Breaking the News About Ethiopian Food (Part 1)

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    (This is the first of a two-part look at how newspapers reported information about Ethiopian cuisine before American cities had Ethiopian restaurants. I’ve standardized the spellings of all Ethiopian foods in the excerpts from the newspapers. The links take you to many of the original stories.)

    SINCE THE FIRST ETHIOPIAN RESTAURANT opened in the United States almost half a century ago, word has spread about this unique cuisine – and newspapers have played a role in spreading it.

    In some cases, articles appeared in a community’s newspaper long before a restaurant came to town. And these early reporters didn’t always get things right.

    There’s a lot of material out there, and this month’s installment covers the century before the opening of the country’s first Ethiopian restaurant in 1966. Next month picks the story up there.

    Emperor Haile Selassie enjoys a meal in 1954.  Neither the food nor the guests are Ethiopian.

    Emperor Haile Selassie enjoys a meal in 1954.
    Neither the food nor the guests are Ethiopian.

    In the 19th Century, Americans often used the word “Ethiopian” to refer to Africans and African-Americans, a habit that persisted into the early 20th Century. A Leavenworth, Kan., newspaper wrote in 1878 that “the Ethiopians used butter as food, although they are now said to use it for plastering their hair.” And in 1914, a Chicago newspaper said that “even the ancient Ethiopians used butter as food.” These items probably refer to Africans in general because foreigners tended to call the country Abyssinia in those times, even though the country never called itself that. And how odd that butter seemed to be such a popular topic for newspaper stories.

    In 1903, some newspapers around the country published a patronizing story about eating customs in other countries, informing readers that “in Abyssinia, if you wish to be polite, you must smack your lips while you eat.” Not very helpful, but historically interesting, I suppose.

    Those squibs don’t tell us much about Ethiopian cuisine. Fortunately, there are plenty more that do.


    OUR REAL STORY BEGINS on April 25, 1868, when the readers of the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, Utah, got a lesson in history, warfare, and Ethiopian food. The newspaper published a vivid account of the British army’s advance on the embattled Emperor Tewodros II, (known in English as Theodore), who had taken some British citizens hostage after being snubbed by Queen Victoria. His ego brought the ire of England down upon him and ended with his suicide.

    The newspaper story, based on an interview with British Gen. Robert Napier and his host (and collaborator), an Ethiopian prince named Kassai, eventually gets around to mealtime. The scene takes place in Kassai’s tent, and I’ll include, in brackets, the words for the items that the author merely describes:

    Girls bearing large baskets of Abyssinian bread [injera] and curry [wot] came in and placed them on the ground in front of the visitors, who were requested to eat. The bread was brown, formed in flat circular cakes about a foot in diameter, and had a slightly sour taste. Very little suffices to satisfy curiosity, although here it was permitted that each guest should help himself. In general, in Abyssinia, the servant who brings in the loaves and curry rolls some of the later in a piece of the former, and after kneading it into a ball, thrusts it into the mouth of each diner [gursha].

    After enough had been eaten, other girls entered bearing huge bullock horns [wancha] filled with tedj [t’ej], a drink made from fermented honey. This tedj, or hydromel, was poured into Florence flasks [berele], and was given to each. It was expected that the recipient should bow towards the prince, and then empty his flask. No sooner, however, was the vessel emptied than it was seized by a watchful servant and again replenished. Each had to drink several flasks of the liquor, which tasted not unlike small beer, but rather sour. After a while, when the flasks had been emptied, musicians were introduced.

    Although the writer didn’t name some of the elements of the meal, he got the details just right. Many other similar accounts would follow in newspapers across the country before, a century later, Americans had a chance to taste this “bread” and “curry” for themselves.

    A raw meat gebr (feast) in Ethiopia, date unknown. A photo of Emperor Menelik II, who died in 1913, hangs on a pole, but it might have been a tribute. (Click to enlarge)

    A raw meat gebr (feast) in Ethiopia, date unknown. A photo of Emperor Menelik II, who died in 1913, hangs on a pole, but it might have been a tribute. (Click to enlarge)

    A few years earlier, Australian readers of the Sydney Morning Herald might have come across an Oct. 3, 1863, story about the enset plant – sometimes called the false banana – and its importance in Ethiopia where, “when cooked, it is the best of all vegetables, tasting like wheat bread, not perfectly baked. Like a turnip well boiled, if eaten with milk or butter, it is the best of all food, wholesome, nourishing and easily digested.” This account comes from a passage in the five-volume 1770s account of the Scottish explorer James Bruce’s trip to Ethiopia.

    As Tewodros’ life approached its end, the Halifax Morning Chronicle reported in August 1868, “he rarely partook of more than one meal a day, which consisted of su jera [injera], the pancake loaves made of the small seed of tefi [teff], and red pepper during fast days; of wot, a kind of curry made of fish, fowl or mutton, on ordinary days.” The story also says he took to drinking heavily.

    The Melbourne newspaper The Age had a long piece in 1868 about the British advance in Ethiopia, saying only this about food: “The troops…partook of plenteous if somewhat course hospitalities, consisting of curry, and sour bread, and acrid beer.” Sounds like a typical (and unappreciated) meal of wot, injera and t’alla.

    A correspondent for the New York Herald filed a story from Ethiopia in 1868 during the reign of Tewodros that many other newspapers also published. He talked mostly about the nation’s quarrel with England, but he also presented Ethiopia as a land of enormous potential – if only it could develop its resources.

    “Vegetation never falls asleep in this happy climate,” the writer says. “The natives sow barley in the beginning of May. In September, they sow wheat and teff, and if they have water, they repeat barley or tares in January.”

    The important detail here is the mention of teff, a grain virtually unknown to the world in the 19th Century but essential to Ethiopians for making injera. The Morning Chronicle of Halifax, Nova Scotia, published this article and the next year ran a story called “An Abyssinian Feast” that was copious with detail about Ethiopian food.

    Readers learned about t’ej, “a hard but stimulating liquor made by fermentation out of honey,” and about “a strong though sour beer [t’alla] which they made from the dagousha [millet] grain.”

    “Almost every event of life affords an excuse for excessive eating and drinking,” the story goes on. “The materials of a grand banquet are simple: a good supply of cakes made of teff wheat or dagousha meal, an abundance of raw meat, and after the eating is over, t’ej ad libitum.” The story then describes the “death struggle” of the cattle as it’s slaughtered for a feast, followed by the ritual (called qurt) of taking a long strip of raw meat and using a knife to cut yourself chunks to swallow, unless “attentive servants cram [you] with large morsels as fast as, or faster than, [you] can swallow them.”

    “One who seems to have made himself at home in Abyssinia says that the raw beef is far tenderer than the most tender joint that has been hung a week in England,” the story reports, “and certainly neither the rawness nor the quality taken seems to do much harm, unless the former be responsible for the prevalence of tapeworm.”

    No doubt it is: Just imagine what readers in 1869 would have thought of this exotic spectacle.


    AFTER THE SUICIDE OF TEWODROS and the war with the British, Yohannes IV became emperor of Ethiopia, serving until his death in 1889. But in 1878, he crowned Menelik, his future successor, king of the Ethiopian region of Shewa, thus ending a potentially destructive power struggle between the two for the Ethiopian throne.

    To mark the occasion, Menelik threw himself a party, and the Montreal Daily Witness – which wrongly reported that Yohannes had resigned as emperor in favor of Menelik – provided details. The feast began with “two jars of a dreadful drinkable called t’ej, 50 loaves of bread, an antelope’s horn filled with mingled salt and red pepper, and a live cow, which the escort at once slaughtered, piling up the meat before the visitors. The king’s cook and taster followed with four dishes of curry.” It was, in short, a typical imperial Ethiopian dinner.

    The newspaper didn’t seem to like t’ej, nor did The Boston Post in a disapproving 1898 story about Ethiopian customs. “Honey is a great product of this country,” the story says. “Out of it is brewed an intoxicating drink called t’ej, in which women – as well as men – indulge to excess.” The piece offered no more insight into Ethiopian food.

    The Deseret newspaper published another story in 1896 that added a detail to our impression of an Ethiopian meal: “The Abyssinians make a great deal of noise when they eat, and the bigger bite a man can take and the more noise he makes chewing it, the more polite the man is thought to be.”

    The Evening Journal of Lewiston, Maine, published a story on Dec. 4, 1900, about an unnamed London correspondent’s journey with Ras Makonnen and his army of 15,000 men marching east from Harar. The piece says nothing about food, except for this: “Mixed up in the crowd, too, were the Ras’s t’ej brewers, a well-nourished party of women with large gombos of t’ej slung on their backs in long pieces of bright red cloth. As they struggled along in the midday sun, their burdens were unmistakably fermenting.”

    It’s highly unlikely that a turn-of-the-century American reader would have known that t’ej was honey wine, or that a gombo is a large earthenware jar. In fact, the article feels excerpted from a long piece, meant only to give readers a feel for the adventure.

    Scribner’s magazine published a very accurate and informative story in 1902 that describes Christmas dinner with the legendary Emperor Menelik II.

    The story begins with Menelik on his throne, “a large pile of flat bread” (injera) on a table to his right, and on his left, “tables set with massive silver knives and forks.” The meal, says the unnamed writer, had many courses, some that Menelik ate, and some that he didn’t.

