar to Western palates. But in parts of Ethiopia where resources are often limited or scarce, people eat a wide variety of plants that never make their way into the national cuisine.
Some of these plants are referred to as famine foods, and they’re eaten only in the worst of times. Others are merely edible plant life – leaves, seeds, fruits, shoots and roots – that people consume to supplement their diets when the good stuff is too difficult to get or too costly to afford.
For example, there’s goriza or geri (Saba comorensis), a fruit that grows on a tree and that people boil or use for its juice. Diri or meti (Cadaba forinosa) is a shrub leaf that’s boiled and enjoyed as a vegetable. For a porridge, some Ethiopians will boil the tree fruit choro or eyoli (Lecaniodiscus fraxinifolius), or just use the juice as a sweetener.
Scholars call these edible plants by their scientific nomenclature, but also by the names used by the cultures that eat them, and the names of the three marginal foods I just described are in Kwego and Kara, two languages – the former in the Omotic family, the latter Nilo-Saharan – spoken in southern Ethiopia. (Amharic and Afaan Oromo, the two most widely spoken Ethiopian languages, are in the Semitic and Cushitic families, respectively.) From culture to culture, these foods can have many different names.
“Consumption of wild edibles is more common in food insecure areas than in other areas in the country,” Ermias Lulekal wrote in a 2012 article he co-authored with three others (see below). But this isn’t always the case, and “local communities in Ethiopia are also endowed with diverse indigenous knowledge, related to the rich biodiversity of the country,” the team wrote.
Among Kara people, Tilahun Teklehaymanot and Mirutse Giday found such foods as shafo (Ficus sycomorus), a tree fruit eaten whole and raw; boloko (Ipomoea plebeia), a shrub leaf boiled before its eaten; and bodo (Nymphaea nouchawi), a root famine food that’s peeled and boiled. The Kwego culture eats sisilko (Corchorus olitorius), an herb leaf boiled for consumption; and raku (Tamarindus indica), a fruit eaten raw for its juice or boiled during times of famine (more on this food below).
Even in Shewa, the semi-arid district in the Amhara region of central Ethiopia, Debela Hunde Feyssa and a team of researchers found that people consume wild edible plants “to cope with food shortage and adapt to climate change.” From wacu and dodoti to eka fila and leedii and mi’essa, dozens of such foods sometimes make it to the table.
“Some wild-food plants considered as typical famine foods are purposely cultivated on farm fields to be available and used at times of food shortage,” wrote Yves Guinand and Dechassa Lemessa in 2001. But these are often acts of desparation, for as the scholars observed: “One of the most common and well-known typical famine food plants in southern Ethiopia is Portulaca quadrifolia. Unfortunately, it is a noxious weed infesting farmlands and difficult to control and eradicate once established in a field.”
MY FRIEND MENKIR TAMRAT has lived in the United States for decades and has raised his family here. But he grew up in Dessie, Ethiopia, and he remembers stories of wild foods. He even ate some of them now and then.
One little fruit that “tasted OK” was agam, black-burgundy in color and smaller than a blueberry. “Then there was a little translucent white root, almost like a miniature radish, that we dug up in fields,” he recalls, although its foliage didn’t look anything like a radish plant. Another shrub that didn’t taste so great, “a bit on the tart side,” had edible young shoots. Menkir doesn’t remember the names of these latter two plants.
“There were a lot of wild things to eat and no one knew about it as much as the shepherds – pretty much the kids and boys that didn’t have a chance to go to school,” he says. “On occasion, the kids that went to school would go with them and their few animals to the fields and hillsides where we learned about these things.”
A few years ago, during a visit to Ethiopia, Menkir noticed lots of lantana (Rhus vulgaris), a flowering plant, in an area on the outskirts of Addis Ababa. He soon learned that shepherds called the berries of the plant ye’eregna kolo and ate them while looking for a place for their animals to graze. Kolo is a crunchy snack of roasted barley kernels, and eregna is the Amharic word for shepherd.
He also remembers samma (Urtica simensis), which may be about as unappetizing as it gets.
It’s “a wild green plant, with pointed dark green leaves shaped like spinach,” Menkir says, “but covered with microscopic ‘burns’ that give a severe rash if it touches human skin. They used to harvest it very carefully, remove the ‘burns’ and cook it to a green paste. It’s eaten at room temperature as a side dish during tsom [vegetarian fasting days]. I never cared for it much, but then again, I never cared much for any tsom food when I was growing up. Where is the meat, where is the kibe? The rest didn’t count much.” (If you’re still hungry for samma, here’s another recipe.)
The scholars confirm Menkir’s recollections. The 1874 book Tropical History of Plants refers to “samma of the Abyssinians” and has this to say: “Tasteless, and with scarcely any active properties, the leaves or young shoots of several species of Urtica are used only in country districts as watery vegetables or topical emollients.” Some recent scholarship, however, has studied its nutritional value.
