Dining Out in Ethiopia

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EVEN ETHIOPIAN FAMILIES get tired of eating at home every day. But what kind of restaurant options do Ethiopians in the homeland have if they want a break from injera and wot – or even if they just want a day off from having to prepare it?

In most Ethiopian cities and towns, you’re likely to find a restaurant that serves spaghetti or other Italian dishes, although the farther you travel from a population center, the more limited your choices become – if you have any choices at all.

It’s no wonder that the phenomenon of the public restaurant is relatively recent in Ethiopia. Only 12.6 percent of the people in urban areas of Ethiopia cook with modern energy supplied by electricity, kerosene or gas, according to the government’s 2011 Welfare Monitoring Survey, which didn’t even include statistics for the Ogaden, the country’s poorest and most isolated region. The use of electricity rises to 18 percent for Addis Ababa, the nation’s capital. In rural areas, it’s even less – about four-tenths of one percent, the survey reports, with more than 87 percent of the country using firewood to cook (7.2 percent of rural people use leaves or dung cakes).

Two Addis restaurants: Beijing Restaurant (l) serves Chinese food, and Four Seasons serves Japanese.

Two Addis restaurants: Beijing Restaurant (l) serves Chinese food, and Four Seasons serves Japanese.

J.I. Eadie’s An Amharic Reader (1924), an anthology of articles, stories and documents, has a page of “eating house signboards” from around 1913, when Eadie, a British officer, served in Ethiopia.

“In Ato Kabbad’s house,” proclaimed one of the restaurant signs, “there is highly recommended food for Christians, both for fast and non-fast days.” (Ato is the Amharic word for “Mr.”) Said another: “In Ato Alamu’s house there is highly recommended pure food and teas.” Each of these places seems to go only by the name of its presumably well-known owner. One unnamed eatery boasts: “The most excellent bread shop in the whole of Addis Ababa, celebrated in the kingdom. There are also excellent drinks of every kind.” And for a place to rest after your meal: “In Ato Ayala’s hotel there is excellent food for Christians. Enter! Buy! There are dishes for fast and non-fast days.”

The book presents all of its entries in their original Amharic, with English translations following each one, and includes recipes for t’ej, talla, shamet (a barley and honey beverage), two different cultures’ preparations for delleh (a berbere sauce), and a promotion for Kola, an imported French wine-cola aperitif that only the elite would have enjoyed at finer Addis Ababa establishments.

The Eritrean scholar Abbebe Kifleyesus, in his essay “The Construction of Ethiopian National Cuisine,” observes that since at least the 1920s, Ethiopian towns have seen “the rise of small restaurants, food vendors at various corners of towns, push-cart food hawkers, sandwich and boiled egg sellers nearby entertainment pubs, and stalls selling spices and a variety of breads during market days.”

In Ethiopia's capital, you can find Canadian cuisine and a German beer garden.

In Ethiopia’s capital, you can find Canadian cuisine and a German beer garden.

In the 1950s and ’60s, one way to dine away from home was at truck stops along the major roads in Ethiopia that led to Assab and Asmara, two cities in Eritrea. Many (but not all) were owned by Italians, who served their cuisine to Italian truckers and anyone passing.

My friend Menkir Tamrat, who grew up in Ethiopia, remembers “driving down on Sunday with my family to Kombolcha or Bati, from our home in Dessie, for the exact reason of wanting to have a different meal other than the daily injera b’wet. I understand that I was fortunate, and not everyone was so lucky, but I was only in third grade when I discovered spinach lasagna in Kombolcha and some incredible capreto alforno in Bati on one of those Sunday family picnic drives, just to name a few memorable meals.”

If you know where to look in Ethiopia, you may find your way to a “mother bet,” a place where people can get a filling and inexpensive meal. Bet is the Amharic word for house, so you can just imagine the home cookin’ that awaits you. And while Amharic has such words as enat, etye, emama, emete or imaye to say “mother” in various formal and colloquial ways, Ethiopians do call these establishments mother bets.

A mother bet in Ethiopia

A mother bet in Ethiopia

Meals cost less at a mother bet than at more formal restaurants, and some have operated for decades, proving a source of income for the women who operate them. There’s not much ambiance, but you won’t leave hungry.

The unusual name for these places, Menkir tells me, has to do with a sort of Westernization in Ethiopia.

“Calling someone mother or father to address folks older than you is very common in Addis, and now street vendors do it,” he says. “It’s sort of street hip to drop an English word or two with the Amharic. Some folks get upset when addressed this way and others don’t seem to mind. Some of the respect for elders is still there, it’s just that English is inserted to imply the person saying it is in the know. Addis Ababans take this sort of stuff to almost an art form, so the phrase is perfectly coined.”