    Emperor Menelik hosted an intimate banquet for 8,000 people in 1904 to honor Robert Peet Skinner,  a visiting American envoy who had come to negotiate a treaty.

    Emperor Menelik hosted an intimate banquet for 8,000 people in 1904 to honor Robert Peet Skinner,
    a visiting American envoy who had come to negotiate a treaty.

    For the main course, an attendant held up “a great piece of raw beef, killed that morning, from which the guests cut strips with a sharp knife, and, placing each one in the mouth, cut off the remainder. Each person had a decanter of honey beer by his side.” After the guests dined, the soldiers waiting outside entered the room and took their meal in the same way, except that they drank their “honey beer” from horn cups. They each also got “a small glass of arrack” before leaving.

    This way of eating raw meat is called qurt, and by honey beer, I assume the writer means t’ej, the Ethiopian honey wine. Best of all, he mentions areqe (or araki), which he calls arrack: It’s an Ethiopian grain alcohol, much like ouzo, impossible even now to get in the U.S. But there it was, more than a century ago, in an American magazine.

    The emperor had been no less generous – and perhaps even more so – at Christmas on Sunday, Jan. 7, 1900, according to a holiday squib that appeared in the Meridian, Conn., Morning Record in December 1926. The meal was lavish and delectable: milk and rice soup, kabobs of lamb and potatoes, brown rolls, flat bread, honey beer, French claret, areqe, champagne, 12-year-old t’ej – and fried brains. The emperor also fed his 30,000 soldiers in two detachments.

    And then there was the weekly gebr (feast), according to a 1911 newspaper story, thrown by the new Ethiopian leaders for the people: Menelik, although still alive, had suffered a stroke in 1909, and a regency took over the government.

    The menu, the story says, “is sprung as a surprise on the Caucasian who has expected either the food of the primitive man or the concoctions of a French chef. There are six courses, but they do not vary much, the chief ingredient of all being the flesh of fowls. The white men use knives and forks, the Abyssinians are fed by slaves.”

    Feasting on raw meat at an encampment (1901)

    Feasting on raw meat at an encampment (1901)

    We soon get a closer look at the food, which isn’t all fowl: Eight slaves work hard serving the diners “with great lumps of raw meat, with which they eat the leaves of a native vegetable, the anghera. They eat enormous quantities of both, drinking honey-water, the national beverage, out of gigantic horns.” The t’ej, of course, is more than water, and of all the ways I’ve heard injera described, no one has ever called it a “native vegetable.”

    Readers of the Morning Herald in Sydney, Australia, got a quick nibble of Ethiopian food in a 1906 story about Arthur J. Hayes’ book The Source of the Blue Nile. Hayes wrote about the culinary use of pepper, reporting that “this condiment is cooked with or added to every dish, and the natives, even the children, eat it in quantities which scorch the most hardened European gullet.”

    When John Quincy Wood returned home to Maine in 1914, after two years as consul general in Ethiopia, he talked to the Lewiston Evening Journal about his experiences. He recalled a banquet in honor of Iyasu, the late Emperor Menelik II’s 18-year-old grandson, who was his designated heir but who never took the throne.

    “The banquet consisted of plenty of t’ej, the native liquor, bread made from barley, and a piece of raw meat,” he told the newspaper. “The love of the Abyssinian for raw meat is one of the interesting characteristics, and it is not strange that the most common ailment among these people is the tapeworm. In fact, they seem to entertain the idea that no man has attained full and complete manhood until he has grown at least one.”

    Wood later talks more about t’ej, “the alcoholic beverage which is best known in Abyssinia. It is made of honey and water with some sort of leaf to bring about fermentation. At first it is a pleasant tasting beverage, but one tires of it. Another liquor that is common is made of barley.”

    His barley liquor is probably areqe, and the leaf is gesho, used to ferment and flavor t’ej.

    Careful newspaper readers in (of all places) Wyoming learned a little about t’ej in 1926 from an item called “Home Brew of Abyssinnia” published in The Sundance Times.

    “A great quantity of beeswax is exported from Ethiopia, but the honey from which the wax is obtained is entirely consumed at home,” the story says. “They make a drink of it called t’ej. The honey is squeezed from the comb and allowed to ferment in goatskin containers. It is a home brew, but it has all the necessary ‘kick.'”

    An odd piece of writing from The American Weekly appeared in U.S. newspaper in 1926, and the Milwaukee Sentinel headlined it: “In the Nightmare Land of Abyssinia.” The author, Rev. G.L. Morrill, a Minneapolis pastor and “well-known world traveler,” painted Ethiopia a land of “flies, fleas, vermin and smells beyond description,” where “honesty is unknown, everyone believes in witchcraft, and nobody takes a bath.”

    It’s no surprise, then, when he describes how his Ethiopian guide has a meal of “raw, bloody meat called brindo. My friend tore off pieces with his fingers and devoured them with great gusto. The people look with contempt on people who cook meat. Next I cauterized my throat with a dish most diabolically dashed with pepper.”

    And yet, as a guest of a “millionaire war lord,” the reverend seemed perfectly happy with his treatment: “His slaves served us t’ej and champagne, and he gave me a lion skin cape, shield and spear as souvenirs. I do not think I shall ever object to the Abyssinian law of detaining guests.”

    Emperor Haile Selassie ate at many banquets, but often the menu didn't feature Ethiopian food.

    Emperor Haile Selassie ate at many banquets, but often the menu didn’t feature Ethiopian food.

    Readers of the Stanstead Journal in Rock Island, Quebec, witnessed quite a spectacle in a Feb. 11, 1926, story with the headline “Get Along Without Fork in Abyssinia.” At a banquet, “raw meat formed the menu,” and as some foreign visitors sat on the ground, two servants entered

    bearing a sheep suspended from a long pole. The visiting men pulled out their knives and pulled off strips of flesh until they were satisfied. Little more than a skeleton remained when they had finished. The bone is held in the hand and with the knife a small piece of meat is loosened by a cut from the base of the chunk. The piece is not entirely severed, but remains attached at the tip. The loose end is then grasped by the teeth and the other end freed with a second upward cut. To an observer it appears that the diners are in constant and imminent danger of severing the ends of their noses.

    A 1927 Associated Press story doesn’t tell us much about what Ethiopians ate, but it does reveal that a meal with royalty in Ethiopia included dinner and a movie.

    Ralph J. Totten, an American consul general in Africa at the time, enjoyed three meals at the emperor’s palace in Ethiopia with Tafari Makonnen, who then held the title of ras – a regional governor, or “prince regent,” as the story says – and would later become Emperor Haile Selassie.

    The only food mentioned is fruit, but “each time, his fruit was served on a solid silver plate, inlaid with American gold and silver coins, so arranged that both sides of the pieces might be seen.” The plate was part of a set of 25, each one with coins from a dinner guest’s homeland. After dinner, using “an excellent projector and an operator to run it,” Tafari showed films of Emperor Menelik, some scenes of his own recent European tour, and “a number of topical films and reels of important events.”


    BEGINNING IN THE 1930S, newspapers across the country began to publish more frequent stories written by correspondents for The Associated Press and other wire services, all of which certainly gave Americans their first taste of Ethiopian food. Haile Selassie became emperor in 1930, an event that occasioned international coverage. And in 1935, when Italy invaded Ethiopia, the world’s fascination with the country exploded – along with an indignation that stopped short of sending troops to help the Ethiopians.

    At the emperor’s 1930 coronation, The Associated Press report began with the meal: “Thousands of dusky-faced Abyssinians, returning to their homes in the African brush, boasted of feasting on raw meat with their emperor, Ras Tafari, newly crowned as Emperor Haile Selassie I, Lord King of Kings of Ethiopia.”

    In a large banquet pavilion, the guests – some of whom had traveled for days to be there – “ate chunk after chunk of dripping red meat. Unlimited quantities of native wine were furnished as an indispensable part of the festival.” This must surely have been t’ej.

    Feeding all of those people took time, and as the revelers grew impatient, “they attempted to storm the portals, and tribal policemen beat them back, lashing them unmercifully with whips. But in the end food was brought and no one went hungry.”

    To Americans, this must have sounded like a cacophony. And it gets even better.

    “At one end of the huge enclosure, there was an odor of freshly slaughtered animals,” the piece goes on, “while elsewhere there was the strong aroma of spices and sauces. The native Ethiopian likes nothing so much as his raw meat. All, however, are afflicted with tapeworms from eating uncooked viands. To best the parasites, they take a bitter herb called dekosia.” (Actually, it’s called koso.)

    And finally: “At dusk, the banqueters, having eaten well but none too wisely, lay along the roadside like helpless derelicts.”

    They don’t write ’em like that any more.

    A rare look at Ethiopian domestic life, c. 1935, in a photo that appeared in U.S. newspapers

    A rare look at Ethiopian domestic life, c. 1935, in a photo that appeared in U.S. newspapers

    The Washington, D.C., newspaper the Afro-American also covered the coronation, describing “the great banquet of raw meat and wine,” with animals killed “on the spot” and “passed to the 25,000 reveling guests.”

    But in a passage that has nothing to do with food, the newspaper, which served the black community, provides a fascinating lesson on history and culture.

