The Art of the Meal

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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.


Women Cooking (Baltena)



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.



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.




drinking tej


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.

A grand Ethiopian gebr (banquet). Click the image to get a closer look.

A grand Ethiopian gebr (banquet). Click the image to get a closer look.

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.)

Harry Kloman

University of Pittsburgh

Macro Megeb: The New Ethiopian?

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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.

Benti Qeno Bida

Benti Qeno Bida

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.

Sunday through Wednesday meals (click to enlarge)

Sunday through Wednesday meals
(click to enlarge)

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.

Thursday through Saturday meals  (click to enlarge)

Thursday through Saturday meals
(click to enlarge)

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.

Two royal  Addis Ababa  fast food places

Two royal
Addis Ababa
fast food places

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.

Harry Kloman
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.


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