IMAGINE yourself sitting down to an Ethiopian meal roughly 2,000 years ago, when the country we now call Ethiopia went (long story short) by the name of Aksum. What food would you find on the table in front of you? And would you grab it with injera the way Ethiopians do today?
All we really can do is imagine, for these ancient Ethiopians didn’t leave behind any cookbooks – nor many written records at all about what they ate and how they ate it. The record gets a little bit clearer beginning about 800 years ago (or so), and starting in the late 19th Century, copious documents and historic accounts clearly show the grandeur of a royal banquet.
So it takes a bit of archaeological and literary detective work to piece together what the ancient Aksumite and Ethiopian royals ate.
(The images in this post are engravings of Ethiopian culinary life taken from books written in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Click each photo to enlarge it and get a closer look at how European visitors saw the customs of the Ethiopian meal.)
We know from various historic accounts and archaeological digs that Aksumites drank the honey wine t’ej and harvested many of the crops that we now see on the Ethiopian table. In his 1995 book, People of the Plow, a study of Ethiopian agriculture mostly since 1800, James McCann of Boston University says that teff, “the highest prestige food” in the agricultural life of Aksumites, “requires intensive seedbed preparation possible only with the ox plow.”
The first solid evidence of an ox-plow device in Ethiopia comes from cave art “tentatively attributed to the first millennium B.C.” This means that pre-Aksumite culture could only have began cultivating teff no more than 3,000 years ago.
McCann further asserts that “the evidence of both language and plant biology indicates that the Ethiopian highlands were a center of secondary dispersal for a wide variety of crops,” including barley, wheat, sorghum, chick peas, lentils, and of course, teff – although there’s some dispute as to when this grain so essential to making injera came into the diet.
This is where the archaeologist Richard Wilding takes up the story. Based on findings of an early 1970s dig in which he participated, Wilding reveals the discovery of some Aksumite mitads, placing them in the late fifth or sixth centuries, thus some time before 600 A.D. The mitad is the large round clay cooking surface on which Ethiopians make injera to this day, and “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.”
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.”
After the fall of Aksum, political turmoil consumed the emerging nation of Ethiopia, and leaders sometimes came and went as quickly as the evening meal. But in the closing decades of the 12th Century, a ruler came to the throne who established some stability – at least, for a long enough while to create a culinary mythology.
He was King Lalibela, and he ruled from 1181 until his death in 1221. He, too, failed to leave written records of his culinary tastes, busy as he was holding on to power and establishing his Agaw Dynasty. But we do have one clue – if we can call it that – about Lalibela’s dinner table.
In his 1892 book Vie de Lalibala (“Life of Lalibela”), Jules Perruchon reprints and translates an Amharic manuscript about the king’s 12th Century life. The manuscript resides in the British Museum and dates to the 15th or 16th Century, so it’s more oral than documented history. It’s also a glorious hagiography, filled with stories of the king’s humility, kindness and reverence for God.
Lalibela’s diet gets little mention. At one holiday meal, he eats bread dipped in “a bouillon of herbs.” He dips two pieces – then generously gives the third morsel to his servant. This sound suspiciously like the way we eat Ethiopian food today, right down to the gursha – that is, the placing of food in someone’s mouth by someone else at the table. Could this bouillon be some sort of wot, and could the bread be injera? The Amharic manuscript doesn’t contain either word, and so we can only imagine.
But it does use the word hbst for bread, and that’s intriguing: It’s the ancient Ge’ez word for manna, and some Portuguese narratives of the 16th and 17th centuries clearly describe injera, giving us further reason to speculate that the hbst of Lalibela is the injera of the Ethiopia that followed.
We also learn that Lalibela set a table “well garnished” with wine and, not surprisingly, mes, or honey wine. This continues the potable tradition begun by the Aksumites in the third century A.D.
