ETHIOPIAN FOOD IS GREAT for vegetarians and vegans: You’ll find lots of meatless, non-dairy options on the menu, and the most devout Ethiopian Christians have many “fasting” days where they eat no meat. But how easy is it to go Ethio-macro?
Not that hard – if you just get yourself a copy of Megeb Medhanite.
A macrobiotic diet emphasizes high-fiber grains, vegetables, foods free of chemicals and preservatives, no meat, and sometimes even no animal products at all. The cuisine (if you can call it that) dates back to the late 18th Century, and it became more popular during the health-conscious 20th Century. Some see it as a way of life as well as a way of eating.
Published in 2009, Benti Qeno Bida’s Megeb Medhanite – the title means “Food Medicine” – applies the principles of the macrobiotic diet to foods commonly eaten or found in Ethiopia. The subtitle of the book, pictured here, is Teshashilo Yekerebe, which means “improved edition” or “improved presentation.” It’s an educational guidebook to macrobiotics, not a cookbook, and it’s filled with lists, charts and information about the health benefits of a macrobiotic diet, which (the book says) can help with such things as epilepsy, stammering, impotence, cancer, arthritis, high blood pressure, “apprehension of miscarriage,” and “disappointment in life, the main cause of suicidal attempts.”
But best of all, the book has a seven-day menu planner in which Benti tells you what to eat for three meals a day, Sunday through Saturday. There’s no meat, no dairy, and no processed sugar – just lots of brown rice and black tea.
A few of the foods and dishes Benti discusses are familiar from the everyday Ethiopian table: We’ve all enjoyed kita, gomen or misir shorba (lentil soup). But there’s no traditional Ethiopian dish that offers corn, soybeans or lasagna. So Benti has had to go quite a bit off the menu to create his macrobiotic diet in an Ethiopian context.
Benti’s daily menu planner, pictured below in two parts, is in Amharic, so I’ve taken the liberty of translating it. Here, then, is one Ethiopian nutritionist’s idea of how to live long and prosper. (You can download his menu as a PDF.) And by the way, if any Amharic speaker wants to take the time to compare the original to my translation, I welcome comments, suggestions and refinements.
Sunday. Breakfast begins with a hearty soybean soup (akuri atar), unhulled barley kita – an Ethiopian “pizza,” without toppings, of course – and sugarless black tea. For your rather large lunch, enjoy unhulled wheat bread, and a cold salad of collard greens (gomen), celery (sedano), fava beans and tomatoes, topped off with some sugarless black tea or sugarless barley tea. Dinner will be just about as filling: brown rice or barley kita, mixed vegetable stew (with gomen, potatoes, carrots and beets), a small white and red onion, and more sugarless black tea or barley tea.
Monday. After so much food on Sunday, your tummy takes it a little easy today. For breakfast, there’s barley muq (a hot grain drink, sort of like a porridge) and sugarless black tea. It’s unhulled wheat bread, mixed vegetables and peas, and sugarless barley coffee for lunch. Dinner will be corn soup, carrot and onion salad, some sugarless black tea, and a barley kita.
Tuesday. We’ll add a few new macro-treats to the menu today. Start your morning with soybeans, black wheat soup, oat or barley kita (your choice) and sugarless black tea. Lunch will be raw corn grain (bekolo isht), vegetable salad and sugarless black tea. For dinner, have some brown rice, lentil soup, mixed cabbage and gomen, and of course, more sugarless black tea.
Wednesday. If you’re big on rice, then today’s your day. Breakfast will be brown rice soup, rice bread and sugarless black tea. For lunch, there’s a mix of onion, cabbage and fava beans with roasted brown rice, and sugarless black tea. Then, you’ll end your day with wheat bread, vegetable lasagna, mixed beans (adangware) and onions with roasted garden cress (feto), and our old friend, sugarless black tea.
A few notes here. First, I’ve only seen adangware on the menu of one Ethiopian restaurant: Addisu in Lancaster, Pa. It’s an Amharic word for a type of small bean, and the restaurant’s menu describes the dish as “special blend of beans dish: beans sautéed with tomatoes, onions and garlic, finished with awaze sauce.” The name adangware doesn’t appear on the menu, and I only learned it when I asked the owner what he would call the dish in Amharic.
As for garden cress, that’s not something you find in modern Ethiopian cuisine. But millennia ago, before European cultures introduced the chili peppers that Ethiopians now use to make berbere, and before black pepper came from the Indian spice trade, Ethiopians used cress to spice their dishes. Archaeologist have drawn this conclusion from exploring sites in Aksum, the city and the culture that laid the foundation for Ethiopia. Modern-day cress isn’t really very “spicy” at all, and we’ll never know if Aksumite cress had more of a bite.
