DINING ON ETHIOPIAN CUISINE means eating with your hands. So does dining on pizza, or a sandwich, or a taco, or popcorn at a movie. But what about dining from someone else’s hand?
At the Ethiopian table, it just might happen. It’s called gursha, and it takes the intimacy of the shared meal one step further.
Gursha is an Amharic word that means “mouthful,” and it also can mean a bonus, a tip, or even a bribe. (Sometimes you’ll see it written as gorsha or goorsha.) When you perform gursha at a meal, you take a morsel of food – often a very large one – wrapped in injera and place it into the mouth of someone else at the table. Then, the person you’ve just honored with a gursha returns the favor. The elderly, or the guests at someone’s home, will often receive the first gursha to show them respect. But anyone could be so honored – although in the most traditional settings, there are a few rules.
The person receiving a gursha is called the gorash, and the giver is the agurash. The word for gursha in Tigrinya, the language of Eritrea and northern Ethiopia, is mukilas. And in Afaan Oromo, another widely spoken language in Ethiopia, you can express it a few ways in the different dialects: fuudhaa and tuuqata both mean gursha, and sooru means to feed someone with your hand or a spoon.
A less commonly known word for this is daregot, which means that “someone endows another with some gift of significance,” as my friend Menkir Tamrat explains. It may also imply a little bribe, tip or incentive to get a favor or for recognition.
Menkir told me about an old Amharic saying: Gursha ena feker siyaschenik naw. This means that a gursha, like love (feker), comes with a bit of pain, stress and discomfort because, just as you need to stretch your mouth to accept a good gursha, “falling in love will force you to change your usual ways or comfort zone.”
When dining at someone’s home, it’s most common for the host to be the agurash and the guest the gorash. This shows hospitality. But if your host is too busy serving to eat, you might become the agurash, offering some bites of food before it’s all gone. This is peer-to-peer gursha, Menkir says – that is, gursha between equals, and it might even occur when two revelers want to flirt with each other.
A non-peer-to-peer gursha might occur between a parent and child. “A mother can tell when the child isn’t full when sharing a meal in a group setting,” Menkir says. “She will have a couple of good-size gurshas ready for the child. My mother used to do this for me, and all I needed was two good ones just before they take the plates away.”
Another type of non-peer-to-peer gursha might occur in the homes of people wealthy enough to have a kitchen staff. After the help serves the meal, they’re called to the table by the getoch and emeté (lord and lady), although it’s usually the emeté who does the feeding. “These types of gursha are usually bigger than any other gursha,” Menkir says. “In fact, these gurshas are so big, the gorash will bring a small plate to hold below the mouth so that the transaction can be conducted somewhat gracefully. Not quite Downton Abbey, but the same pecking order.”
If you want to go all-out traditional, your gursha should always come in threes from your generous hostess. If she only offers to feed you once, she’s skimping on her hospitality, although you should politely refuse the second offering, not wanting to seem piggish – until, of course, you give in. But why the third time? “It could be a reference to the Trinity,” author Daniel Mesfin speculates in his cookbook, Exotic Ethiopian Cooking, “which would be in total disharmony solo or duo.”
In fact, when Ethiopians feed themselves, they try not to consume large mouthfuls of food “so as not to leave the impression that they are not so well provided with food at home,” Menkir says. But with gursha, which is always a larger bite of food, “such confinements don’t apply, and it’s someone else who’s making me look like Dizzy Gillespie on the trumpet.”
“It’s such a great bypass to the strict dining rules that popular sayings were coined to encourage gursha,” he adds. For example: “Even a hand slap to the face comes in pairs, first on the forehand side and the second on the backhand, making a second gursha automatic.” Or: “One gursha makes foes, two keeps them apart, and three keeps them closer – that’s why three gurshas are in order.” This is something the giver will say to the receiver to encourage him to acquiesce and open his mouth for the gursha.
Ephrem Eshete speculates on the origin of gursha with a fable that he posted on his website adebabay.com. His post includes an amusing cartoon, drawn by Alex Tefere, that shows a modern family engaged in a group gursha. The little boy on the right especially seems to be enjoying his meal.
Ephrem wrote his tale in Amharic, and you can read and download the essay. But my Amharic isn’t nearly good enough to understand it, so Menkir has graciously given me an English translation.
