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.

megebcover1

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.

menu22

The Cuisine of the Ethiopian Jews

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WHO ARE THE JEWS OF ETHIOPIA? Are they the millennia-old descendants of one of the Lost Tribes of Israel? Or are they simply the ancestors of Yemeni Jews who migrated to Ethiopians in the last several centuries?

Israel has determined that they are, in fact, ancient Hebrews, even though modern genetics has determined the latter. But regardless of their origins, the food of Ethiopian Jews is very much like the food of most other Ethiopians – with, of course, a few cultural exceptions and unique traditions.

A Beta Israel village in Ethiopa, c. 1860s

A Beta Israel village in Ethiopa, c. 1860s

Very few people in Ethiopia now practice Judaism because most of the Jews of Ethiopia, who call themselves Beta Israel (“the house of Israel”), moved to Israel during Operation Moses and Operation Solomon, two daring airlifts in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and at various times since then. Israel now has about 120,000 Ethiopian Jews, a third of them born there after their parents immigrated, and there are also about 1,000 Beta Israel living in the United States as well.

The question of whether any Jews still live in Ethiopia is a trickier one. Israel has recently completed Operation Dove’s Wing, a program – launched in 2010 – to bring what the country considers to be the last Ethiopian Jews to Israel. But the program came down to the definition of “Jew” under its Law of Return. These final emigrants, called Falash Mura, say their families were historically Jewish but converted to Christianity generations ago under pressure or in fear for their lives. Some also claim to be Jewish through the ancestry of their fathers, and Jewish law only recognizes matrilineal ancestry (because, in Biblical times, you could never be sure who a child’s father was). Falash Mura will have to undergo conversion in Israel.

Meanwhile, back in Ethiopia, about 7,000 people still claim to be Jews. But Israeli law doesn’t define them as such, so Operation Dove’s Wing won’t bring them to Israel. They live mostly in the area around Gondar, the historic center of Beta Israel culture.

An Ethiopian spice shop in Israel

An Ethiopian spice shop in Israel

When the Beta Israel lived in and near Gondar, they made their livelihood as skilled and valued pottery makers – the best craftsmen in the country, some people say. This skill left with them, although there are many other cultures in Ethiopia that make pottery. I have an Ethiopian friend who tells me that when he was growing up in Gondar, he remembered how good his mother’s shiro tasted. But years later, it somehow didn’t taste as good. His mother told him that she was no longer making it a shakla dist – a traditional clay pot – because she couldn’t get any after the Beta Israel emigrated.

The new generation of Israeli-born Ethiopian Jews has become a bit more Westernized (or Middle Easternized) in their culinary practice, absorbing the cuisines of non-Ethiopian cultures. But they do still maintain many of the dishes and practices of their homeland. Some people use the term Falasha to refer to the Beta Israel. It’s derived from a word in Ge’ez, the ancient language of Ethiopia, meaning “foreigner” or “immigrant,” and many now consider it to be derogatory.

In Ethiopia, the Beta Israel ate like other Ethiopians, with a few exceptions related to Jewish dietary laws: For example, they didn’t eat raw meat, a beloved dish throughout the country. Most lived in towns surrounding the old Ethiopian capital of Gondar, and many were poor, just like their Christian compatriots. In addition to injera, Ethiopian Jews would sometimes eat a leavened bread with sesame seeds on it, as well as using sesame seeds in other ways. But this was a Gondar regional custom, not a uniquely Jewish one. Because of fear and cultural taboos, Christians and Jews would rarely break injera together, even though their food was largely the same.

A restaurant in Tel Aviv

A restaurant in Tel Aviv

Ethiopian Jews celebrate the Sabbath with a special large loaf of bread called berekete, which the woman of the household bakes all night under an open flame on a hearth. She also lets buttermilk cook for a long time until it turns to cheese. After synagogue on Saturday morning, the family eats the bread, sometimes adding spicy berbere to the cheese and soaking the bread in it. There’s also tebugna, a small loaf of bread often served to guests with coffee, and engotcha (or angotcha), about the size of a biscuit, given to children. Habash Ethiopian Restaurant in Tel Aviv serves kosher meals and offers “angotcha with honey” as a “last course” at the bottom of its menu. (Watch a video of Habash in Tel Aviv.)