Samma is the Amharic and Tigrinya word for the plant, which is called gulgulba in Afaan Oromo and dobbi in Gurage. According to Edible Wild Plants in Ethiopia (more on this wonderful book below), Ethiopians prepare the inhospitable plant by spreading its leaves and stems on the ground between pieces of animal hide and then stomping on them or pounding the hides with their hands. Next, they pick out any stray insects, boil the crushed leaves with spices for about three hours or cook them in oil, and eat the dish alone or with injera. They also use the plant “to ease aching joints and for liver complaints.”
As if it were even possible, Guinand and Lemessa, in their 2001 study, make it sound even less appealing.
“Some of the wild food plants have such low value that their names are sometimes used as insults in certain areas,” they write. “For example, wild food plants called wozber, nechelo and samma are insults when people quarrel. They might call each other wozberchari, nechelochari or sammabele, whereby a chari is a person ‘who digs with his hands,’ which means that the person is so poor that he is not able to afford an ox or even to rent one to prepare his fields.”
The word bele means “to eat,” so sammabele means, quite simply, “samma eater” – apparently, hurtful enough. Menkir remembers the phrase as “an insult hurled to mean that one is so poor for samma to be their main meal.”
THESE SCHOLARS AND OTHERS have written a number of articles about this subject in the past decade. But in 2010, a team of five researchers, led by Demel Teketay, published Edible Wild Plants in Ethiopia, a 575-page study that looks closely at these food sources and even discusses how they’re prepared into meals. (See the book’s table of contents and covers.)
There must surely be nothing left to discover about edible wild plants in Ethiopia, for this definitive book tells you everything you’ll ever need to know about how to make the most comprehensive multi-cultural Ethiopian meal imaginable: what you can eat, how you can eat it and where to shop for it – although “shop” is hardly the word to describe the hunting and gathering that goes into finding your ingredients. Of course, the meal you end up preparing might not be terribly pleasing to your dinner guests. So just be sure to have a lot of t’ej at the table.
“Edible wild plants,” the authors write, “are collected to improve diets, tide people over in times of famine, supplement income, provide genetic material for experimentation, medicines, food, feed, utensils as well as craft and building materials. They are also often of significant cultural or spiritual importance.” Some edible wild plants may even contain more fat, proteins, minerals and vitamins than a traditional harvest.
Ethiopians have a “rich indigenous knowledge on both domesticated and wild plants” developed over centuries and passed from generation to generation. And it’s a good thing: Almost half of the plants identified as wild foods are also classified as famine foods. And because “many pastoralists do not store and carry food over long distances, [they] rely on the seasonal products of natural forests, woodlands and bushlands.”
Here’s a sampling of the contents of Edible Wild Plants in Ethiopia, along with some recipes, if you can call them that.
♦ For a rich and fruity meal, treat yourself to some Podocarpus falcatus (see photo above), which has many local names: It’s legba in Amharic, digiba in Hadiyya, danicho or birbirso in Oromo, and chido in Kafa, to name only a few. Ethiopians extract the oil from the fruit’s seed through a multi-step process. You must remove the outer fruit, sun dry the seed so it’s easier to crack open on a grinding stone, and then – well, it’s complicated, so I’ll let the authors explain the rest:
“It is then heated, in the mean time stirred constantly, on a metal or clay griddle which is placed on fire until the color changes to light brown. The next procedure is grinding, which is done by using the same grinding stones three times or more. During the grinding of the seeds, a small amount of water is added, now and then, to facilitate grinding. The finely ground part of seed is transferred into either a metal or clay cooking pot, which is put on fire. It is then stirred constantly while the oil separates from the rest of the seed. It takes about 20-30 minutes to obtain the first round oil.”
The resulting oil is then eaten as a meal, sometimes with spices added to make it more tasty. A page of small color photos in the book illustrates each step in the cooking process.
♦ You actually can go to market to buy some Mimusops kummel, although probably not a supermarket in Addis Ababa (see photo to the right). It’s a small- to medium-sized plant that produces a “tasty white fruit” that Ethiopians eat right off the tree or roast lightly in a pan for a few minutes. You can even store the fruit for a few weeks to allow it to further ripen and sweeten, then use the fruit to make jams and jellies, or to create a medicine that helps fight high blood pressure. In Tanzania, people dry the fruit, pound it into a powder, and use it to make juice or a “local brew,” presumably fermented.
♦ Who doesn’t love gomen, a staple veggie dish at Ethiopian restaurants around the world? It’s a common side with kitfo, sometimes mixed right in with the raw meat. In America, we call this vegetable collard greens (Brassica oleracea), and that’s just what Ethiopians use to make it.