    The reporter, who isn’t named, describes “the surprise of white Americans who had come expecting Emperor Selassie I to be a Jew and his subjects white. Instead, they found the Abyssinians such colored folk as live all over the south.” The reporter proudly witnessed “kinky-haired, thick-lipped Negroes walking proudly through palace and street, their patriotic and warlike spirit an evidence of 15,000 years of independence.”

    The language may be dated, and that number overstated, but the writer’s joy at seeing an independent black nation certainly is not.

    In March 1930, the Los Angeles Times published a piece written by Violet Cressy Marcks, the “first white woman to cross Ethiopia,” the headline says. The emperor granted her permission, provided her with transport, and fêted her at a dinner party, where “everything mirrored modern civilization. The French cuisine, champagne and wine were as good as anything procurable in Europe, and the dinner table appointments were in excellent taste.” She failed to mention whether she ate any real Ethiopian food.

    A year later, to mark the anniversary of his coronation, the emperor threw another “banquet of raw meat” for 10,000 people, and many newspapers covered it, albeit in shorter form.

    But did the new monarch grow more paternal during his first year in office? A 1931 Associated Press article reports that as the editor of a newspaper he owned in Addis Ababa, he had begun to write “vigorous personal editorials against t’ej, the native home brew, charging that the drink harms his younger subjects.” He said that “drink shops should be forbidden as they are a source of all sins,” patterning themselves on American establishments, and employing “music and dancing partners to lure young men.”

    Haile Selassie’s 16-year-old son, Asfa Wosen, visited London in 1932, and a detailed United Press story revealed his dining habits: “For breakfast, the entire party showed a distinct prejudice for porridge. Usually they had three helpings all around and then started on the bacon and eggs, which the prince relished and which he insisted on eating with a spoon. He scorned to use knives or forks.” This makes sense: In Ethiopia, people do use spoons for soupy dishes, but for everything else, it’s nature’s fork.

    The Emperor and the President met aboard a battleship  in the Suez Canal on Feb. 14, 1945

    The Emperor and the President met aboard a battleship
    in the Suez Canal on Feb. 14, 1945

    In 1933, the young emperor attended a state dinner in neighboring British Somaliland (now Somalia). It was a Friday – a fasting day for Ethiopian Christians – so the menu had no meat, just “eggs, fish, vegetable curry, asparagus, plum tart and cheese,” The Milwaukee Journal reported. Unfortunately, fasting means no eggs, cheese, butter or lard, leaving the emperor to dine on only “the lettuce under the eggs, the fish, curry and fruit on the tart.”

    But here’s the good part: Ethiopians like their food spicy hot, and when the British hosts heard this, they pointed the Ethiopians to some bottles of Tabasco sauce at the table. One of them tried it and, “raising his eyebrows to the ceiling in ecstasy,” decided that it was well worth giving up meat for such a fiery concoction. His countrymen soon tried it for themselves.

    When Haile Selassie’s son-in-law, the Ethiopian ambassador to the U.S., dined with newly inaugurated President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on July 2, 1933, the president’s housekeeper/chef, Henrietta Nesbitt – who would become known to all (and reviled by FDR) for her bland meals – faced a diplomatic crisis: She learned (by looking it up) that Ethiopian Christians “eat no meat, butter, cheese or any product of animal food,” she wrote in her 1948 memoir (later reported in a newspaper story).

    So after sussing out this cultural dilemma, she came up with a menu.

    “I [used] peanut oil, even for the rolls, and olive oil for frying, and a sherbet dessert, which eliminated the use of cow’s milk,” she wrote. “The Abyssinians sat down to melon, clam cocktail, saltines, stuffed olives, ripe olives, prime filet of bluefish, grilled tomatoes, Mexican corn, molded potatoes, cucumber and cress salad, beaten biscuits, pineapple ice, stuffed dates, ripe figs and coffee.”

    How it didn’t dawn on her that clams and bluefish are “animal food” is anyone’s guess – and may well explain why FDR hated her cooking (much to Eleanor’s contrivance and delight). Lucky for her, fish is permissible during fasting periods.

    A squib in the Glasgow Herald on Aug. 23, 1935, reported on a banquet that the emperor threw for the visiting British cabinet. It began at 11 a.m. and lasted all day, and “in this ancient manner the emperor and his people celebrate the end of their 16-day fast, during which they have eaten only fruit and dried peas, not even bread being allowed to pass their lips.” (Ethiopian religious fasts really aren’t that abstemious.)

    Another AP report, set in 1935, begins with a crisp lead that would certainly have provoked the interest of American readers: “Three thousand dusky warriors ate raw meat dipped in red pepper and drank honey beer in the compound of the imperial palace today as guests of Emperor Haile Selassie on this Ethiopian new year’s day,” wrote H.R. Knickerbocker, a reporter for William Randolph Hearst’s long-gone International News Service.

    United Press covered the same event, calling it a “raw meat festival,” or guebbeur – the Amharic word for feast (better spelled gebr).

    “The warriors dashed up to the freshly slaughtered carcasses and with their razor-sharp knives slashed great chunks of beef from the warm flanks,” the story reported. “They cut these chunks into long strips, put the ends in their mouths, and with their knives snipped off edible portions.” This again is the ritual known as qurt.

    The Age, an Australian newspaper, added to our impression of how Ethiopians eat, albeit with a bit of skepticism.

    Describing qurt in a 1935 story, a source told the newspaper: “One slashes as fearlessly as one can, considering that the custom is that the last cut be upward and towards the face.” So far, so good. But then the newspaper adds: “There is a story that [the women’s] maids feed them like babies, mashing their food into a paste and pushing it into their mistresses’ mouths. But it is only a story after all.” It’s also called gursha, and it’s a true story.

    A month later, The Associated Press witnessed a similar feast: “Fifty thousand fierce warriors gorged themselves with raw meat before Emperor Haile Selassie today,” the Oct. 28, 1935, story said, “but the little emperor ate none. Instead, he dallied with a plate of vegetables and sipped a glass of tea to show the fighters that he was with them.” It took 312 cows to feed the army.

    Newspapers didn't print many stories about Ethiopia's role in bring coffee to the world. Here are two squibs: One from 1946 (l), one from 1953.

    Newspapers didn’t print many stories about Ethiopia’s role in bringing coffee to the world.
    Here are two squibs: One from 1946 (l), one from 1953.

    Another informative AP story comes from “Makale, Italian Occupied Territory,” and must have been written shortly after the Oct. 3, 1935, Italian invasion of Ethiopia, which led to a five-year occupation of the country. Makale (or Mekele) is in a northern Ethiopian region called Tigray, where Tigrinya is the dominant language. The Italians invaded from Eritrea, Ethiopia’s northern neighbor, which had been an Italian colony for decades by the 1930s.

    The article taught Americans about many aspects of daily life in Ethiopia, including the way Ethiopians eat, cooking on ovens of hard-packed mud covered by a hood of thorn bushes.

    “The Ethiopians eat well, but hot,” the writer says. “The food served to us was good – if you had a tongue of asbestos. Otherwise, it was so highly spiced that each mouthful must be accompanied by a drink of water.”

    Hard to say if the food was “hot” by the standards of today’s more experienced foodies, or whether the meals we get in America today have tamped things down considerably (probably a little of both).

    Visiting a home in the community where he’d landed, the reporter dined on a chicken dish that he called zigniy, the Tigrinya word for the Amharic wot (a spicy stew). Their hostess, “a grinning, good-natured woman who did her best to make herself understood in the one language she knew, said that she had put in only a few peppers. But she had evidently put in 10 times too many. Each mouthful made us gasp.”

    The writer then goes on to describe the breads of Ethiopia, which he seemed to enjoy much more. He tried bakuta, made of flour and water, then baked on an open fire; gera, “a slab an inch thick and two feet in diameter and usually ornamented with designs”; and taff, a thin rubbery kind of bread that flops and flaps like a thirsty dog’s tongue.”

    The comic strip “Mutt and Jeff” ran this installment on Nov. 25, 1935. Apart from the exaggerated (i.e., racist) portrayal of the waiter, it’s a tart satire about the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, an international news story that made its way from the headlines into popular culture. (Click to enlarge)

    Of course, what he calls taff is the bread we know as injera. It’s made of the grain called teff, so he must have misunderstood what his hostess told him when he asked the name of the bread. Gera sounds suspiciously like an ambasha, a big round festive leavened bread, although it could also be a short form of mugera, a bread more common in Ethiopia’s southern Oromo cultures. As for bakuta, that one has me stumped, but from his description, it sounds like a basic leavened Ethiopian dabo (bread).

    Finally, he got around to beverages: “The drink is either tez, which is the strong potion – not so strong at that – made of honey and water fermented, or suwa, a kind of beer made with dark grain.” This tez is our t’ej, although it’s odd that he uses the Amharic word and not mes, the Tigrinya word. Yet he does say suwa, the Tigrinya word for homemade Ethiopian beer, which is t’alla in Amharic.

    This article ran in newspapers as far east as South Carolina, which today has only two Ethiopian restaurants, and as far west as Wyoming, which still has none. No doubt even more newspapers published the wire service story as a worried world watched Italy’s invasion of the never-colonized historic nation.

    An AP squib a few days before Christmas in 1935 reported that to celebrate St. Michael’s Day, “Ethiopians are going on a diet of cereals and water for a week.” These cereals were probably different types of porridge, like genfo or chiko. The abuna – that is, the bishop of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church – declared: “Let no animal be slaughtered, no meat eaten, no t’alla [beer] or aromatic alcohol be drunk.” The order, the AP noted, also “solves the problem of providing meat for the soldiers.”