A true restaurant culture only began to emerge in Ethiopia in the 1960s. Before that, Abbebe writes, “the choice of restaurants in, for example, Addis Ababa included a few family-owned restaurants serving national dishes. But by the early 1970s, Addis Ababa was sporting the sale of roasted beef (tibs) in and around the circle of the Soccer Stadium restaurants,” as well as boiled gastro-intestinal parts, kitfo, and quanta (beef jerky) in various restaurants.

“These restaurants and their flavoured dishes,” Abbebe says, “are not also unknown to low-rank customers. In other words, haute cuisine in Ethiopia is not only the prerogative of the rich.”

It’s fair to say that haute cuisine in Ethiopia no longer includes boiled gastro-intestinal parts. At the time, though, these restaurants flourished thanks to middle-class patrons, who also invited the opening of European-style restaurants at luxury hotels and soon as stand-alone businesses.

“Amidst the burgeoning industry of national food restaurants,” Abbebe observes, “interest in foreign foods thus seemed by the 1970s to have taken roots in the capital.” These places were especially important to single, middle-class men who had no maids or servants, or no time or talent for cooking.

In 1979, the Los Angeles Times reported the results of a study of 130 Ethiopian college students, construction workers and bank employees.

Fast food in Ethiopia: Mcdona Pizzaria, and the chain Chicken Hut

Fast food in Ethiopia: Mcdona Pizzaria, and the chain Chicken Hut

Heart attacks were rare then in Ethiopia because of the country’s traditional low-fat, high starch diet. Construction workers, who ate mostly “whole grain bread, vegetables, peas and tea,” had an average cholesterol level of 110. College students, adding fat from things like margarine and sausage to the traditional foods, came in at 160. The bankers ate more meat, butter and eggs, and their cholesterol was 180. No doubt the numbers for urban Ethiopians are higher now, a combination of more prosperity and more ways to eat badly. In fact, a 2012 report from Addis Ababa declared that “cardiovascular diseases were mainly considered the problem of the developed world just a few decades back. However, currently, reports suggest that it is becoming a primary health concern for middle- and low-income countries.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution sent a special correspondent to Ethiopia in 1985, and in one of his reports, he said: “With few exceptions, Addis Ababa boasts more good restaurants than other cities on the African continent. Several good establishments serve Ethiopian, Chinese, Italian and other cuisines.” He noted that foreign visitors helped to make these places a success.

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 Addis Ababa places like Spot Bar, King Burger, Burger Queen (recently closed), Rand Fast Food, LA Burger and Macdona Pizzaria and Bar (with golden arches, but no “ld’s” in its name), patrons can buy burgers and fries, with pizza joints just around the corner. Or there’s Green View, an Italian restaurant and pizzaria (or “pizaria,” as its website says). In & Out, near the Ras Mekonnen Bridge, offers takeout service, and Big Burger provides fast-food catering. Or you can get KFC-style fried chicken at Chicken Hut, an Ethiopian chain.

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, meals “to go” can’t be shared from a common plate in the middle of a table surrounded by friends and family.

Two extremes of Addis dining: The ultra-casual In-and-Out, and upscale French at La Mandoline.

Two extremes of Addis dining: The ultra-casual In-N-Out, and upscale French at La Mandoline.

In 2008, a group of Ethiopian businessmen announced plans to build a series of fast food restaurants in Ethiopia that served the national cuisine. Mulu Mesob Foods sought to “prioritize hygiene and sanitation in our delivery,” founding partner Tekie Gebremedhin told Nazret, an online Ethiopian publication.

Price, too, is important. “Civil servants are suffering due to the spike in food prices,” Tekie said. “For instance, a plate of kay wot used to cost five birr, but now it has tripled. Our prices range from eight to 17 birr for a plate, depending on the type of food, but also includes a soft drink or bottled water.” The company is apparently the first of its kind in Ethiopia.

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.

The patrons of these fast-food restaurants are largely (as expected) students and foreigners. The middle-class urban Ethiopian family is more likely to visit a restaurant with table service, just as their American counterparts do, and they have nearly as many choices.

And as Abbebe points out, Western chains like Pizza Hut, McDonald’s and KFC “have not yet taken root in Addis Ababa.” Teen-agers mostly patronize the home-grown fast-food restaurants, and “for many Ethiopian traditionalists,” he writes, “these are treated more like exotic oddities than as substitutes for indigenous meals and snacks.”