From around the same time as Lalibela comes one of the more fanciful records of Ethiopian food. Tekle Haymanot (c. 1215-1313) was a famous Ethiopian monk who founded a monastery in Shewa. In a 1997 essay about him, the scholar Tesfaye Gebre Mariam recalls an ancient tale of the cleric’s miraculous powers: When Tekle’s mother needs grain to celebrate a religious festival, “he gives her all she requires through miracles,” Tesfaye writes, “and when she lacks homemade beer to give to a guest, he turns pure water into beer.” Not exactly a t’alla recipe that we might follow today.
In the centuries between the reign of Lalibela and the emergence of modern Ethiopia, historic documents reveal the rituals involved in matters related to food. Cattle was very important, but even if you owned a cow that you planned to use for food, a commoner couldn’t slaughter his cow without permission from the local ruler, the eminent Ethiopian scholar Richard Pankhurst reports in his 1986 essay, “The Hierarchy of the Feast: The Partition of the Ox in Traditional Ethiopia.” No doubt the ruler got a portion of the slaughtered animal in thanks for his permission, Pankhurst speculates.
This fascinating essay details every aspect of a royal banquet, which was highly ritualized. Each part of the slaughtered cow produced a cut of meat with a name of its own: tannash sega, or “small meat,” came from “the rump bone down to the hind quarters, the gwaden dabit were “five of the foremost ribs,” the engeda is “a prime fleshy part, taken from the muscle close to the thigh bone,” and shent comes from “the side of the backbone as far as the shoulder.” Of course, the revelers ate all of this meat raw.
Emperor Yohannes IV ended this practice in the mid-19th Century, although in some Ethiopian cultures, the custom persisted: Local rulers might be entitled to the animal’s lesana manka (the tongue and breast meat), if a member of his town slaughtered an animal for a special occasion, like a marriage, funeral or holiday celebration.
Pankhurst’s essay – his information drawn from historic accounts – explores just how law and custom prescribed who got what upon the slaughtering of an ox. People of the highest ranks got such prized cuts as the “small meat” from “the rump bone down to the hind quarters,” or the “large meat” from the hip bone with part of the buttock. These succulent steaks were just some of the portions that went to the aristocrats, and it’s hard to believe there was very much of the good stuff left after the upper classes got their tributes.
But the most valuable document for understanding what ancient Ethiopian emperors ate is the serata gebr, which means “the order of the feast” or “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. But his essay doesn’t translate the document word for word, and since then, no one has published a full translation, although Kropp continues to work with the text.
Kropp can’t say exactly when his text of the serata gebr was written, but it seems to have come from the era of 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 presents detailed instructions for preparing a royal banquet and includes many anecdotes about daily life in the emperor’s court. The text “gives all sorts of details about the complicated procedures in the royal kitchen and household,” and Kropp speculates that the information might have come from the two top officers charged with supervising the procedures. “In general,” Kropp says, “regulations of this kind were transmitted orally,” so a text like the serata gebr is a rare and valuable resource.
The document provides “a detailed list of the daily royal table, which is astounding for its variety of bread, vegetables, and drink.” It describes “yä-Afreng-enjera, ‘foreign, European bread,’ in regulations dating from the time of Baeda Maryam (1468-1478). The preparation of any of this food is the task of a special cook or brewer bearing the respective title.”
The presence of European-style bread in the serata gebr shows that the earliest Western explorers had already begun to influence the country, but not so much that it co-opted the traditional Ethiopian way of eating.
Full menus appear in the serata gebr, and they include mogarya, a hard bread used as a dish; a vessel filled with wot; injera, a bread made of teff; and rations of beer and t’ej (called sägg in the ancient language), sometimes served in vessels of silver or gold.
According to Kropp, these banquets took place over two days, and “only the highest-ranking officials and royals were permitted to eat with knifes.” This implies that others ate without cutlery. Meals were served on a gebeta, a large round tray, just as they are today, another indication that the revelers scooped up their food with injera. Lower-level people ate from plain gebeta, but royalty had theirs adorned with silver and gold.