The scholar Monika Edelstein notes that the “Shabbat [Sabbath] observance is currently a blend of Ethiopian and Israeli custom.” But because of strict Sabbath rules in Jewish law against lighting fires, observant Ethiopian Jews in Israel can’t perform a traditional coffee (buna) ceremony on the Sabbath. She once heard a story about “a woman suffering from powerful caffeine headaches who abstained from making coffee on Shabbat for fear of being seen as not Jewish and subsequently deported. Jewish law allows for the preparation of instant coffee on Shabbat as long as the water has been heated prior to Shabbat. The fact that coffee, but not buna — a quintessential sign of Ethiopianness — can be made on Shabbat exposes a distinction between Ethiopian and Israeli practices.”

Zenash Beyene, the proprietress of Ras Dashen restaurant in Chicago, grew up Beta Israel in Ethiopia, and she still cherishes her memories of berekete. As we talked about those days at her restaurant, a Tigrayan Christian friend joined our conversation and wrote the word in Amharic.

Dipping engotcha in honey  at a Gdeft celebration in Israel

Dipping engotcha in honey
at a Gdeft celebration in Israel

Zenash says that the Beta Israel and Tigrayan people are very close. “If you test his blood and my blood,” she says, pointing to her friend, “same thing.”
When the Passover holiday ends, the Beta Israel enjoy a celebration called Gdeft, ending eight days of eating matzos with a feast that includes engotcha dipped in honey, whose stickiness represents the closeness of family, and whose sweetness is a holiday treat. (A salty variety of engotcha is called dabeh.) The meal features generous servings of wots, alichas and t’ej, along with singing, dancing and prayers.

Like their Christian and Moslem neighbors, the Jews of Ethiopia don’t eat pork, as proscribed by biblical dietary laws. But kosher eating goes deeper than that, and the Beta Israel tend to follow all of the rules. Ethiopian Christians use kibe in their beef dishes, even though the same rules that forbid the consumption of pork also forbid the mixing of meat and dairy. Many Beta Israel don’t mix the two elements because of kosher dietary laws, and some cooks won’t even use kibe in chicken dishes, although that’s more a matter of choice than custom.

Orit Getanek – born in Ethiopia, raised from age 9 in Israel, and educated in clinical psychology in Chicago – observes Jewish dietary laws strictly, although her cousin believes it’s kosher (so to speak) to use kibe in chicken dishes.

Ethiopian Jews visiting Israel in 1955,  long before the airlift

Ethiopian Jews visiting Israel in 1955,
long before the airlift

“With chicken,” Orit told me when I met her in Chicago a few years ago, “it’s more rabbinic law, not Torah law.” She followed the rules even in Chicago, which meant she rarely ate at restaurants, and she got her injera from Zenash. Injera among Beta Israel in Ethiopia was pretty much the same as it was in Christian homes, and Orit also remembers eating leavened bread covered with sesame seeds when she lived in Ethiopia.

To celebrate Passover in Ethiopia, Beta Israel would sometimes make a variation of matzos using chick peas and would mark the end of the eight-day bread-free holiday by eating kategna, which is lightly pan-toasted injera smeared with berbere-spiced kibe. To break the 24-hour fast at the end of Yom Kippur, celebrants might eat yedoro dabo, a doughy leavened bread (dabo) that they dip in a spicy chicken (doro) sauce.

The Sabbath meal, for people who could afford it, would often be doro wot, a dish enjoyed by all Ethiopians: It’s a chicken drumstick (or thigh) in a rich spicy berbere sauce served with a hard-boiled egg. In fact, the tradition of having doro wot on the Sabbath continues in Israel, whereas non-Ethiopian Israelis often have a stew called cholent made with beef, potatoes, beans and some sort of grain (barley or rice, depending upon the recipe and the tradition). As a sacramental drink, Beta Israel families in Ethiopia who didn’t have wine or t’ej will drink talla, the grainy Ethiopian homemade beer.