Dodi Restaurant offers Sudanese cuisine, and Enya's Mediterranean Café is Greek

Dodi Restaurant offers Sudanese cuisine, and Enya’s Mediterranean Café is Greek

Alem Eshetu, in his book Amharic for Foreign Beginners, notes that bigger restaurants in Ethiopia have menus, but at the smaller ones, your server will “enumerate the list of dishes” available that day. If service is a problem, which it just may be, then “to get the waiter’s attention, you can clap your hands softly. But don’t click your fingers which is considered impolite.”

This probably won’t be a problem at the restaurant in the Addis Ababa Hilton, where the haute cuisine is almost entirely foreign, albeit sometimes with an Ethiopian spin. The hotel has several dining rooms, from the Jacaranda Restaurant that serves its “signature lobster dish,” to the Kaffa House and its traditional Ethiopian entrées, like kitfo, shiro and the house specialty, zilzil tibs, a beef dish. The hotel also has a brick-fired pizzeria, a poolside bar that serves club sandwiches, and a lobby bar that serves both Ethiopian dishes and international cuisine.

So what’s on the menu at the Addis Hilton?

As an appetizer, you can get an “Ethiopian fresh fruit cocktail,” “Red Sea shrimp cocktail” or lightly smoked salmon. Soups include Bavarian lentil, French onion, or “Ethiopian pepper pot.”

You can follow that up with some delicious Wiener backhaendl (deep fried, breaded spring chicken), osso bucco cremolata, Swiss oberland pork chop (Ethiopian Christians and Moslems both shuns pork, so this is strictly for the tourists), Nile perch, prawns brochette Dahlak (named for an archipelago of Eritrean islands), or tournedos of sanga beef. Sanga is the Amharic word for steer, as well as an internationally known breed of cattle.

Not exactly “Ethiopian” food, although sometimes food with an Ethiopian take.

Restaurants in the Moslem-flavored city of Harar vary from the stylish Ice Cream Mermaid café (l)  to the more traditional Hirut, which serves Ethiopian and non-Ethiopian dishes.

Restaurants in the Moslem-flavored city of Harar vary from the stylish Ice Cream Mermaid café (l)
to the more traditional Hirut, which serves Ethiopian and non-Ethiopian dishes
.

The Sheraton Addis provides similar options – and then some. In its Breezes restaurant you can order barbecue, and at Les Arcades the cuisine is French. Stagioni is typically Italian, Summerfields is international, and Shaheen is Indian. A few other eateries at the hotel offer snacks and lighter options. On weekends, the Sheraton’s Gaslight night club is open until 4 a.m., and it has a dress code.

By the turn of the new millennium, Addis Ababa’s reputation as a “restaurant town” had grown. Associated Press reporter John Leicester’s 2002 story about scenic Ethiopia declared: “One thing Addis Ababa does not lack is eateries, from simple cake and tea stores to posh restaurants with hilltop views of the city and varied menus. There are restaurants serving Italian, Thai, Chinese and other cuisines.”

Gebre Gelagay, who lives in Addis Ababa, has some good things to say about the variety of restaurants in the growing capital.

“Louvre is a great place, a taste of Paris, particularly for night dining,” Gebre tells me, “and great Italian dishes are the regular fare in Jordana’s Kitchen. There’s pasta galore at Mama Mia, and the top of the line is Gusto, the nearest thing to Castelli,” a well-known Italian restaurant in the Ethiopian capital. The proprietress of Jordana’s Kitchen even had a cooking show on Ethio-American TV for a while.

“We actually have quite a choice now with new openings and a few that have closed or evolved downwards,” Gebre adds. “For Habesha [Ethiopian] food, I find the new Kategna great, particularly the ambiance. Good fajitas and Sunday brunch can be had at Cozy Grill. For the best burgers in Africa, go to Sishu. There’s real steak at Dreamliner, pizza and everything else at MK’s, bratwurst and potato salad at Biergarten.”

Then there are the city’s fine Ethiopian restaurants. If you want true local cuisine, restaurants in Addis Ababa run the gamut. You can get good fresh spicy beef (kay wot) and t’ej at any number of homey little places – essentially, butcher shops that prepare beef dishes and serve them with t’ej. Men in white butcher smocks carve the meat from hanging sides of beef, prepare them to your specifications, and serve them with injera. This is the Ethiopian version of short-order cooking – fresh, filling, and made right before your eyes.

There are plenty of restaurants as well that serve full menus of the native cuisine, some renowned for their quality.

