SOMETIMES AN ETHIOPIAN MEAL can become a work of art.
That’s because artists in Ethiopia – and in other cultures, too, of course – like to memorialize their cuisine with paintings. In the case of Ethiopia, these folk artists often create their paintings on parchment made of tanned animal hides, usually in the familiar style of Ethiopian traditional art. The images tend to depict country ways of cooking and eating rather than the way people eat in a modern urban setting. Some of the images even go back a few millennia.
I own a few such paintings, and you can find many more for sale on Ebay and around the internet. I’ve decided to do a largely visual post here and collect some images. The paintings usually have a few words in Amharic describing what they depict, and I’ll translate those words, which are sometimes small and hard to read.
So here’s a look at the art of Ethiopian cuisine, with captions every few images that describe what the artists depict. You can click on each image to make it larger.
THESE FOUR IMAGES are a great place to begin: Women are the cooks in most Ethiopian homes, and here, we see scenes of women making injera, cooking wot and, in the second image, grinding grain as well. In Amharic, the word baltena refers to household skills, and two of the painting have this word: The top image says ye’setoch baltena, or “the household skills of women,” and the middle one merely says baltena.
The bottom image shows women baking bread – the word dabo is barely visible in the corner – using two mitads with a fire above and below, and with the dough inside wrapped in the leaves of the enset plant. This cooking takes place in the lower left corner of the image, and the finished bread is called difo dabo.
AS A WOMAN COOKS, a group of hungry friends and family await their meal. Or perhaps she’s the community’s master chef, giving baltena lessons to her neighbors. We know she’s cooking wot because the tiny word is visible at the bottom of the image. In the background, a mesob awaits the finished meal.
CHRISTIANITY ARRIVED IN ETHIOPIA in the fourth century, and religious art has long been a cultural tradition. Here, two artists show Jesus and the 12 apostles eating around three mesobs – which almost certainly did not exist in his time. The inscription on the top image says: Christos b’elete-hamus erat abela, which means “Christ hosted dinner on the day of Thursday.” I guess you could call that the next to the last supper.
MANY ETHIOPIAN ARTISTS have depicted The Last Supper in the context of their own culture. Here, we see Jesus and his disciples sharing a meal around some mesobs and eating with their hands in the modern Ethiopian fashion. If Ethiopians ate that way 2,000 years ago, it was probably because everyone in the world did (cutlery didn’t enter any culture until many centuries later). The Amharic writing, top left, says: “Jesus had supper with his disciples on Thursday evening.”
AN ETHIOPIAN MEAL is always communal, and in these paintings, large groups dine together and enjoy plenty of t’ej (honey wine) from traditional bereles. Mehaberawi means a collective or association, although at the dinner table, it refers to sharing a meal. The words on the top image say mehaberawi gebzia, which means, more or less, “sharing a feast.” The bottom image says erat sibelu, which means “as they eat dinner,” and in this painting, you can see a woman pouring coffee.
HERE ARE THREE MORE INTIMATE MEALS, with a yellow palette dominating the work. The golden t’ej stands out in each image, so the artists seem to have made the injera and the mesob yellow as well. The wot on the injera is red, just as it should be. The inscription on the top image says, megeb siblu, which means “as they eat food,” and the bottom two simply say siblu, or “when they are eating.”
AND TALK ABOUT INTIMATE: Here’s a feast where one celebrant give gursha to another. That’s the communal act of placing a morsel of food in someone’s mouth, a favor that’s immediately returned. The word gursha means “mouthful.”
FOR THE MOST PART, making the delectable Ethiopian honey wine t’ej isn’t a lot of work: You mix honey and water, add gesho, and let it ferment. But if you use the leaf of the gesho rather than the stick, you have to pound it into a powder. That’s what the women here are doing. The inscription is the same on each painting: gesho siwaqata, which means “pounding gesho.” Ethiopians also use the powdered leaf of the gesho to make t’alla, a traditional beer.
WHEN THE T’EJ IS READY, Ethiopians often drink it from a berele, a round-bottom flask with a small opening at the top over which you can place your thumb to keep insects from getting into the sweet liquid. Some people will drink t’ej with a meal, but very often, it comes after the meal (center right), perhaps because it’s safer to imbibe on a full stomach. The revelers on the bottom seem to be so far gone that they’ve spilled some of their t’ej. The second and third photos above says megeb simegebu, which means “as they eat the meal.” In the paired imaged, the left image says, once again, erat siblu, or “as they eat dinner,” and the right image says megeb baletewe t’ej sitetu, or “drinking t’ej after a meal.
ETHIOPIANS GAVE COFFEE TO THE WORLD, and they cherish this fact as a cultural touchstone. In fact, you don’t just serve coffee in Ethiopia: You prepare it in a ceremony that involves grinding the beans, roasting them as you socialize with your guests – letting the aroma circulate – then drinking three cups with crunchy or grainy snacks. Each of these paintings contains the word buna, which is coffee in Amharic, and the top image says buna sitetu, which means “drinking coffee.” A full coffee ceremony, and its accompanying social time when the coffee is ready, can consume three hours or more.
IT’S BACK TO THE BALTENA for this busy tableau of women. The cook on the left grinds grain, two of the women are sifting something, two work together pounding gesho to make t’ej, and the woman in the middle prepares to serve a meal, probably to a table surrounded by their hungry husbands, children and other relatives.
IN THIS COLORFUL MEALTIME GATHERING, the woman on the left pours coffee while the woman in the center cuts into a huge ambasha that takes up the entire mesob. A few of the celebrants look like they have t’ej in their cups.
THIS MAGNIFICENT PANORAMA shows many aspects of an Ethiopian gebr (banquet or feast). In the center, three men eat their meal from a mesob, while nearby others eat on the ground and enjoy some golden t’ej, which servants (bottom left) draw from an ensera. A server with a small pitcher (lower right) walks around filling people’s bereles.
On the right, in the bottom corner, a man prepares brindo – that is, raw meat (tere siga) – cutting off chunks to present to the revelers. Sometimes he’ll serve it in long strips, and at the table, you cut off bite-sized pieces yourself. This ritual is called qurt, and the people sitting on the ground have knives and chunks of tere siga in front of them.
Just to the right of the men around the mesob, there’s entertainment: a woman performing the traditional eskista dance, and a man playing what appears to be a masenqo, a one-stringed Ethiopian instrument. A krar has five or six strings, and a begena has 10 strings.
Note the three men in black at the center of the painting: The word above them is papas, which means pope, so they might be there to represent the trinity. And sitting on the lion-skin throw at the top of the painting is Tewodros II, a great Ethiopian emperor who met a tragic end of his own making in 1868. (Click the image to get a closer look at all of the details.)
University of Pittsburgh