The Bible also forbids slaughtering and eating a wounded animal, and observant Ethiopian Jews obey. In Ethiopia, if their cow had a wound, they would give it to a Christian neighbor, who gladly turned it into siga wot.

In Israel, food customs have changed somewhat for Ethiopian Jews. Mothers still make injera to eat with traditional Ethiopian cuisine, as well as less traditional Ethiopian-style dishes, like a wot made of goat rather than lamb. But the Middle Eastern and European Jewish influence is strong in the kitchen, especially as new generations come along.

Couscous, falafel and schnitzel are common in the homes of Israel’s Ethiopian Jews, many of whom remain strictly kosher. So is shawarma, which to an Ethiopian is a little like tibs. And because many of the children of Ethiopian Jews eat at school every day or even go away to boarding school, the emerging generation has become much more diverse at the mesob, often eating Israeli food during the week and Ethiopian food with the family at home on the weekends.

JUST AS THEY HAVE AROUND THE WORLD, Ethiopian immigrants in Israel have become restaurateurs, establishing places that range from the modern to the ultra mom ‘n’ pop.

For example, there’s Habash, one of the more upscale places in Tel Aviv, with its elegant interior and generous meals. (Take a video visit to Habash.) Others, like Almaz in Tel Aviv, have a homier decor more reminiscent of Ethiopia. And Jerusalem’s Ethio-Irsael Restaurant offers strictly kosher meals. You’ll find nearly a dozen Ethiopian restaurants in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, some of them so small that mostly only Ethio-Israelis patronize them. And at Tenat Ethiopian Restaurant in Tel Aviv, dancers from the Ethiopian Center sometimes perform.

When Yossi Vassa, an Ethio-Israeli actor, comedian and playwright, toured the United States in 2012, he was delighted to visit San Francisco and see so many Ethiopian restaurants.

Ethiopian food in Israel  (photo by Justin Jacobs)

Ethiopian food in Israel
(photo by Justin Jacobs)

“It’s amazing,” he told The Jewish Independent. “Americans have so much appreciation for injera.” Israeli don’t embrace Ethiopian food the way Americans do, he added, because “Israeli society doesn’t see difference as something positive.”

There are even a few Ethiopian cookbooks published in Israel. The biggest one I’ve found, המטבח האתיופי (Ha-Mitbah Ha-Etyopi, or “Ethiopian Cuisine”), is a handsome 215-page glossy paperback with lots of color photos. The top of each recipe presents the name of the dish in Hebrew, and below that, the Amharic name for the dish in Hebrew and in transliterated English, with the ingredients and recipes all in Hebrew.

There’s also the 27-page Not on Injera Alone: Nutrition of the Ethiopian People of Israel, which names each dish in English and Hebrew and presents the recipes all in Hebrew. You can download this book for free as a PDF from an Israeli government site.

I’ve never visited Israel, but lately, I’ve been able to live vicariously through Justin Jacobs, my friend who lives and works there now. Justin, a journalist who specializes in writing about music, enjoyed Ethiopian food in the U.S., so I didn’t have to prod him very much to visit Ethiopian restaurants in Israel and send me some observations and thoughts.

His first experience was at a Tel Aviv restaurant called Tewodros, where he had doro wot and two beef dishes, one spicy, one not. The food was capable, if not impressive, and the owner’s story echoes that of Chicago’s Zenash Beyene. Justin writes:

The restaurant, called Tewodros in English and Hebrew, is just off the beach in South Tel Aviv. The only clientele inside were Ethiopian. The owner told me he’s operated the restaurant for about 10 years, and he came to Israel in 1984. I would’ve expected him to say he came in Operation Moses, which happened that year. But he said he walked to Sudan, then was smuggled into Israel. That’s how most refugees do it now – get smuggled across Egypt then into the Southern border of Israel. The rest of his family came in 1991, which means they definitely came in Operation Solomon.