    The fiery berbere of Ethiopian food did more than just nourish. In 1936, a UPI story reported that Ethiopians could carry 100 pounds of goods for 20 miles, all because “we eat much pepper and that makes us gobuz (muscular),” an Ethiopian man told a reporter. “If you would eat red pepper every day, you would become gobuz, too.” To which the reporter adds: “But most foreigners, after a taste of the red pepper, prefer to remain puny.”

    Europeans share a meal around a mesob in Ethiopia, c. 1920s  (Watch a video of the meal being prepared.)

    Europeans share a meal around a mesob in Ethiopia, c. 1920s
    (Watch a video of the meal being prepared)

    At the time of the Italian invasion, many Ethiopian women volunteered to fight. The men didn’t permit them in battle, so the women made food for the soldiers. (See photo below.)

    “Willing hands turned to the task of baking millet bread, or enjera, and spicy raw meat for the fierce warriors at the front,” the Associated Press reported on Nov. 2, 1935. “Native housetops over Addis Ababa were plastered with huge pieces of the bread, looking for all the world like giant pancakes. When the sun had dried them, they were ground into meal which can be preserved for many months, furnishing ‘iron rations’ for the army in compact form.”

    A Sept. 23, 1935, story written by Dr. John Melly, a British medical worker in the country, reports that “a handful of grain will feed a man for several days, and for a more substantial meal he can kill the game with which the country abounds and eat it as he likes it – raw!” The Cambridge graduate benevolently commends these fighters, calling them “the most surprisingly intelligent and resourceful of all the black races.”

    And what of t’ej, the 2,000-year-old Ethiopian honey wine? Some of these stories from the 1930s took note, but in 1932, in a piece from the city of Dire Dawa, the Associated Press focused on Ethiopian potent potables. “Tasting more like sauterne or hard cider, t’ej has the potency of Kentucky moonshine. Americans who have tasted t’ej say it is a little like liquid dynamite.” The story also mentions t’alla, a homemade beer that is “much stronger and more acrid than American beer.”

    The reporter drank t’ej from a ram’s horn, and he notes that “no native would think of offering his guest a drink of t’ej without taking the first sip himself. This is to prove to his visitor that the wine is not poisoned!” At the emperor’s palace, they dispense t’ej from “enormous containers with taps, the vessels resembling American lemonade coolers.”

    Sounds like a picnic to me.

    A 1935 photo published in newspapers around the world

    A 1935 photo published in newspapers around the world

    The Ottawa Citizen sent a reporter to Ethiopia in 1935, and just seven days after the Italian invasion, he filed a detailed (if quirky) report on the life of a typical Ethiopian family, including some rarely reported details.

    “The only reason they don’t keep the pig in the parlor,” Robinson MacLean’s story begins, “is that they don’t have the pig or the parlor.” The family he visited lived in a tukul – a thatched hut – which explains the lack of a parlor. But MacLean never does tell us that Ethiopian Christians and Moslems don’t eat pork.

    Soon we see the wife of the family – the couple is Tafara and Birrkay – “mashing red peppers with a big stone mortar,” obviously making berbere (unnamed in the story). She throws the peppers “into the wot or stew that’s bubbling in the dist, which is an earthenware pot the size of a big wash basin and is propped up on three rocks over a little pile of smokey eucalyptus splinters in the back room.”

    At dinner, “Birrkay hands [Tafara] a gemasha or half-circle of the flabby gray injera or bread she baked over the splinters that morning. Then she lifts the stew off the stove, and the grownups gather round, dunking their supper with Birrkay eating hers out of the chilfa or ladle.” Soon, the adults drink coffee out of “handleless china cups” (sini, again unnamed). The children get no coffee.

    On Christmas Eve in 1945, readers of the El Paso Evening Post heard some exotic tales from a local woman who traveled around Ethiopia, where she ate “habash a wat, a dish of rice, chicken, eggs and chili sauce, and a liquor made from honey and called t’ej.” That oddly named dish sounds like doro wot.

    Ottawans learned more about Ethiopia in 1951 when Frank Patton, a local man, gave a talk about his two years there working as an educator. “Since raw meat is eaten on feast days, almost everyone has a pet tapeworm,” he said. “Each month they take a day off to deal with this tapeworm and brew a kind of tea out of leaves for a cure.” Some people, though, use a riskier method: They drink gasoline that they “beg from filling stations.”

    The next year, the Evening Journal of Lewiston, Maine, published a four-paragraph Associated Press story about Ethiopians who drink gasoline to rid themselves of tapeworms. The Health Ministry advised against it – “gasoline is poison and inflammable and should never be drunk in place of medicine” – and recommended “a substitute made from berries for gasoline addicts.”

    The Milwaukee Sentinel published a big spread on Feb. 2, 1936, that reproduced (in black and white) a colorful multi-panel painting on tanned animal skin that depicts the legendary meeting of King Solomon and Queen Makeda – or the Queen of Sheba as we know her.

    The land of Sheba (or Saba), the myth says, was ancient Ethiopia, and this meeting, which took place about 1000 B.C., forms the cornerstone of Ethiopian lore. From the conjugation of the two monarchs came the child Menelik, whose gene pool began the Solomonic Dynasty of emperors that ended in 1974 with the death of Haile Selassie.

    The newspaper’s elaborate tale recounts the history of Solomon and Makeda and describes some of the images in the painting. One panel, the story says, shows Solomon “holding a meeting of his cabinet at a banquet, and they have an abundance to eat and drink.” In fact, two panels show the meal (see images below), and several more of the earlier panels show people with t’ej, which Makeda gave to Solomon as a gift.

    But archaeologists now seem certain that the land of Sheba was on the Arabian peninsula in Yemen, and they can’t trace t’ej back any further than about 2,000 years to the ancient Aksumite Empire, which really was the proto-Ethiopia. So the images and the story are simply lore – the Ethiopian version of George Washington’s moment of truthiness when he confessed to cutting down the apple tree.

    (An 1891 article in the Evening News of San Jose., Calif., mentions “the world-renowned spices which the Queen Balkis, of Abyssinia, flung at the feet of King Solomon.” This “Balkis” should be Bilkis, the Arabic name for Queen Makeda.)

    Makeda, the Queen of Sheba, presents King Solomon with some t'ej (first image),  and so he thanks her by throwing a banquet in her honor.

    Makeda, the Queen of Sheba, presents King Solomon with some t’ej (first image),
    and so he thanks her by throwing a banquet in her honor.

    And here’s a curious true story: Mrs. Della Hanson of Hutchinson, Minn., was a missionary in Ethiopia when the Italians invaded, but she didn’t leave the country. The emperor returned in 1941, and three years later, a UPI story says, “the gray-haired, middle-aged” lady soon became the emperor’s housekeeper, introducing him to “yank cooking” – and he liked it.

    Among his favorites: strawberry tarts and lemon pie. She also introduced him to planked steaks, apple pie, cold cuts, angel food cake, and even a little ice cream. Mrs. Hanson supervised the palace’s five cooks, “introducing them to such strange dishes as potato salad.” The emperor must have liked her work, for 10 years later, the August 1954 issue of Good Housekeeping magazine featured her with a story. She returned to America in 1955 and settled down with her husband, Herbert, to co-author For God and Emperor, a book about their lives in Ethiopia.

    Newspaper readers got a sip of t’ej in a 1955 news wire story about the way diplomats in Washington, D.C., tend to over-imbibe.

    “The eye-opening mixture offered at the Ethiopian embassy topped everything,” the glorified gossip columnists wrote. “A sweet-tasting brew known as ‘mead’ is made of honey, barley and Ethiopian hops. It’s one of the most powerful drinks in the world and dates back to biblical times. After a few gulps, several of the guests weren’t quite sure what century they were in.”

    The writers’ naïveté almost makes it sound like “mead” existed nowhere else in the world, and they never use the name t’ej. Perhaps they were teetotalers (and therefore bad journalists). The party also featured mulmul, described as “spicy minced meat rolled in a thin bread.” In fact, mulmul is a type of Ethiopian bread, so the writers may have misunderstood what their source told them (or else they’d enjoyed too much t’ej after all).

    A few months later, the same pair of columnists wrote a little more accurately about the cuisine.

    “Hint to housewives,” they said, ever so colloquially, “the fad in capital food these days seems to be spicy dishes, and the hotter the better. Madame Yilma Deressa, wife of the Ethiopian ambassador, will testify to this. Other day she whipped a huge batch of special curry sauce to go with lamb and chicken for an embassy party celebrating Emperor Haile Selassie’s coronation 25 years ago.”

    She worried that it might be too hot, but “every last morsel was scooped up before the reception was half over.” A U.S. diplomat’s wife even asked her hostess, “But couldn’t it have been a wee bit hotter?”

    The hostess also had “cases” of t’ej, which she thought would be enough for her guests. But “the heavy drinkers went through the supply as fast as the gourmands leveled the buffet table. Then there was nothing to do but ask for Scotch.”

    Even the humorist Art Buchwald took an interest in Ethiopian food, although not a serious one. In a 1957 piece ribbing the English and the French about their eating habits – the former take their sweets before the cheese, and the latter take theirs after – a haughty Frenchman wonders how the Ethiopians do it. So Buchwald sojourns to the Ethiopian embassy in Paris for a chat with a faux attaché.