Thanks to the serata gebr, we know that Ethiopians ate wot with injera and accompanied it with honey wine as early as the beginning of the 14th Century. It seems highly likely that the cuisine and its customs predate this documentation.
In 2006, Kropp reported that Maryam Anza, a stele discovered in the 1940s in northwest Ethiopia, speaks of the rations given to the workers who built it. Kropp translates the writing on the stele like this: “Read what is written here: This stele of the King of Agabo has been transported and erected in Agabo by his people in 15 days of statute-labour while they have been supplied by 520 jars of beer and 20,620 pieces of bread.”
The brief text of the stele offers nothing more specific about the texture of the bread, but Kropp is willing to take the leap of faith. “There is a good chance and probability,” Kropp ventured in 2008, “that along with teff, which is attested in archaeological sites, the preparation of bread has not changed essentially for the last 3,000 years.” So maybe the earliest pre-Christian Aksumites ate injera after all.
Boston University’s McCann is perhaps the world’s foremost scholarly authority on Ethiopian food, and in his 2009 book, Stirring the Pot: A History of African Cuisine, he writes about a cornerstone moment in Ethiopian culinary history: In 1887, the future Empress Taytu, wife of soon-to-be Emperor Menilik II (1889-1913), organized a banquet to honor Entoto Maryam, a grand new church in the city’s newly founded capital, Addis Ababa.
“The scale of her culinary project was enormous in the slaughtering of over five thousand oxen, cows, sheep and goats,” McCann writes, “stockpiling of clay pots of spiced clarified butter by the hundreds, assembling of spices gathered from the best regions of the new empire. The event also featured the engineering of ‘rivers’ of t’ej that literally flowed into the site on specially made wooden troughs from warehouses uphill from the banquet hall.”
But this was more than just a celebration. According to McCann, Taytu understood that “the assembly of the theater of empire included the invention of cuisine as part of empire and nation.” So her banquet featured an “elaborate use of cooking, expressed in the variety and volume of the dishes prepared, the variety of tastes, and the invention of a particular combination of foods. In making food into ritual, Queen Taytu understood the value of presentation, of sequence, and of the meaning of food and feast as political theater.”
Her feast lasted for five days, bringing together “tastes, ingredients and aesthetics appropriated from traditions of the highland Christian kingdom and from many local cultures of an emerging multi-ethnic landscape.” Taytu’s effort created a “gastronomic blueprint for a new urban culture,” and McCann asserts: “‘Ethiopian’ food, which emerged on the international stage as a recognized cuisine by the late 20th century, was thus actually the product of a managed historical process of change in Ethiopia itself.”
For his 1970 essay, “The Organization of Menilik II’s Palace and Imperial Hospitality (after 1896),” the eminent Ethiopian scholar Harold Marcus interviewed some very elderly Ethiopians (ages 81 to 106) who had worked in the emperor’s palace during these grand banquets. Here’s some of what Marcus wrote about what went on, according to his aging informants, with my translation of some Amharic words in brackets:
The guebber [banquet] started at 9 a.m. daily. The first group to be fed were the palace guards who, when finished, retired outside to control the waiting crowds and to prepare for Menilik’s ceremonial entrance. The next contingent was the clergy of Addis Ababa, followed by provincial soldiers, merchants, citizens of Addis Ababa, and both male and female palace servants. Menilik was present throughout. The nobles had a special but invariable menu. The first course was champagne and cognac, both of which were supplied profusely. Then to the podium upon which they sat with the emperor were brought small, narrow mesobs, each filled with enough injera and doro dabo [chicken bread] for two people. The first to be served wot were the tasters, usually three high-ranking officials. Then male servants from the siga bet [butcher shop] and other palace organizations brought in various wots, alicha merek [mild broth], dried shredded beef stew (minchet abish), cooked spiced strips of lamb (infellet), injera soaked in merek (fit-fit) and brundo [raw meat].