This was a good experience. They weren’t all like that. Not that Justin didn’t make it home alive from his next meal at an Ethiopian restaurant in Israel. But he might just have gotten lucky.

Kita fitfit in Israel  (photo by Justin Jacobs)

Kita fitfit in Israel
(photo by Justin Jacobs)

There’s a neighborhood in Tel Aviv called Ne’ve Sha’anaan, colloquially called Little Africa because it’s become home to many Eritrean and Sudanese refugees living in Israel. “It seriously is unlike any other place in the country,” Justin writes. “The vast, vast majority of them don’t speak any English or Hebrew; the park in the neighborhood is filled with a few hundred homeless guys sleeping every night. The Israelis still living there are in fear: A bunch of Eritreans broke into this elderly woman’s apartment and raped her a few months back. The place is a nightmare.”

Still, that didn’t stop Justin from a sojourn in search of food. Here’s what he wrote to me about his visit.

A friend and I wandered into the heart of Ne’ve Sha’anaan to find some grub and walked around looking stupid for a while trying to find a restaurant. The main strip of shops is a pedestrian walkway, lined with men selling stolen things on blankets. We found one restaurant, but there was a man passed out or dead in the entryway, and people were kicking him to see if he was alive, so we decided not to eat there.

Eventually found a place and sat down. They spoke no Hebrew or English, and there was no real way to ask them any questions about where they came from. The restaurant was also clearly just part of someone’s apartment; it was tiny. So I tried to order in words I figured would be universal: tibs, injera, basar (meat in Hebrew). The dude nodded like he knew, but 20 minutes later we had to re-order – they had no idea we wanted food. So we drank some beer, and realized it said “Made in Eritrea.” Then we looked at the TV – Eritrea Cable Network. We weren’t eating Ethiopian food at all!

I should have known better – the Ethiopians here are Jews, and they’re far more absorbed into society than the very new refugees and asylum seekers. Anyway, they brought us out some injera with a garlic veggie dish. It was good, but not what we wanted. The waiter kept bringing out this weird looking thing to the other customers (who, it should be noted, were all single males eating alone). We pointed to it and told the waiter we wanted one. Then we looked it up on my iPhone and it appears to be kita fitfit, bread strips marinated in spicy sauce with yogurt. It was so good!

Also of note: Ne’ve Sha’naan’s northern border is Menachem Begin Street, across from which are a bunch of skyscrapers and the national office of the biggest bank in Israel. When the sun is right, the bank actually casts a shadow on the poorest, most destitute neighborhood in Tel Aviv, possibly in all of Israel.

Justin has posted a much longer and more vivid account of his adventure on his own website.

The emergence of Ethiopian restaurants is naturally a phenomenon that didn’t come about right away: The emigrants had few resources when they arrived in Israel, and acclimation took time. Teff, the grain used to make injera, didn’t grow in Israel, so the new arrivals had to learn to make their bread with wheat until teff imports began several years later.

But there was another reason. In a 1990 essay on Beta Israel life after immigration, the scholar Daniel Friedmann found that these new Israelis couldn’t always get the things they needed to prepare their native cuisine.

“Even the culinary and dietary traditions that the Ethiopians try to maintain in their everyday lives are compromised by the emigration,” Friedmann found. “Many of the basic ingredients are unobtainable, such as teff used to prepare the injera. Wheat is substituted in Israel. Similar problems arise over t’alla, a home-brewed barley beer that contributes greatly to Ethiopian sociability.”

Since then, of course, many of the foods needed to make Ethiopian cuisine in Israel have become available and even abundant.

But in some parts of Israel, Ethiopian Jews still have a hard time getting some of the foods they need to cook their familiar or traditional meals. So in the southern city of Beer Sheba, located in the Negev desert, a group of people have formed the Kalisher Community Garden, where they grow peppers to make berbere, collard greens to make gomen, and Ethiopian basil from Ethiopian seeds. Unfortunately, the space and the climate make it impossible to grow teff for injera.