    The gentleman, polite to a fault, says he prefers cheese before sweets, and while he has never dined with the ambassador, “I can say there are some people in the embassy who eat the meat course after the dessert.”

    We know this is a joke because, of course, there is no dessert in Ethiopian cuisine.

    Just don’t tell that to Erwin Faller, an American who served the emperor for three years and worked in the royal kitchen as a pastry chef at the 1930 coronation. The emperor, it seems, had a sweet tooth, and Faller had the job of satisfying it.

    In 1965, when he was a chef at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Faller talked to The Associated Press about his time in Ethiopia. For regular banquets, he served “hors d’oeuvres, soup, fish, three meat courses with a different vegetable for each course, dessert, coffee and liqueurs,” with a different wine for each course as well. He doesn’t say anything about Ethiopian cuisine, but those meat dishes with vegetables could have been wots of some sort.

    Faller also created special imperial desserts for the leader of a country who’s cuisine has no tradition of eating sweets. His most elaborate confection: one pound of creamery butter, one pound of confectioners sugar, eight eggs, vanilla, and a quarter pound of hard dark chocolate, all whipped together in a mixer on high speed. When it’s blended, it goes into pastry shells and later gets topped with a whipped cream rosette, a maraschino cherry and a mint leaf.

    He served this rich treat at the emperor’s coronary – that is, the coronation – and he called it a Swiss chocolate tart. I can’t imagine what you’d call it in Amharic.


    WHAT IMPRESSION DID READERS in St. Petersburg, Fla., get in 1961 when the local Times published a story about two residents who did eight years of missionary work in an Anuak village in western Ethiopia? The Anuaks are a cultural group whose lives differ greatly from much of the rest of the country.

    From Ebony magazine, a 1976 doro wot recipe

    From Ebony magazine, a 1976 doro wot recipe

    “Tribesmen suffer from malnutrition and eat cold corn meal mush 365 days a year,” the story says, without naming the food. It’s called kwon in the Anuak language, and it is indeed the culture’s staple meal. Anuaks hunt wild game – antelope, water buffalo, gazelle – and especially enjoy young giraffe meat if they can get it, the story says. The Anuaks also live by rivers and catch fish, but the story doesn’t mention that. So it’s accurate, but it hardly describes typical Ethiopian cuisine.

    The next year, though, the St. Petersburg daily published another article from Ethiopia, only this time, it described the national cuisine. Written by Ben F. Carruthers, the lengthy “Ethiopia, Imperial Kaleidoscope” described many aspects of Ethiopian life, including its traditional food. He dines in a very contempopary-sounding tukul, a traditional thatch-roof hut. But this one, still conical in shape, “had an interior fitted out like a huge parlor with colorful matted rugs and highly polished floors.”

    The meal began with a hand-washing ceremony, and then the food arrived in covered mesobs, the large colorful baskets used as tables. The server removed the covers “to reveal several layers of huge, gray, spongy pancakes covering the top of the table. This is injera, on which she pours several varieties of wot, a spicy stew made of beef with vegetables and peppers (mildest), chicken instead of beef (spicier) and lamb (spiciest). To eat, one tears off a chunk of injera and dips it in the wot of his preference. Very filling and a pleasant adventure.”

    He had a more Western meal at the San Giorgio restaurant in Asmara, Eritrea, which was then a part of Ethiopia. The entree was a chicken roasted inside a clay pot, with spicy gravy made from the giblets, and all of it served over rice or millet. The meal came to the table in the pot, “piping hot from the oven. The diner breaks the clay with a mallet and out comes one of the finest roast chickens he has ever tasted!”

    The Steinbach, Manitoba, cultural event of the season for 1961 must have been the dinner party thrown by Mr. and Mrs. Allan Kliewer. Rather than serving Canadian roast beef or chicken, they prepared an Ethiopian meal like the kind they had as missionaries in Africa. They called the dish injera na cutlets, made up of “three Ethiopian spices” (which the Kliewers brought with them from Ethiopia), pea flour, onions, garlic salt, “rancid butter” and red pepper. “The stew, served with a cooked egg, was eaten not with a fork or spoon but with a pancake rolled up and dipped into the stew,” the Carillon reported. The presence of the egg tells us it’s doro wot, and the pea powder must have been shiro. Mr. Kliewer also said the blessing in “the Ethiopian language.”

    That same year, the Globe-Gazette of Mason, Iowa, had a piece by Mr. and Mrs. T.G. Burns, local residents visiting the “dark continent” and sending home dispatches. They had attended the dedication of a modern marketplace in Addis Ababa. “Wot, the Ethiopian national food of chicken and pepper sauce,” they wrote, “is dipped up with a circular cake of bread called injera, all this to the accompaniment of much shouting and bargaining.”

    In another Associated Press article from Ethiopia in 1962, the table turned just a bit: “Cabinet ministers in Ethiopia,” the story begins, “are awakening to the sudden realization that their wives can cook.”

    This piece goes on to tell the story of Pearl Campbell, a librarian for the United States Information Service in Addis Ababa, and her efforts to organize American-style women’s clubs for middle-class wives who, in Ethiopia, came from comfortable families that could afford to have a cook in their homes, so the women never learned to cook for themselves.

    An early wot recipe in the U.S.

    An early wot recipe in the U.S.

    At weekly meetings hosted by Campbell, the women took surreptitious cooking lessons, unsure of whether their husbands would approve. “The maids just about had a fit,” the story says. “It wasn’t proper for women of such distinction to do menial work.”

    After several weeks of lessons, the Etham (Ethiopian-American) Women’s Club prepared a banquet for their husbands, sending them invitations and settling on a color scheme of silver and purple, something like what “Mrs. Kennedy had at the White House,” Campbell said. The women made “a traditional Ethiopian dish” – Campbell doesn’t name it, but you can bet it was doro wot – “and supplemented it with American roast beef, mixed salad, hot rolls and ice cream.”

    An intriguing articled appeared in American newspapers in 1962 under the headline: “Statement That Ethiopian Women Lack Culinary Talents Riles Housewives.” It seems that Alexander Bodi, publisher of the Palo Alto Daily Times, visited Ethiopia and came to the conclusion that upper-class women couldn’t cook because they had too many servants (as if wealthy women in America don’t). He also mentioned Pearl Campbell’s club that taught privileged Ethiopian women how to cook.

    So on the front page of the English-language Sunday Ethiopian Herald, published in Addis Ababa, Alefelege Selam wrote a piece defending his countrywomen and calling Bodi’s statements “misleading and inimical to relations between Ethiopian and U.S. women.” The sole copy of the wire service article I could find is short and doesn’t talk specifically about food.

    But Michael F. Silberstein does in “Safari into Understanding,” a column that appeared in The Times of San Mateo, Calif., in 1962. He writes about his visit to Ethiopia and reflects on Emperor Haile Selassie, whom he wrongly says attained power in a coup d’etat in 1931 (it was 1930, and he ascended to the throne).

    On a trip to Jimma with his Crossroads group, Silberstein dined at the home of a grandson of the region’s former king. The meal included “false banana bread, stuffed potatoes, raw sweet potatoes and roasted corn,” all of which he refers to as “common Ethiopian dishes” – which they are not, except perhaps for the “false banana,” by which I assume means qocho made from enset, which is more common in southern regions of the country.

    He does go on to describe wot, “a stew-like dish, usually made with meat or vegetables, highly spiced and of thin consistency,” and injera, “made from fermented grain, a large pancake about two and a half feet in diameter with somewhat the consistency of sponge rubber. Rather sour in taste, it served as napkin, bread, fork and spoon.” He also enjoyed “some of the best t’ej I had ever tasted,” and he calls these three items the “staples of the Ethiopian diet, comprising at least one meal a day for every Ethiopinan.”

    A tiny squib in a 1963 edition of the News-Sentinel in Lodi, Calif., declares in its headline: “Chicken Is Staple Food In Ancient Ethiopia.” What sounds like the story of 2,000-year-old Ethiopian cuisine simply says that Ethiopians eat chicken, and then it offers an Americanized recipe for doro wot (without naming it).

    The Los Angeles Times published a story in October 1964 about a charity run by an Ethiopian princess in Addis Ababa, and it ends with this teaser: “In addition, the [organization] runs a restaurant not only as a money-making venture but to afford tourists an opportunity to enjoy injera and wot, the authentic Ethiopian food.”

    Nine months later, in July 1965, the LA Times interviewed Bereket Hapte-Selassie, an Ethiopian cabinet officer who had just completed a year in residence at UCLA. He doesn’t discuss cuisine, but he does talk about America’s preoccupation with materialism, something he even noted at the evening meal.

    “When I try to turn the conversation to issues that are universal and vital, they always change the subject to something trivial,” he observed of his American friends. “The conversation at the table frequently has to do with food. This is another indication to me of the preoccupation with material well being. At home in Ethiopia, or in Europe, the dinner table is the center of intellectual activity. Here, food seems to be important.”

    When Mrs. Jack Farrar of Quanah, Texas, traveled around the world in 1963, she sent home dispatches in the form of letters, which the Quanah Tribune-Chief published in a series of articles. In Ethiopia, she ate “a plate full of injera topped with wot, meat (we had chicken) in a very very hot red pepper sauce – hotter than the hottest Mexican food and very strong with spices,” she told the newspaper.