Agelgil is “one of Addis’s swankiest restaurants, where the businessmen, diplomats and the Italian-suit-wearing crowd come to feast,” The New York Times wrote. Part of it is American-style ersatz swank, with palm fronds in the bar and lounge. The restaurant itself is adorned with more traditional art, and the cuisine is all Ethiopian, including asa kitfo, a dish of chopped fried tilapia that the restaurant claims is unique among the city’s menus.

There are many kitfo betoch (“kitfo houses”) dotting the landscape, although Ethiopians in America caution against eating raw beef in Ethiopia. These restaurants will serve the dish lebleb – that is, lightly cooked – if you request it. “If you are too sensitive about hygienic measures with food,” wrote Joaquin Gonzalez Dorao, a Spanish blogger, “don’t get close to a butcher shop in Ethiopia. After visiting one of these shops you will undoubtedly become a vegetarian!!”

In the historic city of Lalibela, you can get Ethiopian food at the very homey, tin-roofed Unique,  which is “recommanded by farngi” (foreigners), or the decidedly more upscale Seven Olives.

In the historic city of Lalibela, you can get Ethiopian food at the very homey, tin-roofed Unique,
which is “recommanded by farngi” (foreigners), or the decidedly more upscale Seven Olives
.

A newly opened restaurant on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, redefines the concept of “airplane food.” Gutema Guta, a young Ethiopian entrepreneur, bought a retired Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 jet and turned it into a restaurant that serves Ethiopian and European cuisine. It’s located in the community of Burayu, about seven miles from Addis, and can seat up to 100 people. In remodeling the airplane for its culinary use, Gutema installed new seats and a new bathroom. He converted the cockpit into a DJ booth.

If you have room for dessert (Western-style, of course), stop into any of the city’s numerous pastry shops. If you just want to drink, then select one of the myriad t’ej betoch (“t’ej houses”) that pock city and town alike. Wikimapia.org lets you search for them online and see their locations from the sky.

And if you’re really lucky, you may get an invitation to a zegubin, an informal gathering place that serves food and drink, without a license, and usually operates out of someone’s home. The term is an Amharic word that means “close the door,” and it can also refer to an exclusive bar or an after-hours bar.

For non-Ethiopian cuisine in Addis, you can choose from restaurants that serve Chinese, Indian, Thai, Turkish, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, European, French, Mexican, Russian, Armenian, “Continental” and plenty of Italian. Well-off and educated Ethiopians will eat at these restaurants, and so will tourists. “In fact,” says Selamta, a web site promoting travel in Ethiopia, “it is possible to eat your way round the world without ever leaving Addis Ababa.”

Dodi Restaurant in Addis offers Sudanese cuisine, and it’s the first venture outside of Khartoum for the owners of the growing East African franchise. You can dine on fine Japanese food at Four Seasons, or on German specialties at Beer Garden Inn. Enya’s Mediterranean Kitchen opened on the Greek island of Milos in 2001, and in 2010, it’s Ethiopian-born owner/chef moved it to Addis.

Of course, there’s the cuisine of the world’s two most ubiquitous cultures: Chinese food at China Bar and Restaurant, as well as numerous Indian restaurants in the country’s capital. And there’s even a Canadian restaurant, Oh Canada, although when I go to Toronto, I usually eat Ethiopian and Korean, so I’m not sure what “Canadian cuisine” is.

In the southern lakeside city of Awassa,  you can dine at Dolce Vita (l), a café and art gallery, and just a few hundred miles away, in Jimma, the “birthplace of coffee,” try the restaurant at the Central Hotel.

In the southern lakeside city of Awassa, you can dine at Dolce Vita (l), a café and art gallery, and just a few hundred miles away, in Jimma, the “birthplace of coffee,” try the restaurant at the Central Hotel.

Prices at the restaurants vary, but they’re always higher than their counterparts serving Ethiopian cuisine. You can get a meal served on injera at a traditional restaurant for a few dollars. At the higher-end non-Ethiopian restaurants, prices can begin at $25 for a dinner and go as high as $300. But if you order Italian cuisine in Addis, be forewarned: The sauce, like all the best Ethiopian food, may be spiced with berbere, so ask for it plain if you can’t stand the heat.

This is all what you might expect in a city of more than 2.1 million people. Outside of Addis, in smaller but still major tourist towns, be prepared to eat mostly – although not exclusively – Ethiopian food. These tourist destinations have pastry shops and juice bars as well as traditional restaurants that serve only Ethiopian cuisine. Most have pizza shops, and there’s always Italian. Many have regional specialties unique to the cultures of the area.

In Aksum, the place where Ethiopian cuisine began, you can choose from a variety of restaurants: the Abinet Hotel, the Yeha Hotel and Café Abyssinia serve native cuisine with some non-Ethiopian dishes, while Axumawit Pastery [sic], near the Abinet, is the place to go for dessert. For Ethiopian cuisine and a Western-style breakfast, try Tsega Café, and for European food, there’s the Remhai Hotel. Most of these places are located in the center of the city, which has about 48,000 residents.

The legendary city of Aksum, Ethiopia’s ancient capital, has Ethiopian and international cuisine  at Atse Yohannes Restaurant (l), and more international choices at the restaurant of the Yeha Hotel.

The legendary city of Aksum, Ethiopia’s ancient capital, has Ethiopian and international cuisine
at Atse Yohannes Restaurant (l), and more international choices at the restaurant of the Yeha Hotel
.

You’ll find largely the same sort of options in Dire Dawa (population 398,000), Gondar (195,000), Dessie (169,000), Awassa (165,000), Jimma (159,000) Harar (122,000), and Lalibela (15,000), where the better hotels serve a mixture of Ethiopian and Western meals – three-course dinners of steak or roasted lamb when it’s not fasting season, and in some cases even when it is (for the tourists, not the locals). For smaller cities in Ethiopia, sometimes far from the capital, some of these cities have a few well-reviewed fine dining options.

From Dire Dawa’s upscale Ras Hotel to its quaint Harar Road Restaurant, or in Lalibela, from pricier hotels like the Lal or the Lasta, to smaller restaurants like Blue Nile, you’ll find good food in cities where tourists visit. Moslems consider Dire Dawa to be one of their holiest cities, and less than a decade ago, the Ethiopian government began to invest in developing the city to better accommodate the tourists who visit.

Some travelers worry about food safety when they visit far-away places, and the last thing you want on your trip to Ethiopia is a debilitating case of Mekelle Belly. So how safe is the food at restaurants in Ethiopia? A few scholars at Addis Ababa University have studied the sanitary practices of public eating establishments in some Ethiopian towns.

A restaurant in Addis Ababa, circa 1935  (click to en large)

An Addis Ababa restaurant, circa 1935 (click to enlarge)

In a 2007 thesis that he researched in the town of Ambo, Dugassa Guteta writes that “sanitary conditions of many catering establishments were not satisfactory, therefore the probability of food contamination in these establishments were high.” Kinfe Zeru found a similar situation in Mekelle, where he conducted his research in 2005, concluding that “large numbers of mass catering establishments were found with poor sanitary conditions and major deficiencies of the premises. The knowledge and practice of food handlers were also found unsatisfactory.”

In shorter studies published in 1999, Shiferaw Teklemariam and Mulugeta Kibret found the same things in Awassa and Bahir Dar, respectively. Even in Addis Ababa, Getachew Fisseha found a need for more safety in handling food at public eating places.

Tesfa Tolla studied the broader issue of food safety regulation in Ethiopia. His 2010 thesis says that “although food establishments in Ethiopia are rapidly increasing and their role in the economy of the country is also considerable, the food quality regulatory system is not keeping pace with the contemporary food quality and safety assurance system.” He ends his thesis with recommendations to the government for how to improve food safety.

And by the way, if you’re desperate for pork while you’re in Ethiopia, you can find it, although not easily. In Ethiopia’s second-largest city, the multi-cultural (and ancient) Dire Dawa in the eastern Harar province of Ethiopia, Italian restaurants may serve pork. Ethiopian Catholics enjoy it, as do tourists.

Finally, in the most isolated areas of Ethiopia, like the southern Omo region, you’ll pretty much find only Ethiopian food and maybe some spaghetti. These are destinations for the bravest tourists, often for campers, and some guide books recommend that you plan to prepare your own food – if you can find a decent market to get your ingredients.

Harry Kloman
University of Pittsburgh

Istanbul, a Turkish restaurant in Addis Ababa:

 

Louvre, a French café in Addis Ababa:

 

City Bar, in the city Bahir Dar:

Gursha: Hands Across the Table

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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 word

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.

Some women give gursha to the men at the table.

Some women give gursha to the men at the table.

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.

The Origin of Gursha

The Origin of 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).

A priest offering gursha to a friend

A priest offering gursha to a friend

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.”

Restaurant

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.”

A line of Ethiopian foods by a company called Gursha

A line of Ethiopian foods by a company called Gursha

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.”

Receiving gursha in Ethiopia

Receiving gursha in Ethiopia

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.”

Marge and the kids enjoy gursha on The Simpsons

Marge and the kids enjoy gursha on The Simpsons.
See the full video or a shorter one subtitled in Amharic.

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.

gurshamouth

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.

Harry Kloman
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.

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