Finally, if you like to watch a confident chef in her kitchen, then drop in on Tesfanesh – a.k.a. Titina – and her cooking show on the Israeli Ethiopian TV channel. She speaks in Amharic, so you may not understand a word, but she’s a warm hostess, and the food looks great when it’s all done and presented on a piece of injera. You can find her videos by clicking the above link or by going to the IETV Channel on YouTube and entering the search phrase “The Wonders of the Ethiopian cuisine,” which brings up her videos. Each one has two recipes, among them shiro, dulet, kay wot, siga wot, doro wot, gomen and tikil gomen, familiar dishes eaten by all Ethiopians.

A NUMBER OF SCHOLARS have studied and written about the Beta Israel, and prominent among the contemporary ones are Hagar Salamon and Lisa Anteby-Yemini. Both have earned degrees and taught in Israel, and both have written books that explore Beta Israel culture, including its culinary customs and beliefs.

But before Salamon and Anteby-Yemini took up their studies of the Beta Israel, there was Jacques Faitlovitch (1881-1955), a Polish-born Jew who studied Ethiopian culture in Paris, and who became one of the great early chroniclers of the Beta Israel in Ethiopia. He studied at the Sorbonne under Joseph Halévy (1827-1917), another renowned 19th Century scholar who studied the culture.

A Beta Israel woman cooking in Gondar, and the kitchen inside her home

A Beta Israel woman cooking in Gondar, and the kitchen inside her home

Faitlovitch first visited Ethiopia in 1904 and wrote numerous books and articles about them. In his 1920 essay “The Falashas,” he described the Sabbath traditions that he witnessed:

The food for this day is prepared on the previous day, and from the setting of the sun on Friday to the following evening, they abstain from all work. The Sabbath repast is eaten in common [in the synagogue], this forming a part of the prescribed service, and rich and poor participate in it. On this day of rest and prayer they feel themselves to be in a paradise of purity and sanctity.

The Sabbath meals are prepared with more care, and in greater abundance, than ordinary meals. A special Sabbath bread is prepared; the entire community contributes to its preparation, and it is distributed by priests to those present in the synagogue during the intervals of the service. Persons to whom admittance to the interior of the synagogue is forbidden may not take or touch this bread. It is considered as an offering, and takes the place of the sacrifices prescribed in the Bible for the Sabbath day.

On this day, by reason of a special rite, they consume more meat than they do in general, and like all Jews they extract the blood from the meat and never eat it raw. They do not know of the prohibition against eating milk and meat together, and they feast sumptuously on these articles of food, especially on Saturday. They eat the meat cooked or roasted in butter with a highly peppered sauce made of powdered beans seasoned with spices. During their meals they drink, especially on the Sabbath, fermented liquors such as mead and beer made of barley or of oats. They never fail to wash their hands before and after meals nor do they forget to recite a benediction at the commencement and at the conclusion of each repast.

This beer, of course, is t’alla, and the spicy bean sauce sounds like shiro.

For Passover, Faitlovitch found, Ethiopian Jews abstain not only from eating leavened bread but from eating any fermented food at all. “Three days before Passover,” he found, “they stop eating leavened bread and take nothing but dried peas and beans, and on the eve of Passover they abstain from all food until after the sacrifice of the pascal lamb. After the sacrifice is slaughtered and roasted, the meat is eaten with unleavened bread.”

Some of what Faitlovitch observed has clearly changed: Ethiopian Jews now tend not to mix meat and dairy. Maybe contact with Jews outside of Ethiopia have taught them this custom. Or maybe Faitlovitch just spent time with a less doctrinaire community.

Less munificent than these two Europeans was Henry Stern (1820-1985), an Anglican missionary, born in Germany to Jewish parents, but who converted to Christianity at age 20. In 1862, he published Wanderings Among the Falashas in Abyssinia, in which he admits, “The special object of my visit [to Ethiopia] was he evangelization of that remnant of Israel, known by the name Falashas.”