But there’s another kind of gomen in wild Ethiopia: It’s the genus Erucastrum and two of its species, Erucastrum abyssinicum and Erucastrum arabicum. Various languages call these plants gomen, gomen zer, ambil, feserika, buskin, anta aliya, shimpa, cayo geel, jawjawle or yafef zere. The species grow as weeds in wastelands, on roadsides, and in dry stony places. Ethiopians cook and eat the leaves and stems and use the seeds to make oils. Ugandans make even better use of this gomen: They wilt and boil the leaves, then add milk during boiling and some groundnut paste to enhance (or kill) the taste. You can also rub the leaves on your skin to treat disease or use the seeds as a medicine – the perfect all-purpose wild edible plant.
♦ The herb Portulaca oleracea, which western cultures know as purslane, presents an interesting case. “It is reported that the farmers consider the food delicious,” the authors write, “although they do not consume it when other food items are ample due to implications of social status, i.e. since it is considered ‘food of the poor.'” It’s called antare, muqaza, wur, sakata, churqale or arbagrasso in various local languages. Some cultures eat the entire plant, while others wash, chop and boil the leaves and shoots. The herb is high in calcium and Vitamin E, and some European countries use it in soups and salads. In France, Denmark and the Netherlands, they even grow their own versions of it.
♦ If you’re ever in Ethiopia, be sure to try some Tamarindus indica, although you may need to ask for chowa, humer, komarr, roqa, rogoota, qad aradeb, obel or yepho, depending on where you are. It’s valued for its leaves, seeds, flowers and flesh – an all-around edible species.
“The fruit pulp is used to make refreshing drinks, jams and confections, for additives, curries, preserves, ice-cream and syrups and in condiments like barbecue sauce,” the authors report. “When the fruits are soaked in water overnight the liquid becomes a tasty fruit juice, which is appreciated especially by children and the Muslim population. The fruits smell like potatoes but taste bitter like a lemon candy. Children keep the fruit in their mouth like others would do with a chewing gum or a candy. Actually the taste is quite refreshing and pleasant when the fruit is kept in the mouth for a while. It is reported that the mouth gets numb after much sucking of the fruits.”
♦ Rumex abyssinicus is like many other herbs: Ethiopians eat its tender shoots fresh or raw to supplement their diets, and children especially consume it. You can also use it to make tea. And in some cultures, its rhizomes – that is, its edible roots (think of ginger) – help to spice niter kibe and to give the clarified butter a rich yellow color. Some cultures even use it as a medicine to treat cancer, diabetes or gonorrhea. And some use the crushed leaves to grease or clean brass.
That’s all just a little of what you’ll find in Edible Wild Plants in Ethiopia. Perhaps it’s not what you talk about when you talk about “Ethiopian food,” but it’s the food of a lot of the population. So if any of this tantalizes your taste buds, or just piques your interest, consider reading more.
Finally, at the start of this piece, I named three scrumptious dishes in the Gamo, Derashe and Kusume languages of southern Ethiopia. Gegebsa (Amaranthus caudatus) is an herb eaten for its leaves; kerseta (Dobera glabra) is a tree with edible seeds; and merekita (Portulaca quadrifida), also knows as meredeta or mergude, is another herb that brings its leaves and stems to the table. Melkam megeb!
SOME OF THE STUDIES exploring edible wild plants in Ethiopia are available online. Here are several links you can click to read the articles or download them as PDF files:
♦ Ethnobotanical Study of Wild Edible Plants in Derashe and Kucha Districts, South Ethiopia by Kebu Balemie and Fassil Kebebew.
♦ Wild Edible Plants in Ethiopia by Ermias Lulekal, Molla Ugent, Zemede Asfaw, Ensermu Kelbessa and Patrick Van Damme.
♦ Wild Food Plants in Southern Ethiopia by Yves Guinand and Dechassa Lemessa.
♦ Ethnobotanical Study of Edible Wild Plants in Some Selected Districts of Ethiopia by Getachew Addis, Kelbessa Urga and Dawit Dikasso.
♦ Seasonal Availability and Consumption of Wild Edible Plants in Semiarid Ethiopia by Debela Hunde Feyssa, Jesse Njoka, Zemede Asfaw and M. M. Nyangito.
♦ Ethnobotanical Study of Wild Edible Plants in Lower Omo River Valley by Tilahun Teklehaymanot.
♦ Wild Edible Trees and Shrubs of Southern Ethiopia by Assegid Assefa and Tesfaye Abebe.
♦ Prospects for Sustainable Use and Development of Wild Food Plants in Ethiopia by Zemede Asfaw and Mesfin Tadesse (abstract only).
University of Pittsburgh
Here’s a video about root crops and food security in Ethiopia: