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 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.”


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.


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.

Getting a Rise Out of Ethiopian Bread

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EVERY NOW AND THEN, at an Ethiopian restaurant, my server will ask me if I need more “bread.”

She means injera, and of course, she’s not wrong to call it that. But in my mind, injera is injera – flat, spongy, bubbly on top – and bread is something else altogether.

Ethiopians do bake a variety of leavened breads, serving them on special occasions and holidays. They’re easy enough to make, and they’re a nice way to complement an Ethiopian meal with something a little different.

Kneading dough to make bread,  from a 1963 Ethiopian cookbook

Kneading dough to make bread,
from a 1963 Ethiopian cookbook

Dabo is the generic Amharic word for “bread,” and the book Ethiopian Traditional Recipes, published in 1980 by the Ethiopian Nutrition Institute, has a section of bread recipes along with some information on the role of leavened breads in the culture.

“The dabo is a very symbolic food and is used for many ceremonial occasions,” the book says. On the holiday called buhie, which occurs on Aug. 19, parents light torches and serve dabo to their children and other relatives, and the children sing the buhie song. Dabo also “symbolizes the chastity of a bride in some regions and is used during weddings. It is exchanged as a gift among in-laws and other relations during holidays. With all of these uses,” the introduction concludes, “it is no wonder that baking good bread is very important to a housewife, and her homemaking ability is often judged by the quality of bread she bakes.”

The book then shares its first recipe, for a bread called gogo, and it couldn’t be simpler: sifted barley flour, salt and water, blended and heated for about 20 minutes on a mitad, the large round device used for making injera. Most of the other breads are what the book calls “fermented,” which simply means that you add yeast to the moist dough and let it rise for a few hours, or in some cases overnight.

In Ethiopia, injera is the go-to bread, eaten at every meal by people who can afford the grain to make it. But cultures in some regions make more non-injera bread than other regions, and this exacerbates a growing environmental problem in Ethiopia.

The country is being deforested at a dangerous rate because of the need for firewood to fuel traditional ovens used for making injera and other breads. In regions that primarily eat injera, households use about 400 kilograms (880 pounds) of firewood a year, but families in regions (like Kafa) that make more “local breads” use 667 kilograms (1,445 pounds) of firewood a year, according to a 2014 study. Several international agencies are working to create and distribute more fuel-efficient stoves in Ethiopia and other countries facing this kind of deforestation.

Nonetheless, the tradition of baking leavened breads continues in Ethiopia and certainly always will.

Making doro dabo, or chicken bread,  from a 1956 Ethiopian cookbook

Making doro dabo, or chicken bread,
from a 1956 Ethiopian cookbook

Here’s a concise look at some of the most common Ethiopian breads that aren’t injera. The website How To Cook Great Ethiopian has posted a lot of bread-making videos that are generally easy to follow – once you convert grams of flour into cups of flour at this website. I’ll include links to those videos in the descriptions that follow. The site also has a brief guide to various Ethiopian breads.

Dabo. This is the Amharic word for bread, a generic word to describe any type of leavened bread – that is, anything other than injera. Ethiopians will bake these breads in an over or on a mitad. (Watch a video of how to make dabo.)

Ethiopians make many versions of the basic dabo. For example, is it still “bread” if you use chick pea flour? That’s called shimbra dabo. There’s also a basic dabo made with onions, and another variety made with honey. And who doesn’t love muz dabo, an Ethiopian version of banana bread, although it truly is a bread, and not the more cake-like variety we eat here.

Some types of dabo are a meal in a loaf. There’s doro dabo – a favorite of Empress Taytu, the wife of the legendary Emperor Menelik II – made with chicken. You can also make a meaty bread using siga (beef) or asa (fish): ye’meter siga dabo, for example, is made with slices or cubes of beef. (The links on these names will take you to videos where you can see them being prepared.)

Amharic cookbooks from Ethiopia usually have many recipes for dabo and its variations. In 1964, an Ethiopian princess, Tsege Mariam Gabrerafael, published Ye’natochachin Moya – meaning “Mother’s Profession,” or “The Know-How of Our Mothers” – that includes recipes for egg bread, milk bread, Tigray bread (that is, bread from Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region), and ye’chemeqosh dabo, a wheat bread made by soaking the wheat flour overnight in water and letting it ferment before straining it and using it to bake the bread (the name of the bread refers to extracting liquid from something).

Genet Atinafu’s 1963 Ethiopian cookbook Ye’Bet Mesenado Bemelkam Zede, which means “home preparation with good methods,” has a recipe for ye’buna dabo, which means “coffee bread.” But there’s no coffee in the recipe, so it’s probably a bread that you eat with coffee. A recipe for ye’kerefud dabo, which means, more or less, “hard bread,” most likely should be ye’krenfud dabo, a bread spiced with cloves. The book also has recipes for ye’birtukan (orange) bread and zawater (“frequently”) bread, which may be a basic bread (wheat flour, yeast, salt, sugar, oil) that you make a lot.

Some finished loaves of defo dabo. See the recipe here.

Some finished loaves of defo dabo. See the recipe here.

Defo Dabo (sometimes written Difo Dabo). This is a variation of the basic dabo, but with a special feature: Before the baking begins, you wrap the dough in the big thick green koba kitel (enset leaf). The enset tree – sometimes called the false banana because it resembles a banana tree – is an important food source in numerous southern Ethiopian cultures. The trunk of the tree is ground into a meal, buried in the ground, and fermented into a “bread” called qocho.

A defo dabo is generally no more difficult to make than a regular dabo, but good luck finding the koba kitel that you need to wrap the bread. So in America, you can just use the leaves of he actual banana plant. Thai cooking sometimes uses them, so you can often find banana leaf (muz kitel) at a well-stocked Asian grocery store. It’s not quite the same as enset, but it’ll do in a pinch. I rarely, if ever, see koba kitel in Ethiopian markets.

As for the name, defo dabo, it’s a bit tricky. Dabo, of course, is bread, but my friend Menkir Tamrat, who makes Yamatt Tej, tells me that defo seems to derive from the Amharic verb tedefa, which means, among other things, to drop. To prepare your defo dabo for baking, you pour (i.e., drop) the dough onto a koba-lined mitad, then you cover it with more koba leaf. Next, you put another mitad on top so the dough is “sandwiched between two mitads during baking, like a giant Oreo cookie, or an upside-down cake.” Finally, the mitads are sealed with a mixture of clay and straw paste. I have a dictionary that also says the word tedefa means “to bake,” and that would make sense if it’s the origin of defo.

A finely decorated ambasha

A finely decorated ambasha

Ambasha. This popular Ethiopian bread, which you’ll sometimes find at restaurants, comes to the national cuisine from northern Tigrinya-speaking regions. You’ll sometimes see it written hambasha, which is how it was spelled in Ge’ez, the ancient (now liturgical) language of Ethiopia.

It’s made pretty much like any dabo, although the shape is round and somewhat flat. Just before baking an ambasha, you use a knife to carve a symmetrical design in the top of the dough, so it looks a little like a wagon wheel when you place it in the oven. Then, when it’s done, you can smear the top with berbere and niter kibe. (Watch a video of how to make ambasha.)

Hibist. This is the word for “bread” in Ge’ez, the ancient language of Aksum (early Ethiopia), and today in Amharic, it means “manna.” As a bread, it’s steamed and light. (Watch a video of how to make hibist.)

Mulmul. This bread, when finished, looks a lot like an Italian bread, white and crusty. A good place to find one in Ethiopia might be at Mulmul Bakery, an Addis Ababa establishment (with two locations) that makes all kinds of breads and pastries, including cookies, donuts, muffins, Danish, baguettes, croissants, brioches and bread sticks. (Watch a video of how to make mulmul.)


Dabo Kolo. This isn’t a bread, but it’s made from bread dough. Prepare the dough just as you would for a bread, then roll it into long strands, cut the strands up into pieces about the size of a fingernail, and fry them in oil (or bake them in an oven). You can then dust the cooked pieces with berbere if you like to make them spicy. If you cut them into thicker, larger pieces, you’ve made a variety called kaka, which one of my cookbooks describes as a “Somali biscuit.” Both varieties make a tasty (almost addictive) snack. (Watch a video of how to make dabo kolo.)

Kita. Falling somewhere between a leavened bread and injera, a kita is something like an Ethiopian pizza crust. After you mix the flour and water, you put it on a hot surface and let it cook on both sides until it’s lightly browned and cooked through. You can then smear it with niter kibe (Ethiopian spiced butter) and berbere. If you break it up into little pieces, you call it chechebsa.

In their 2003 essay, Griddles, Ovens, and Agricultural Origins: An Ethnoarchaeological Study of Bread Baking in Highland Ethiopia, the scholars Diana Lyons and A. Catherine D’Andrea write mostly about baking injera. But they also briefly mention three other types of bread: the kita; the ambasha, “slightly leavened with beer and eaten in the fields”; and the habishti (that is, hibist), “a leavened wheat loaf particular to southern Tigray that is baked for harvest and Holy Days” – which seems like an appropriate use of manna.

But the authors also write this: “Other distinct bread types include hanza, tasfa, tadiq, and daboo. Although these were not observed in our study, they indicate the existence of a greater range of bread types for use in specific social and ritual contexts.”

They say no more about these breads, so I did some digging into the literature they cite:

♦ In 1868, the British explorer Mansfield Parkyns published Life in Abyssinia, his account of a trip to Ethiopia, and he writes about hanza, “a large cake more frequently met with in the lower provinces of Tigre,” a region in the north of Ethiopia.

Using millet or teff, Parkyns says, you take two pieces of injera and smear each with dilleh – that is, a paste made with berbere, the Ethiopian red pepper. “They are then stuck together by a layer of dough spread between them,” he writes, “and re-baked so as to form only one. This kind of cake is often given by the peasantry as a kind of present to richer neighbors.” The finished product sounds a little like anababero, made by piling pieces of injera on top of each other and soaking them with niter kibe and berbere.

Daboo appears in volume three of William Harris’ massive multi-part tome Highlands of Ethiopia, published in 1844. This, of course, is the Amharic word for “bread,” and Harris lists various kinds. “Daboo is restricted to wealthier classes,” he writes, “but there are numerous other methods employed in the preparation of grain, descending through hebest, anababero, anabroot, deffo, amasa, debenia, demookta, and kita, the first four being composed of wheaten flour, and the remainder of teff, gram [chick peas] juwarree, barley and peas.” Some of these breads’ names should look familiar.

Tasfa and tadiq come from Craven H. Walker’s 1933 book The Abyssinian at Home. The former means “hope,” and it’s “a wheaten bread which old women and nuns have baked at home on Saturday and bring to the priest to bless, a tiny bread to distribute among the poor and those who come to kiss the church.” The latter is “a wheaten loaf or barley bread or even bread of millet, though wheat is better, since it is the chief grain.” Priests will use a tadiq as a sort of communion bread, breaking it into pieces and serving it to travelers along with a drink of homemade beer. Walker also writes about the Aug. 19 holiday buhie, identifying a wheat bread of that name served on the holiday, as well as a bread called tibina, which mothers make in honor of their male children. And he observed that “pieces of bread may be baked doubled together, which is called anababero.”


ALTHOUGH SOME OF THESE BREADS from 19th Century literature aren’t commonly known today (if at all), most of the others are familiar across Ethiopia. But there are some breads particular to certain cultures in contemporary Ethiopia.