At the time of his visit, some Europeans didn’t believe the Beta Israel existed. But Stern’s book assures them that “the doubt and uncertainty of the Jewish historian will in some degree be removed by the facts I have recorded.”

Stern visits a wide range of Ethiopian communities and cultures, finally getting to his titular people in chapters 14 and 15, and he confirms much of what more modern scholars found about Beta Israel laws and customs. At Passover, he found “the substitution of unleavened bread for leavened bread. These Passover cakes they do not prepare beforehand in the orthodox style, but each family bakes every day the quantity requisite for the household.” He has little more to say about food, choosing instead to spend his two chapters chiding the Beta Israel for not being Christian.

Wolf Leslau, the eminent 20th Century Semitic scholar, confirmed some of this in his 1951 book, Falasha Anthology, where he writes: “Throughout the festival, the Falashas do not eat or drink anything which is leavened or fermented or which has been kept overnight. They eat a special unleavened bread (qita) and drink only coffee and another beverage called chelqa, which is made of water mixed with flax or other seeds. They drink milk as soon as it is taken from the cow; once it is creamy, it is considered fermented and must be given to the animals or thrown away.” (What he calls chelqa is probably telba, a flax seed beverage common in Ethiopia.)

A poster for an Ethiopian restaurant  in Tel Aviv

A poster for an Ethiopian restaurant
in Tel Aviv

Another German missionary, Martin Flad (1831-1915), spent some time among the Beta Israel and the Qemant (or Kemant or Kamant) people, a Pagan-Hebraic culture in Ethiopia with some religions kinship to the Beta Israel and to Judaism. Flad’s 1885 book, A Short Description of the Falasha and Kamants of Abyssinia, is largely a dictionary documenting their language and vocabulary. But he does note this of the Kamants: “They eat every food from Christians, except the meat that has been killed on Saturday and bread, baked from corn, that has been ground on that day. The Christians likewise eat everything cooked by the Kamants, except meat that has been killed by them. This is owing to the different benedictions in the name of the Holy Trinity.”

Salamon’s 1999 book Hyena People looks at the lives of the Beta Israel in Ethiopia, especially in their relations with the larger Christian culture. “To observe the laws of purity while working with the Christians,” she writes, “it was accepted that they would eat injera, fruit, vegetables and coffee together, but never meat or dishes cooked in the pots of the other groups.”

When Christians attended a Jewish wedding, Salamon found, the hosts gave their guests an animal, and the guests then slaughtered it and cooked it during the ceremony in pots they brought with them. When Jews attended a Christian wedding, the Christians would give them an animal a few days in advance, and the Jews would bring prepared food to the wedding.

In a 2011 essay about Ethiopian immigrants assimilating when they arrived in Israel, Salamon shares humorous food-related anecdotes about some of the lessons that the new arrivals in Israel quickly learned. There’s the story of some immigrants being given frozen chicken and told that it’s food. “We open up and see that it’s a rock,” a subject told Salamon. “We try to hold on to the leg and move it, but it’s all rock. We look: They told us there was chicken. Where is it? We waited and waited, after some time we threw it out, because it’s rock.”

When some immigrants found themselves in a home with two toilets, “they thought that one was for kneading dough, and the other was a toilet. They would put flour in the toilet and flush the water down and couldn’t understand where the flour went.” An immigrant man once went to wash his hands before eating some injera and ended up doing it in the toilet. “This is clean water,” recalled someone who had heard of the faux pas. “In Ethiopia we would drink water that horses had walked through in one direction and monkeys from the others. And that’s how he washed his hands in toilet water and ate injera.”

“We were so ignorant,” said another. “Everything was new. We brought flour from Ethiopia, and special foods from Ethiopia. We carried them the whole way, but when we came to the absorption center, we didn’t know how to use them and threw them out.”

“Never mind the things we had just encountered,” said yet another. “The very things we grew up on, how to make the injera, suddenly [the knowledge] disappeared.”