Thursday. Who knew you could do so much with wheat? For breakfast today, enjoy some carrots, a black wheat soup, and a cup or two of sugarless black tea. Lunch features oats and barley with chick peas, collard greens, boiled fresh watermelon and sugarless black tea. The watermelon is about the sweetest item you’ll find on Benti’s menu, so you might just want to eat it straight up rather than boiling it. Then, it’s more brown rice for dinner, along with carrots and cabbage (tikil gomen, more or less) and sugarless black tea.
Friday. Your day begins with barley soup, red wheat bread and sugarless black tea. For lunch, it’s unhulled wheat bread, boiled celery with boiled soybeans, and sugarless black tea. Finally, you’ll enjoy some red sorghum and carrots for dinner, along with boiled onion and sautéed (i.e. fried) parsley, plus a spot of sugarless barley coffee.
Saturday. Don’t count on any guilty pleasures to end your week. It’s a rather abstemious oat porridge and sugarless black tea for breakfast. More barley kita for lunch, along with a boiled vegetable salad (qeqel ye’atkilt salata) of potatoes, carrots, beets, tomatoes and onions, washed down with sugarless black tea. For dinner, it’s rice (your choice of what kind), vegetable soup, fried gomen and fava beans, and then a toast to your week of healthy eating with some – you guessed it – sugarless black tea.
So there it is: not terribly Ethiopian in the way we know it. Benti allows some kita, the staple gomen, and lots of vegetables familiar from the Ethiopian menu. But this isn’t the cuisine we traditionally enjoy at Ethiopian restaurants in America or Addis Ababa.
ALTHOUGH I CAN’T SAY how many people in Ethiopia eat like this, we do know that the Ethiopian diet is changing.
Solomon Addis Getahun, an Ethiopian-born American scholar, has written about the rise of a newer phenomenon in Ethiopian eating: the fast-food restaurant. At places like Spot Bar, King Burger, Burger Queen, Rand Fast Food and LA Burger in Addis Ababa, patrons can buy burgers and fries, with pizza joints just around the corner. In & Out, near the Ras Mekonnen Bridge, offers takeout service, and Big Burger provides fast-food catering.
An Ethiopian-American friend who visited Addis in December tells me: “I see some fast food store signs, but they seem to be imitations copied from the western originals. I have not seen any of the common ones, like KFC or Pizza Hut, as in China or India.”
If there’s an upside to this Westernization of Ethiopian eating, Solomon suggests, it’s the advent of an urban gym culture. In traditional Ethiopia, being plump meant you could afford the food – usually beef – to get that way. (Weregenu Restaurant in Addis promotes itself, in English, as “the meat place.”) It was a status symbol, something to which poor Ethiopians aspired. But now a waistline is increasingly a sign of gluttony, and as a result, “fitness centers and health clubs are also mushrooming in Addis Ababa,” Solomon says, and some of them even air their exercise programs on national TV.
Still, these joints represent more than just a change in diet.
“In a country and society where the passage of time seems inconsequential,” Solomon writes, “and in a culture where socialization is the hallmark of a good individual, the introduction of ‘to go’ is an indication of a shift in attitude towards socialization and the concept of time: while time becomes no more constant, socialization also seems to have ceased serving as a standard for good character.”
And of course, you can’t share meals “to go” from a common plate in the middle of a table surrounded by friends and family. Then again, neither can Benti’s healthy cuisine: You’ll notice that he allows no injera, the Ethiopian bread with which you grab your food. So if his macro megeb catches on, it could be good for the Ethiopian cutlery industry as well.
University of Pittsburgh
A FOOTNOTE: Just below is another daily menu planner, from the 1980 cookbook Ethiopian Traditional Recipes, published by the Ethiopian Nutrition Institute of the country’s Ministry of Health.
The names of the dishes are written in English, so you’ll know the main meat or vegetable ingredient of most dishes. For things like firfir, fitfit, chechebsa, besso and dulet, you can learn about all of them – except for siljo, a pureed bean dish not unlike shiro – in a post I did several months earlier translating a daily menu planner of traditional Ethiopian meals. You can also click the image of that menu below to get a closer look. You’ll find no beef, chicken or lamb on Wednesday and Friday because those are Ethiopian Christian fasting days, which means no meat. But you will find fish, which some Ethiopians don’t consider to be meat for the purpose of religious fasts.