    That same year, John McCormally of the Salina Journal in Kansas took part in a State Department program to help newspapers in other countries. He went to Addis Ababa, where he wrote a series of columns, and one piece revolved around his stay at the elegant Ras Hotel, formerly an imperial palace.

    “I’ve tried the wot and injera,” he wrote, “the Ethiopian meal of thin, gray, rubbery strips of pastry, spread with portions of lamb, beef and pork, highly seasoned enough to shock a Mexican, and which can be survived only if quickly washed down with t’ej, the deceptively smooth wine made of honey.” It’s unlikely that he ate pork wot: I’d guess it was just well-disguised (to Western eyes) chicken.

    “But such risks aren’t necessary,” he went on. “There are bacon and eggs for breakfast, if you want them, and corn flakes with bananas; thin but well-treated steaks; and I even had Irish stew for lunch.”

    Ethiopia became a common destination for Peace Corps volunteers in the 1960s, and every town that saw one of its citizens travel to the country got a lesson in its culture and cuisine.

    The Bakersfield Californian published a lengthy article in 1963 that described a banquet for 1,500 guests of an African summit that began with a fireworks display. Then came the food: caviar, courses of Ethiopian and European food, French wine and t’ej served in crystal goblets. The entertainment for the night was the popular South African singer, Miriam Makeba, whom the emperor had flown in for the gathering.

    From a 1926 Wyoming newspaper

    From a 1926 Wyoming newspaper

    Benton Harbor, Mich., got its Peace Corps report in 1965 from a woman who ate injera and wot, “a hot spicy stew with a flat spongy bread that you dip into the stew. It is good but really HOT! You eat this without silverware. We drank coffee, which is made on a small charcoal stove inside the house. It is made by crushing the coffee beans and roasting them on an open fire.”

    A few months before the country got its first Ethiopian restaurant, reader of the Daily Journal in Ukiah, Calif., got a nice account of a meal from Kate Dietterle, a local resident living in Ethiopia with her husband, who had joined the Peace Corps. She described eating injera with wot, “highly spiced, and a gastronomic holocaust.” Their chef, who used to cook for the Italians, “made ours ferenj style, easy on the red peppers. Actually, it was delicious, but not so good for my tummy.” It’s not clear whether she knew ferenj meant “foreigner,” or if she thought it was an Ethiopian cooking technique.

    And in the well-educated Bennington, Vt., the city’s Peace Corps volunteer brought home spicy mealtime tales, “since peppers are one of the main crops,” the Bennington Banner wrote. “The first year we made regular trips to Addis Ababa, where we could buy American food,” John Schafer, a Yale graduate, told the newspaper in 1966. “We felt we had to have our peanut butter and corn flakes, but we got to eating Ethiopian food more and more. I could never face wot for breakfast, however.” He then described “a large round unleavened bread” – without naming it (although he does say it’s made of teff). “It looked like a napkin,” he said, “and since they folded it up and laid it beside the plate, we used to laugh about eating the paper napkin. But it was good.”

    Then there’s the story of Richard Lipez, a 24-year-old Peace Corps volunteer in Ethiopia from Pennsylvania who told his tale to The Associated Press in 1963. He had never been farther east than Rhode Island before his trip, but in Ethiopia, “Richard now eats a native dish that features fat pussy cats as its main ingredient – and loves every minute of his new life.”

    I must say that’s a new one. Of course, Lipez did grow up to publish mystery novels under the name Richard Stevenson. So it could be one of his early tales (or tails).

    The story, based on his letters home, tells us more about Lipez’s culinary adventures in Ethiopia.

    “New variations on the daily staple – injera and wot – are introduced,” he write. “This age-old dish is a terrifying assault on one’s innards by tomatoes, peppers, eggs, chickens, sheep’s intestines, a murky sponge-like bread and a few fat pussy cats. There are no eating utensils. You simply tear off a piece of the bread – injera – and slop it around in a bit of the common wot bowl. I have gotten to the point where I can eat the stuff and manage a feeble grin. The wot is so hot that you are obliged to wash every bite down with a swig of t’ej – a honey wine – which makes one’s ears drop off.”

    He offers no more detail on his odd feline cuisine.
    Milwaukee got an early taste of Ethiopian food in 1958 in a story about an Italian woman from the Eritrean city of Massawa who married a local man and moved to America. She talks a little about Ethiopian food – Eritrea was part of Ethiopia at the time – describing “zighini, a kind of stew cooked with beef, chicken or fish and potatoes with the tongue-searing berbere or red pepper. This is complemented with a gray bread about the color and consistency of sponge rubber, and pock marked, made with sour milk. About a foot and a half in diameter, it’s baked in fragrant eucalyptus leaves.”

    Emperor Haile Selassie and Yugoslavia's Marshal Tito  enjoy a western-style  meal together at a diplomatic event.

    Emperor Haile Selassie and Yugoslavia’s Marshal Tito
    enjoy a western-style meal together at a diplomatic event.

    (Five years earlier, an Ethiopian official – well-versed in international cuisine, and studying municipal government in Milwaukee – told a newspaper that he’s never seen his native cuisine being prepared: “The servant do the cooking, but our food is very good. It is mainly lamb, beef, chicken and fruits.”)

    In 1965, a group of church women in Milwaukee decided to have an African-themed festival that featured some iffy Ethiopian elements.

    They did some research and found that “a spicy sauce containing beef cubes and served on noodles was the Ethiopian main dish, meat wot. This was accompanied by a tossed salad of cabbage, celery and canned pineapple moistened with seasoned salad dressing,” an article in the Milwaukee Journal explained. One hostess concluded that “cabbage, spinach and kale were likely candidates for a salad in Africa, but no lettuce.” The newspaper then printed the complete “formula” for the beef dish (above left).

    Things got a little clearer for Milwaukee in 1970 when a writer for the Sentinel talked with Monica Bayley, a former resident of the city and author of a book on African cooking that she researched in Africa.

    She describes injera and the manner of eating, but she also says Ethiopians eat a lot of yams. This is true among some Ethiopian cultures, but yams aren’t a part of the national cuisine. The story says that “Africans cook with barbery, a red hot pepper that is difficult to get here.” I would guess that the reporter wrote “Africans” when she should have written “Ethiopians,” and of course, that’s not how we spell the spice today. To recreate berbere in America, Bayley spent a year experimenting with spice blends and came up with a mix of chili powder, cayenne, and curry to produce “much the same taste.”

    In the 21st Century, the Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised, now-American celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson has returned to his roots and begun to write about Ethiopian cuisine (born Kassahun Tsegie, he was adopted as a child by a Swedish family). But in 1963, the Swedish born-and-raised Kurt Linsi left his decade-long job as personal chef to Emperor Haile Selassie to become the head chef for Ethiopian Airlines.

    A UPI story that year talked with him about the challenges of his many years serving the emperor and countless foreign dignitaries.

    At one meal, he made Red Sea perch for the emperor look like a meat dish “to put guests at ease when they ate meat while their host ate fish during a fasting period.” (Perhaps he should simply have made it a teaching moment and explained.) Foreign guests always asked the emperor to make no exceptions to the palace cuisine for them, except for Yugoslavia’s Marshal Tito, who was on a low-fat diet.

    Linsi said he always included some Ethiopian dishes alongside his international haute cuisine – for example, the oat porridge dish ginjte, the story says. (He probably means qinche.) He also said foreign guests seemed to enjoy t’ej.

    Emperor Haile Selassie tours an Ethiopian glass factory (1949). Notice the many bereles - flasks used for drinking t'ej.

    Emperor Haile Selassie tours an Ethiopian glass factory (1949). Notice the many bereles – flasks used for drinking t’ej.

    For the airline, the chef said, he tones down the spices on Ethiopian dishes, which he mixes in with his largely French cuisine. And he fuses the two with his Queen of Sheba salad: a mixture of chopped tomatoes and onions, sliced meat or fish, and finely sliced hot green pimiento, dressed with red hot pepper paste (sounds like awaze), vinegar, olive oil, t’ej, salt, pepper, ketchup and Worcestershire sauce. That’s certainly a salad fit for a king of kings.

    When Mr. and Mrs. Robert E. Williams once again left their native Spokane, Wash., to return to Ethiopia in 1965, they talked to the Spokesman-Review about life in their adopted home.

    Injera, a spongy gray substance made from grain,” the article says, “is used to pick up the wot, a spicy ingredient made with cooked or uncooked chicken, beef or lamb for variety. T’ej, the national drink, has either honey or coffee as a base and is slightly alcoholic.” That’s about two-thirds true, if not exactly clear.

    The Williamses also revealed that “educated Ethiopians like American foods, particularly party foods such as deviled eggs, chips and dips.”

    If I had to eat “a spongy gray substance made from grain,” I’d prefer American munchies, too.

    Finally, from June through October of 1966, an interesting article made its way around the country, popping up in newspapers from New York to California and Illinois to Texas. The same photograph appears with it everywhere, and all versions are word-for-word identical, suggesting it was a wire service story.