A child mistook a dark bar of soap for a piece of cake, and a group of immigrants mistook a white bar of soap in a plastic dish for qewe, a soft Ethiopian cheese. “We spread it on the injera and tried to eat,” he said. “We made bets among people. It’s qewe, it’s not qewe, it’s qewe, it’s not qewe, and we laughed because of this.”

Salamon’s 2012 essay “Meat Lottery: A Spectacle Moving from Ethiopia to Israel,” published in Hebrew, observes that “meat is a key idiom in the lives of the Ethiopian Jews,” who employ a “meat lottery” that helps to ensure “the egalitarian division of meat” in their communities in both Ethiopia and Israel. “Circumventing potential rivalries in their distribution of the meat of a single animal among several partners,” she writes, “it is connected at heart with the notion of sacrifice and transformation.”

An Ethiopian cookbook  written in Hebrew

An Ethiopian cookbook
written in Hebrew

In a 2004 essay, written in French, about food and religious identity among the Beta Israel, Anteby-Yemini notes that the culture ritualizes the consumption of meat and follows Old Testament teaching: They will only eat animals with split hooves that ruminate, and they won’t eat fish without scales.

The process of assimilation was startling to the Beta Israel. “These farmers from the Ethiopian highlands were thus one day transplanted to a very westernized urban context and faced the peculiarities of normative Judaism,” Anteby-Yemini writes. “Transformations in the sphere of food were profound, and the discovery of unknown food and forms of commensality were strongly disconcerting for them.”

Naturally, these tendencies were stronger in the first wave of immigrants than they are today with their children and grandchildren born and raised in Israel. In fact, Anteby-Yemini observes, “They make no distinction, and they eat both Israeli meat the meat of animals slaughtered by their parents. Young people of the Ethiopian community [today] do not feel the need to differentiate by the consumption of meat. They do not feel their identity as Jews or as Ethiopians threatened and rather adopt forms of differentiation based on their skin color.”

But even some traditions of the homeland causes consternation for the Beta Israel. Raw meat is a delicacy among Ethiopian Christians. It’s an abomination to Ethiopian Jews.

“As Christians, they are seen as ‘eating blood’ by Ethiopian Jews, who virulently condemn this dietary practice,” Anteby-Yemini observes. “As in other cultures, raw meat is often synonymous with bestiality or cannibalism, and its consumption by Christians is considered a transgression by Ethiopian Jews that justifies in their eyes the savagery and absolute otherness of Christians.”

In Beta Israel villages in Ethiopia, a house of prayer would have a sacrifice area where an animal would be slaughtered and ritually drained of its blood. “After skinning the animal,” Anteby-Yemini writes, “the blood is covered with earth, and the bones are burned. The meat is then distributed according to a strict hierarchy.”

For the newer generations of Ethio-Israelis, mealtime habits have certainly changed and expanded. But Salamon says that younger people still enjoy the comfort food of their ancestral home.

“I just heard from students of Ethiopian-Israeli families that when they come back from visiting home, they bring injera and wot for the whole week,” Salamon tells me. “Of course, they eat many other dishes, but their home food is still highly appreciated.”

Across the whole of Israeli culture, though, Ethiopian cuisine remains somewhat isolated.

“As to restaurants,” Salamon says, “there are quiet a few, but they serve mostly Ethiopians. Some of them are operated by non-Jewish Ethiopians here in Jerusalem, and I have not seen people from the Jewish Ethiopian community eating there.”

So for the non-Ethiopian Jews of Israel, it seems that Ethiopian food is a long way from becoming the new Chinese.

Harry Kloman
University of Pittsburgh

Watch a Beta Israel Gdeft celebration and the food that goes with it.

Watch two videos in Hebrew about cooking Ethiopian food in Israel.

 

   

Visit Habash Ethiopian Restaurant in Tel Aviv.

Here’s an ad, in Hebrew, that aired on Israeli TV for Dashen, a beer made in Ethiopia.

Watch a short documentary about the Jews who still live in Ethiopia.

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