Meanwhile, waves of people had come in and out of the guebber at approximately hourly intervals. They were served at long wooden tables with one garay [ordinary piece of bread] and one manya [white] teff injera, one red pepper stew (kai wot) with beef, one alicha merek, brundo, one kubaya [glass] of t’alla [homemade barley beer] and one kubaya of t’ej (of lesser quality than that give to the upper classes). Whatever food was left after between 10,000 and 15,000 people had eaten that day was given to palace workers. Since there was usually a great deal, they could eat as much as they wished, but they could take nothing home except the remaining brundo, which all participants at the guebber could take with them if they desired. As can be imagined, people pushed and shoved, and there were always more people waiting to be fed than could easily be handled. Once inside, however, and in the presence of the emperor, feasters were subdued and polite. Before each took his seat, he bowed to Menilik, who sat in the center of the room at the front on a dais. The informants talked about the grandeur of these occasions and of the wealth Menilik must have had in order to feed so many people.
Although the history of Ethiopian cuisine owes a debt to Taytu, that’s certainly not to say that Ethiopians didn’t eat what we know as “Ethiopian food” before the grand feasts of Taytu and Menilik. In fact, the young French scholar Thomas Guindeuil has joined McCann and Kropp in the field of study.
In his 2012 doctoral dissertation, Text, Cuisine and Politics in 16th Century Ethiopia, Guindeuil assembles a remarkable collection of historical information, original research and scholarly insight exploring Ethiopian cuisine and how it developed over time. It’s the most comprehensive book yet written on the cuisine, and hopefully, Guindeuil will have it translated into English (and, lest I seem like an ugly American, Amharic as well!).
“Contemporary Ethiopian royal chronicles regularly dealt with food,” he writes in an abstract for his text, “almost always in the same stereotypical combination of injera (pancakes made with fermented dough), wot (stew) and beverages such as mead or beer, those being inseparable elements to compose a princely meal. The presence of such elements in royal banquets, which punctuate Ethiopian kings’ chronicles, [. . .] refer to a defined rule for noblemen’s contributions to the king’s table, as defined in a 15th century text, the serata gebr.”
But he also notes that when a Portuguese mission visited Ethiopia in the mid-15th Century, the priest Francisco Alvares reported details of the cuisine that were quite different from the royal chronicles.
“It is striking to read that the first traveler describing an Ethiopian royal banquet experienced something completely different,” Guindeuil writes. “Alvares’ meal was boned and stuffed poultry. Who should the food historian believe?”
In a 2010 essay, Honey and Society in the History of the Kingdom of Ethiopia, Guindeuil writes that “understanding the role played by honey and mead in Ethiopian society is essential to study the making of a social differentiation based on table manners. Honey may appear as a symbol for fertility and wealth in Ethiopian literature, [but] it is first an economical fact in the kingdom from the farm to the international trade. The high economical value of this product has to be related with its role in social interactions or with its medicinal use.” (Read the full essay in French.)
Guindeuil’s 2011 essay, A Culinary Exchange Space Between the Red Sea and the Kingdom of Ethiopia, probes what we can discern about Ethiopian food from the chronicles of people who visited the country.
“The writing of the history of food in the space between the Bay of Massawa [on the Red Sea] and the northern Ethiopian highlands lacks an indigenous written tradition,” he says. “Most of our knowledge about this period stems from travelogues. These sources certainly have the disadvantage of being limited, but they occasionally light on the more practical aspects of gastronomy: cooking, food trade and table manners we would never know without these documents. They allow us to lift the veil on a food reality often expressed in the royal chronicles and hagiographic texts, which constitute the bulk of the written tradition in this country.”
Unfortunately, while the chronicles often describe the foods served at royal banquets, they don’t include recipes, and so an ancient Ethiopian cookbook must remain something we can only imagine.
University of Pittsburgh