    But the piece cites no author, except for the version that appears in the Aug. 3 issue of the Wellsville, N.Y., Daily Reporter. The newspaper attributes it to “Mary Lou Luckey, county extension cooperative agent, home economic division.” We’ll never know whether earlier versions in other papers removed her name, or if Luckey merely took credit for the piece when it appeared in her hometown paper – two months after it appeared in other newspapers around the country.

    “Our African neighbors have inspired many innovations in art, music and fashion,” the story says, “but it is only recently that Americans have begun to explore the riches of their unique cuisine. For an unforgettable introduction to African cookery, have an informal buffet supper featuring Ethiopian chicken with hot sauce, accompanied by rich, fragrant coffee.”

    What follows is a recipe for doro wot (or doro weutt as the story calls it) smothered in kulet, a thick onion sauce, which goes unnamed.

    “The secret of this tasty chicken stew is in the sauce,” the writer explains, “a savory blend of onions, wine, tomato paste and exciting seasonings like ginger and chili. If you want to be very Ethiopian, cook the chicken whole, but then remember to cut the other ingredients in half as noted in the recipe. The spicy sauce must be poured liberally over the chicken when it is served, but fill a little bowl for additional dippings.”

    It’s a fine description of the dish, and within weeks, the residents of Long Beach, Calif., could taste it for themselves.

    (Part Two: In the summer of 1966, America gets its first Ethiopian restaurant, but many cities have to wait a long, long time until they get one of their own.)

    Harry Kloman
    University of Pittsburgh


Ribs & Tibs: The Story of Ethiopian Beef

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TWO AND A HALF MILLION YEARS AGO, in the Afar Desert of Ethiopia, history’s early butchers figured out a way to turn a dead animal into the evening meal.

Archaeologists near the Afar town of Bouri in 1999 uncovered prehistoric antelope bones scarred with scratches from rocks that they believe the ancients used as knives. Their discovery pushed back the time that our human ancestors butchered meat by more than a million years.

“We’re right at the beginning of the great leap that followed meat eating,” UC Berkeley’s J. Desmond Clark said at the time, and this consumption of meat allowed some early hominids – that is, upright walking apes – to outlast others, creating a line of evolution that eventually led to Homo sapiens.

A decade later, another team of archaeologists, from the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, said hominids may even have used tools to butcher meat 3.4 million years ago.

As if channeling the spirits of their ultra-ancient ancestors, Ethiopians today cherish meat, so much so that some of them spend more than 200 days of the year not eating it. When the time arrives to break these vegetarian-only fasts, meat becomes even more prized and delectable.

Shent, a prime cut of Ethiopian beef (drawing and photograph)

Shent, a prime cut of Ethiopian beef (drawing and photo)

“Meat plays pivotal and vital parts in special occasions and its cultural symbolic weight is markedly greater than that accorded to most other food,” Semeneh Seleshe writes in his 2013 study, Meat Consumption Culture in Ethiopia. “The consumption of meat and meat products has a very tidy association with religious beliefs and is influenced by religions. The main religions of Ethiopia have their own peculiar doctrines of setting the feeding habits and customs of their followers.”

In fact, Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity has as many as 250 “fasting days,” which means no food before midday and no meat when you finally have a meal. Semeneh says that 62 percent of Ethiopian Christians observe in this way, and about 85 percent of butchers in Addis Ababa close on Wednesdays and Fridays, which are fasting days. Ethiopian Christians also eschew meat during the Lenten period and before Christmas.

In their thorough (perhaps definitive) 1985 essay, Ethiopian Meat (Beef) Cut, Tsehay Neway and Feseha Gebreab studied beef cuts in the cities of Debre Zeit, Modjo, Nazareth, Dukam, and their surroundings in the center of the country, not too far from Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital.

To identify their 14 cuts of beef, the researchers, both on the faculty of veterinary medicine at Addis Ababa University, slaughtered a year-old steer at the school and talked with local butchers and community elders.

They also drew on data from the slaughter of 40 other animals in a traditional manner known as kircha, wherein a large group of people – as many as 20 or 30 in a community – share the animal. Every part of the animal – meat, organs, bones – goes to people in the group in equal portions.

As Semeneh describes the practice: “A cow or an ox is commonly butchered for the sole purpose of selling within the community. On special occasions, people have a cultural ceremony of slaughtering the cow or ox and sharing among the group, which is a very common option for the people in rural areas where access to meat is frequently challenging.”

Kircha, the process of dividing a butchered animal between a large  group of people

Kircha, the process of dividing a butchered animal between a large group of people

Tsehay and Feseha don’t delve very deeply into these cultural elements of sharing the meat, focusing instead on the practice of butchering the animal.

“Meat is one of the most universally liked foods,” their report begins, “and people in a11 parts of the world have established their own way of cutting and preparing meat for consumption. Therefore, there are now, in every civilized society, traditionally accepted modes of cutting meat. Different cuts of meat vary greatly in tenderness and it is possible that the cuts are prepared with the state and mode of consumption in mind.”

The scholars found that “no two meat cuts of similar origin are identical. The uniformity of the cut largely depends upon the experience and ski11 of the butcher and the sharpness of the knives at his disposal.” And they say that in urban areas, “marketing trends” have led to “some meat portions of inferior quality with traditionally recognized first class cuts.” Even in Ethiopia, it seems there’s nothing like good home butcherin’.

Needless to say, it takes some skill and training to partition a large animal into so many clearly defined cuts of meat. USAID, an agency that aids development around the world, has published a vividly illustrated and detailed guidethat teaches Ethiopians how to butcher an animal, although the guide notes that it’s “not a substitute for hands on practical training.” Where Tsehay and Feseha use drawings in their essay to show the cuts of meat, the USAID guidebook uses many color photographs. Another USAID booklet shows a variety of Ethiopian meat cuts prepared for export.

These are the pathways that beef takes from farm to table (Ahmed, Harissa, et al, 2003)

These are the pathways that beef takes from farm to table (Ahmed, Harissa, et al, 2003)

Here, then, are the 14 cuts that Tsehay and Feseha identified, all named in Amharic, the state language of Ethiopia. They may well have different names in other Ethiopian languages, like Tigrinya and Oromo. The researchers’ descriptions often use medical terms to refer to body parts, so I’ll try to simplify. And I’ll use the generic term “cow” to refer to the animal, although understand that the cattle raised in Ethiopia is different from the cattle we raise in the west (see photos below).

I should note that these are traditional cuts, and in modern Ethiopian butcher shops, partitioning the animal is often simplified into cuts good for three kinds of dishes: qurt (raw chunks of meat), tibs (fried in spiced butter, often with sliced onions or peppers), and wot (cooked in a thick onion sauce).

Shent. Ethiopians love to eat raw meat, and there’s no finer cut for it than shent. The word refers to the side of the body, so this cut comes from the neck and rump, “long and slender and largely made of soft and juicy flesh. Shent is number one in choice for raw consumption. It is also enjoyed as pan broil or braise. It is in fact a well-esteemed gift that can be presented to close friends and relatives.” In American parlance, this would be a rib-eye steak.

Bete Salgegne. Another fine cut of meat, the name refers to “the difficulty in obtaining this cut in predetermined uniform pieces since it is always subject to variations due to its position in the carcass.” A combination of meat from the shoulder, ribs and brisket, it brings a higher price if it contains more fat, called marbling in the meat business. In the zebu, a humped Ethiopian species of cattle, this cut is nicely marbled and goes by the name shanga (“sha-nya”). It, too, is good for raw dishes and to give as a gift.

Tanash. This cut comes from a variety of places: some soft juicy marbled muscles, and some tougher tendons, so it’s not ideal for a raw meal.

Fremba. This cut comes from “the breast, short plate and the flank, with the exclusion of the sternum and ribs,” and it’s made up of “fleshy muscles well impregnated with fat.” It, too, can be eaten raw, although it’s not as fine as the other preferred raw cuts.

Talak. This is “the meat of choice for preparation of the national dish known as kitfo,” which is raw chopped beef seasoned with niter kibe and mitmita (spiced butter and hot red pepper). The authors also say that despite the presence of pubic bones, it’s considered to be a boneless cut, and the small amount of bone allows butchers to hang the meat on a hook.

Two butcher shops in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Two butcher shops in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Mehal Ageda. Here’s a very precise cut made up of one muscle and the bone associated with it so it can hang from a hook. The name means “central cane” because of its central location on the animal, and it’s good for making kitfo.

Nebro. This is fleshy belly meat “infiltrated with tendon.” The name is Amharic for tiger because of “the strength of the muscle whose fibrillation is also considered to be similar to the expressions of the furious animal during moments of wrath.”

Tuncha. Good for braising, the fleshy tuncha comes from the muscles of the leg and foot of the animal.

Nekela or Nikay. Need to feed a family? Then consider this cut, composed of talak, mehal ageda, nebro and tuncha, with bones of the thigh and leg. This makes it especially convenient for consumers because they can use the various portions however they choose.

Goden te Dabit. This cut comes from the animal’s first seven ribs and the muscle and connective tissue that goes with it. Two of the muscles are fleshy and marbled, and one of those two, the dabit, makes a good raw meal. The rest of this cut is better cooked.

Gebeta. Here’s a diverse and complex piece of meat, “made of the inner part of the breast, short plate, flank and brisket. It is composed of half of the sternum, asternal ribs with their cartilages.” Part fleshy, part tendonous, the name means “naked” and refers to the fact that it removes the fremba – that is, the fleshier marbled meat that comes from these areas of the animal.