One favorite Oromo bread of the pastoralist southern Borana region – usually made with barley flour, and somewhat similar to an ambasha – is called chumbo, and the process of making it is somewhat elaborate. The cook begins by heating a concave mitad-like oven with hot coals. She places the dough or batter onto the hot surface, covers it with enset leaves, then places a second identical concave oven on top. The finished bread comes out moist and juicy.

The blogger Charish Badzinski wrote a squib about chumbo: “It’s made by pouring cheese (Ethiopian cheese has the consistency of cottage cheese and doesn’t taste like the hard cheeses we’re used to) and liquid butter mixed with berbere on top of flat circular bread.” It sounds like this is a finished chumbo spiced up with some special toppings.

Similar to this is the Borana mugera, another bread baked with a hot mitad on the top and bottom, with koba (enset leaf) wrapped around it. This is the Oromo version of a defo dabo, or mugera defach. But mugera has a special place in the Oromo diet. When a group of farmers from a community get together to help a neighbor with his harvest, they expect to be served mugera as a treat in the field at the end of the day’s work. If a child helps his neighbors by tending their cows or horses, he anticipates mugera when he completes his chores.

A chumbo in Ethiopia

A chumbo in Ethiopia

The making of chumbo and mugera are older country traditions, not practiced as much, if at all, by Oromos who live in cities. The Russian writer Alexander Bulatovich described these breads in his book about his travels through Ethiopia. “The leavened bread is spread out on an earthenware pan,” he wrote, “and from the top in the middle of a round loaf another smaller pan is squeezed. Fire is lighted under the large pan and on top of the small one. A somewhat heavy but tasty bread results.” He never names this bread, but he does mention “unleavened flat cakes” called kita.

In my Gurage cookbook, there’s a recipe for a cheesy bread: You combine ayib (Ethiopian cheese) with a prepared dabo, then add kibe, mitmita, cardamom and fenugreek. The recipe calls for more than twice as much ayib as dabo by weight, and almost as much kibe as dabo, so this will be a very rich concoction. A second version of the dabo doesn’t differ by much: a touch of salt and another blend of mitmita that’s not too different from the first. As for what kind of bread to use, it’s chef’s choice: I can find no recipe for a plain dabo in the book. But it might well be a defo dabo because of the importance of enset in Gurage culture.

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 custom of the Gondar region, where many Ethiopian Jews lived, and 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.

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 – much like chumbo in Oromo culture. There’s also tebugna, a small loaf of bread often served to guests with coffee, and engotcha, about the size of a biscuit, given to children.

Dipping engotcha in honey

Dipping engotcha in honey

Zenash Beyene, who owns 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, a Tigrayan Christian friend joined our conversation and wrote the word in Amharic. 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 wot, alicha and t’ej, along with singing, dancing and prayers.

These are just some of the ways that Ethiopians make and use bread. There are surely others – some no doubt lost to history. In 1867, Henry Dufton published his Narrative of a Journey Through Ethiopia, and he writes about a “a very novel way of baking bread” – from the inside out.

The process begins by kindling a fire and placing some stone in the fire to heat. “The flour and water has meanwhile been kneaded into the consistency of dough capable of taking the shape of a cup,” he writes. “One of the hot pebbles is placed inside the cup and the dough rolled over it, so as to form a ball. In this shape it is placed in the ashes of the fire and well turned until the outside is baked; the heated stone serves to bake the inside.”

And that’s not the only usual bread-baking that Dufton saw.

“A hole is made in the sand,” he writes, describing another method. “A number of good-sized pebbles are placed in the hole, a fire is kindled on the top; when this has burnt down the red-hot embers are removed on one side and the liquid dough poured over the hot pebbles, the hot ashes are drawn over the upper surface, and the whole covered with earth; in a quarter of an hour all is removed, and discloses a large loaf or cake inside.”

And what did 19th Century Ethiopians eat with this primitive bread?

“Sometimes,” Dufton adds, “a whole sheep will be cooked in the same way.”

Harry Kloman
University of Pittsburgh


An Ethiopian family says a prayer over a defo dabo:

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