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.
“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.
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.
University of Pittsburgh