The story revolves around a cruel king who was so proud of his ability to treat his people badly that he wrote to the great King Herod, offering to swap ways to degrade the citizenry. This king then began to hone a new method: Put starving people in an arena around a magnificent spread of food, but give them only long silver spoons with which to eat it. How could they possibly get the spoons into their mouths? Again and again, they failed.
But just as the elite audience began to feel sorry for the peasants, one of them had an idea: “Me to you and you to me,” he said, and so they began feeding each other across the table using the long spoons. The king, angry at his failure, stormed out of the arena.
Then, something happened. The people who had witnessed the spectacle returned home and tried it themselves, feeding each other at dinner that evening. But they had to do it by hand because they didn’t have long spoons.
“There is a bit of a political undertone,” Menkir concludes, adding, with a smile, “Is there anything [Ethiopian] that isn’t political?” The story suggests that “if we don’t feed each other, we will all go hungry. It’s a bit of a subliminal message against greed in general, probably touching on some sentiment toward people of power and wealth.” That’s good advice in any culture.
A less elaborate version of the origin of gursha appears in a book (pictured just above) about sayings and proverbs in Ge’ez, the ancient language of Ethiopia. “This one is framed around testing for clever solutions to riddles, almost like wax and gold,” Menkir tells me. Wax and gold is an Ethiopian concept about double meanings in words and phrases, something that the nuances of the Amharic language invites. The story involves people eating genfo, an Ethiopian porridge, with long wooden spoons, and two students come up with a sort of wax and gold solution (kiné). They, too, say “me to you and you to me,” only in this tale, the king rewards them for their innovation.
IN MY MANY YEARS of eating at Ethiopian restaurants, I’ve never seen anyone perform a gursha. Nor have I ever been able to talk a friend – Ethiopian or otherwise – into doing it (not that I’ve tried too hard).
And no wonder. “The practice is a bit of a culture shock for Westerners accustomed to eating from separate plates with sterile forks and spoons,” writes Samuel Mahaffy, author of Eritrean Cooking. “The ceremony defies every social norm in the West around personal space, eating with one’s hands, and much more, placing food in the mouth of another – touching both the food and the one being served.” Mahaffy has lived in Eritrea, Ethiopia’s neighbor to the north, where the cuisine is identical to that of Ethiopia – with a few small cultural tweaks (like the difference between a Big Mac and a Whopper).
Receiving a gursha from the emperor of Ethiopia was a great honor for anyone lucky enough to dine at the palace. “The emperor might not remember all of the people he gave gursha,” Molla Tikuye writes in his book Insight into Ethiopia. “But the person who gets the gursha from the emperor remembers everything he receives from him, and because of that he is loyal to the emperor for the rest of his life.” That hasn’t happened since 1974, when a Communist revolution overthrew Haile Selassie, the last emperor of Ethiopia.
Trying to leave the table at an Ethiopian meal might also earn you a gursha, Molla writes: “After one is satisfied, he might try to stand up from his seat and move backwards. But the owner of the family also stands up and follows him to put some injera in his mouth, saying, ‘In my death, please eat some more.’ This type of culture seems to exist only in Ethiopia.”
In her book Reshaping Urban Environments in Ethiopia, Krystal L. Johnson says that the food one offers in a gursha “is usually much larger than the regular amount of food, so one’s mouth may be full from front to back.” But she issues a caution: “Members of the same sex may give gursha to each other or to male or female relatives. It is considered a grave insult if, in a group, a male approaches another’s wife and offers gursha.”
Bill Cordiner recalls his first gursha in his 2003 book, Diplomatic Wanderings. “The hostess selects a piece of meat and offers it to her guest as a gursha,” he writes. “One is then required to open one’s mouth and be hand fed the piece like a baby bird. On my first occasion, horror of horrors, I was offered, and had to swallow, a piece of fat and gristle I had carefully set aside from the meat in front of me.”
Margaret Winkler worked for the Foreign Service for 25 years, some of that time in Ethiopia, and in her book A Third of a Life, she tells a tale of gursha that happened to the men in her family.
“Dickie and Billy soon reached the point of no return with gursha and politely protested,” she recalls. “Andy, however, held up the honor of the family far longer. On the way to the car after we made our thanks and took our leave, Andy said, ‘Daddy, put your hand in my pocket.’ His jacket pocket was full of stew. He had maneuvered the mouth-to-pocket movement surreptitiously so as not to embarrass his parents or his host.”