Sebrada. This term refers to the last two ribs on a cow, and also “the last two floating ribs in man.” The meat of this cut comes from the muscular and fleshy parts of the ribs.

Two types of humped Ethiopian cattle: Horro (l) and Sheko

Two types of humped Ethiopian cattle: Horro (l) and Sheko

Chekena. A sub-cut of sebrada, the chekena (or cheqena) comes from the soft tender flesh of the iliopsoas muscle, sold separately and “consumed roasted or pan broiled,” while the rest of the sebrada cut is braised. The word chequn means “poor person,” so this is sometimes considered to be a poor man’s cut of meat. From time to time, on menus at Ethiopian restaurant, you’ll find chekena tibs. Most restaurants spell it chikina tibs, though, which at first glance might make you think it’s a chicken dish. But chekena is a better transliteration of the Amharic, and cheqena is better yet.

Werch. A low grade of meat, best eaten cooked, werch comes from the animal’s muscular shoulders and arms. Some of it is fleshy, but much is heavy with tendon.

Dendes. This cut, last and least, “is not fit to be included amongst the ranks of proper meat.” It’s made up of a mass of bone and pieces of flesh detached from parts of the animal’s last lumbar vertebra. Fortunately, you’ll never find dendes tibs on an Ethiopian restaurant menu.

THE EMINENT ETHIOPIAN SCHOLAR Richard Pankhurst writes about some of these cuts of beef in his 1986 essay, The Hierarchy of the Feast: The Partition of the Ox in Traditional Ethiopia. Cattle was very important in ancient Ethiopia, but even if you owned a cow that you planned to use for food, a commoner couldn’t slaughter his cow without permission from the local ruler. No doubt the ruler got a portion of the slaughtered animal in thanks for his permission, Pankhurst speculates.

Pankhurst’s fascinating essay details every aspect of a royal banquet, which was highly ritualized. Each part of the slaughtered cow produced a cut of meat with a name of its own: tanash sega, or “small meat,” came from “the rump bone down to the hind quarters,” the goden dabit were “five of the foremost ribs,” the engeda is “a prime fleshy part, taken from the muscle close to the thigh bone,” and shent comes from “the side of the backbone as far as the shoulder.” Of course, the revelers ate all of this meat raw.

Two regional Ethiopian cattle breeds: Arado (l), from northern Tigray;  and Afar, from the northeast Afar region

Two regional Ethiopian cattle breeds: Arado (l), from northern Tigray;
and Afar, from the northeast Afar region

In the mid-19th Century, Emperor Yohannes IV ended the practice of seeking permission to slaughter an ox, although in some Ethiopian cultures, the custom persisted: Local rulers might be entitled to the animal’s lesana manka (the tongue and breast meat) if a member of his town slaughtered an animal for a special occasion, like a marriage, funeral or holiday celebration.

Pankhurst’s essay – his information drawn from historic accounts – explores how law and custom prescribed who got what upon the slaughtering of an ox. People of the highest ranks got such prized cuts as the “small meat” from “the rump bone down to the hind quarters,” or the “large meat” from the hip bone with part of the buttock. These succulent steaks were just some of the portions that went to the aristocrats, and it’s hard to believe there was very much of the good stuff left after the upper classes got their tributes.

But there’s a downside to this love of beef, especially in modern times, when a cow isn’t what it used to be.

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

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.

Back then, a 2012 report from Addis Ababa declared, “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.”

Doctors in Ethiopia say that “for long-time raw meat lovers, the taste has changed a lot. The change, they say, is the way the oxen are fattened. In the old days, the meat always came from naturally grown cattle. The elders say that cattle in the old days ate naturally grown grass, which has a lot of organic and healing contents.” But meat today is more marbled – that is, it contains more tasty fat – and that has increased cholesterol levels in people who eat a lot of it.

SO WHAT, IN THE END, do you do with all of this meat? How do you prepare it and serve it?

If you want to eat it raw the way they enjoy it in Ethiopia, you have several options: gored gored is chunks of tere siga (literally, “raw meat”) that you can dip in awaze, a hot pepper sauce; kitfo, a favorite dish that comes from Ethiopia’s Gurage culture, is ground raw meat seasoned with mitmita and cardamom, then cooked in niter kibe; and qurt is a long strip of raw meat that you cut into pieces yourself with a knife (the ritual of doing it is part of the fun of the meal).

In addition to tere siga, another general word for raw meat is brindo. And this way of eating meat is strictly for adults: You have to reach a certain age before your parents will let you have raw meat. Like all things with parenting, the age depends on the family.

Three beef dishes: gored gored, chunks of  raw meat; derek ("dry") tibs,  fried in Ethiopian butter; and siga wot, a spicy stew

Three beef dishes: gored gored, chunks of raw meat; derek (“dry”) tibs,
fried in Ethiopian butter; and siga wot, a spicy stew

Boston University’s James McCann, one of the world’s foremost scholars on Ethiopian food, says that reaching the age at which you can eat raw meat “is a marker of post-adolescence, like long pants.” And he notes that people in Ethiopia see raw meat differently than expats in America.

“Raw meat is very rare in the diet, so children would not be high on the pecking order,” he says. “Expatriate Ethiopians have lots of cultural myths that claim historical background, but really only date from the Addis Ababa elite or upper-middle-class practice in the mid-20th century. Raw beef cut in chunks or strips has been around for a long time. Kitfo is a fairly recent addition to urban diet, but it is popular. And there is an exception to every rule given regional variation.”

He notes, for example, that you’ll find no mention of kitfo in Impressions d’Éthiopie (1913), written by the Frenchman Paul Merab, who was Emperor Menelik’s French-speaking doctor (née Petre Mérabichvili in the republic of Georgia). His memoir provides a detailed account of “21 distinct culinary preparations that he reckoned made up the national cuisine of the day.” Mereb called his list “le cordon bleu etiopienne.” Nor does Harold Marcus, a renowned Ethiopian scholar and one of McCann’s teachers at Michigan State University, mention kitfo in his accounts of Emperor Menelik’s early 20th Century feasts.

A 2012 study of meat consumption in Ethiopia confirms McCann’s assertion about the rarity of meat in the Ethiopian diet, despite the culture’s love of it.

“Ethiopia is known to have one of the largest livestock populations in the world,” the report says. “Yet the overall contribution to Ethiopian households’ daily consumption is very limited. At the national level, the average per capita annual consumption of meat and dairy products is just 5.3 kg and 16.7 kg, respectively. The consumption of livestock products, however, varies considerably between urban and rural areas. Urban areas have higher consumption of meat, whereas rural areas have higher consumption of dairy products.”

Two more things to note about kitfo. First, in the Gurage culture from which it came into the national cuisine, you don’t eat it with injera the way you do other dishes. The Gurages scoop it up with long-handled spoons, often made out of animal horns. And your “bread” at the meal is traditionally qocho, made from the fermented trunk of the enset plant, sometimes called the false banana because it resembles a banana tree. The kitfo comes to the table displayed on a dark green enset leaf with some qocho on the side. You might also get a side of ayib, the fluffy white Ethiopian cheese, and the ayib may have some gomen (collard greens or kale) mixed into it, making it a dish called zemamoojat.

For those who prefer their meat cooked, siga wot is the basic dish: chunks of meat stewed in kulet, a thick sauce of onions, berbere (another red pepper powder) and niter kibe, plus a few other spices (chef’s choice). This is my personal favorite. The mild variation is siga alicha, where the spices are ginger and turmeric rather than red pepper. Derek tibs are pieces of beef fried up in niter kibe, with onions and jalapeño peppers tossed in. The word derek means “dry,” so you won’t get any juicy kulet with this variation. Minchet abish is cooked ground beef seasoned with fenugreek (abish in Amharic).

Another view of dividing up the cow, from a dissertation by Nicholas Weber

Another view of dividing up the cow, from a dissertation by Nicholas Weber

Or you might try goden tibs (Ethiopian short ribs of beef, lamb or goat) or, if you can find it, some qualima or wakalim (varieties of Ethiopian sausage). Rarer still is ouatala, salted and spiced cuts of fat from the hump of the zebu (an African cow) that begin to taste like smoked ham after they’re hung for a while from the back of the house. And let’s not forget quanta, the Ethiopian beef jerky – dried, chewy and spicy hot. You can even cook quanta in a kulet to make a saucy beef entrée.

Restaurant menus can sometimes get a little confusing because of the sub-categories or alternative names of these basic dishes. Zilzil tibs, for example, is essentially derek tibs with the meat cut into strips rather than chunks. Kay wot (or quy wot) is just a more descriptive name for siga wotkay means “red,” which tells you that there’s hot pepper in it. Dishes like shent tibs or chekena tibs refer to the cut of meat that the restaurant uses. I’ve seen the dish kintot (or qintot) on menus, taken from the Amharic word for “luxury,” so this means a dish with lots and lots of meat.

But you really needn’t worry about what your dish is called: Just read the menu description, ask a few questions, order some veggie side dishes – gomen and ayib go especially well – and relish your meat like an Ethiopian.

Harry Kloman

University of Pittsburgh

Butchering and eating raw meat in Ethiopia:

Visit an Ethiopian butcher shop in Toronto:

Ashu Grocery is a well-known butcher shop in Addis Ababa:

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