If you’re Ethiopian – or even if you’re not – you can do gursha with any kind of food. “Way before” New York City had any Ethiopian restaurants (the first was in 1979), Menkir and some friends found themselves in a café near Columbia University. They sat in two booths across from each other, and “no sooner had the food been served,” he remembers, “when a bunch of hands started crisscrossing in the air, some even across the aisle, passing gurshas around of whatever we were eating. In bewilderment, the friendly waitress stood in the middle of the aisle, put her hands on her hips and blurted out with a laugh: ‘Where’s mine?'”
Ethiopians love raw meat, and in the ritual of qurt, you cut your own bites of meat from a much larger slab carried by a server. Unless, of course, someone at the table graces you with a gursha. He’ll bring a slab of goden te’dabit (ribs and the brisket) weighing about 10 pounds or more and work his way around the table, allowing each person to cut a piece of beef for himself. Now comes the gursha: The server gets one at each stop, so he doesn’t have to cut his own meat.
Menkir recalls a story of “two clever girls from Dessie, always laughing and pulling practical jokes.” One especially loved the boiled eggs at a dinner of doro wot, and the other preferred the drumsticks. But with large Ethiopian families, Menkir says, “the odds favor the boiled egg lover because there are usually more hands than drumsticks” (John Madden’s six-legged turkey notwithstanding). Then the girls figured out a way to use gursha to their advantage. It’s OK to gorge on one item on the table if someone else is making you do it, so each fed the other the portion of the meal that she most craved before the rest of the many hands at the table could gobble them up.
Finally, gursha is a way to emphasize that meals are communal. In Ethiopian etiquette, “there’s a certain unwritten contempt that goes with eating alone or being too territorial with food,” Menkir says. The derogatory word for this is hodam, and if you serve bites to yourself as big as the ones you serve as gursha to someone else, that’s what people might think you are.
Hagossa Gebrehiwet-Buckner, also an author of an Ethiopian cookbook, cautions that an offer of gursha “often grabs foreigners by surprise,” so it’s “OK to decline a gursha if you are uncomfortable. People won’t take offense from this.” On the other hand, says Alem Eshetu, author of Amharic for Foreign Beginners, “You have to understand that it is a sign of love and respect, hence you have to take care not to refuse when it is offered.” Decide for yourself, then, whose advice to follow.
In his important 1965 book Wax and Gold, the noted Ethiopian scholar Donald Levine of the University of Chicago surveyed 700 Ethiopians about their views on native customs compared to foreign ones. Levine found that college-educated Ethiopians, who make up less than one percent of the population even today, were more likely to prefer “European” or “foreign” ways of doing things, which he defined as any variation of the Ethiopian custom of eating with your hands from a shared plate in the middle of the table.
Although 80 percent of Levine’s respondents preferred Ethiopian food to non-Ethiopian dishes, 58 percent preferred to have individual plates in front of them. These modernists also shied away from gursha.
“The slight majority who reject this old custom,” Levine wrote, “do so because they find it ‘noisy,’ ‘childish,’ ‘unsanitary,’ or simply ‘out of fashion,” while those who still enjoy it do so chiefly because it ‘expresses affection.'” But gursha, he observed, remains a cherished customs that “plays up the erotic component of eating.”
Annette Sheckler, a senior adviser at the Ethiopian embassy when I met her in 2009, told me that the first time someone gave her gursha, “I thought it was very nice, but I thought, why are they stuffing my mouth with food.”
“I was famous with gursha because of my long fingers,” added Solomon Mekonnen, a financial officer at the embassy when I visited, holding up his hand to show the half dozen people gathered around a table one afternoon. He once gave gursha in the window of a U Street restaurant in Washington, D.C., and passers-by stopped to watch.
Everyone in my embassy chat group that afternoon chuckled, except for Fikerte Kidanemariam, the elder of the group, who simply said, “I hate gursha. It is too big.” She explained that to do it properly, you have to fill your hand with food from fingers to palm, and that’s just too much to force into someone’s mouth.
MANY 19TH CENTURY EUROPEAN VISITORS to Ethiopia were at once fascinated and repelled by the act of gursha and the size of the proffered repast.
The Portuguese explorer Jerome Lobo published an account in 1789 of his mission to Ethiopia in which he describes gursha. “Everything they eat smells strong, and swims with butter,” he wrote. “They make no use of either linen or plates. The persons of rank never touch what they eat. Their meat is cut by pages, and put into their mouths.”
The most comprehensive early look at Ethiopia by a European came from James Bruce, a Scottish explorer who, in 1790, published his vivid five-volume book, Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile. He describes not only the content of an Ethiopian meal but the ritual of eating it, again witnessing gursha.
“No man in Abyssinia, of any fashion whatever, feeds himself, or touches his own meat,” Bruce wrote, using the European name for the country. “The women take the steak and cut it length-ways like strings, about the thickness of your little finger, then crossways into square pieces, something smaller than a dice. This they lay upon a piece of the teff bread [injera], strongly powdered with black pepper, or cayenne pepper. They then wrap it up in the teff bread like a cartridge.”
When the morsel is ready, the man places each hand upon his neighbor’s knee, “his body stooping, his head low and forward, and mouth open, very like an idiot,” Bruce writes. The woman places the food in his mouth, “which is so full that he is in constant danger of being choked. This is a mark of grandeur. Having dispatched this morsel, his next female neighbor holds forth another cartridge, which goes the same way, and so on till he is satisfied. He never drinks till he has finished eating; and, before he begins, in gratitude to the fair ones that fed him, he makes up two small rolls of the same kind and form; each of his neighbors opens their mouths at the same time, while with each hand he puts their portion into their mouths.”
In his 1871 account of a trip to Ethiopia, the Frenchman Emilius Cosson’s meal also included gursha, for “if the Ras [governor] saw any of the native guests he wished especially to honor, he broke off a piece of bread, rubbed it in all the sauces, and rammed it into their mouths with his own hand. They however managed to handle their food with such skill that very little mess was made in eating it, and though the bread was rather bitter, some of the sauces were good, and the meal was not so unpalatable as might be supposed.”
In modern Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, a phenomenon involving gursha began to appear decades ago and has gained increasing popularity: It’s called the gursha market, and it involves selling leftover restaurant food at low prices to people on the street. It’s a way for the poor, who often live on the streets, to buy a few mouthfuls of food at a price far below the cost of a restaurant, and for the entrepreneurs, it provides a means of income.
The people who operate gursha markets buy leftover food, or bule, from restaurants, and some may even be restaurant employees who get the leftovers for free. Then, for about three birrs (about 12 cents), a patron can get three large mouthfuls of food that could cost as much as 15 birrs (about 60 cents) in a restaurant. The enterprise has become so popular that the price of a street gursha has risen sixfold in the past several years. The people selling the food can make a whopping daily profit of 70 to 90 birrs (as much as $3.50 or so).
The word gursha sometimes turns up today as the names of Ethiopian businesses. For example, a few restaurants around the world have named themselves Gursha: You’ll find such places in Silver Spring, Md., and Grand Rapids, Mich. In Santa Rosa, Calif., there’s Hanna Asfaw’s Gursha Catering, which specializes in Ethiopian cuisine. And in Savannah, Ga., Anisa Legesse has created a line of Ethiopian food products called Gursha – A Taste of Ethiopia, offering spices, niter kibe and even prepared foods, like wot and ater kik, in jars.
If you like Ethiopian food enough to have it on your smart phone, then consider downloading an Ethiopian recipe app called Gursha. It offers step-by-step instructions for making a variety of dishes. And while your food cooks, you can play the game of Gursha courtesy of another smart phone app. It features flying red peppers and plates of food that you try to land in a hungry mouth.
Several years ago, Kallie Ejigu got a group of young Ethiopian-American women together to talk about their culture and their lives, and she made several videos of their conversations. She called the gatherings, quite simply, Gursha. You can watch part one and part two on YouTube. She got them together a year later for a four-part Gursha Revisited.
On an episode of The Simpsons in 2011, Marge and the kids found themselves in Springfield’s Little Ethiopia when their car broke down. They decided to have an adventure and try the food, which they ended up loving. Joined by a group of pretentious foodies, they gursha each other around the table. (Watch the full video or a shorter version subtitled in Amharic.)
And finally, just to prove that everyone loves gursha, there are the gursha dogs (see video below), two obedient golden retrievers who wait patiently for their human companion to serve them some siga wot and injera. Luckily for their human, the dogs didn’t return the favor.
University of Pittsburgh
Some lucky American dogs enjoy gursha.
A group of Ethiopian woman share gursha.
Learn how to do the perfect gursha from the TV show What’s Out Addis.
In this comic Amharic video, a group of men try to give gursha while blindfolded.