Spicy Fingers: Notes from an Ethiopian Eating Adventure

Wednesday, March 3, 2010 | Ethiopia (map)

The Ethiopian dish yedoro firfir is made with injera, chicken, hard-boiled egg, and lots of spices.
I first ate Ethiopian food when I was 14, during a class trip to a restaurant back home in Baltimore. In my memory, the food was peculiar but delicious. Injera, the purplish-grey spongebread with which the food was served, had a sour taste but I gobbled it up... and soon felt it expanding in my stomach, swelling with juices and making me feel ready to burst. (Admittedly, restraint is not my forté at the dinner table.)

Last month, having finally reached Ethiopia myself, I dove enthusiastically into an exploration of the local cuisine. Jacqueline followed timidly at first, but by the end of our trip had developed a healthy appreciation for her own favorite dishes (particularly bozena shiro, goat meat in a rich spicy sauce). What follows are some of my observations on the country's very unique food and drink.

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Almost without exception, we ate every meal in Ethiopia with injera. The ubiquitous spongy crêpes
take the place of fork, plate, and napkin. One dish, called firfir, is actually spiced injera shreds eaten with injera. Sitting in restaurants waiting for our food to arrive, Jacqueline and I would sometimes try to calculate aloud how many pieces of the flatbread must be consumed in Ethiopia every day, week, and year. (Millions, billions, and gazillions, respectively, we decided.)

In almost every restaurant, a wide roll of injera is served on a large communal platter, along with a bowl full of the main dish ordered. We soon learned that upon receiving one's food, one should immediately unfold the injera, dump the bowl's entire contents right in the middle, and hand the empty bowl back to the server. Then the eating begins—using the hands only, each person scoops up saucy chunks of meat and vegetables in scraps of injera, making sure to stay respectfully on his or her own side of the dish, rather than reaching across. (Jacqueline frequently accused me of breaking this last rule. I deny all the charges.)

Chili peppers, whether whole or ground into bright orange berbere powder, feature prominently in most traditional dishes. Rich shiro sauce, and popular dishes like kai wot, doro wot, and shiro tegabino (shiro sauce mixed with ground chick peas, producing a sort of "Ethiopian burrito" taste when paired with injera. Berbere is usually served alongside alicha wot, tibs (stewed goat meat), and the few other non-spicy dishes, to ensure that no meal lacks a kick. Even after a rigorous scrubbing, we left each meal with some very spicy fingers.

Due to the misconception that white people can't handle spicy food, foreigners are sometimes served mild versions of these dishes. On several occasions, in order to be served properly spiced food I had to explain the American Tex-Mex craze to our server.

For the most part, Jacqueline and I subsisted on these meat-and-sauce staples. But at several points I tried to branch out by employing my favorite ordering strategy—simply picking a dish I've never heard of, and seeing what shows up on my plate. That approach proved successful at breakfast in Gondar, where tefira turned out to be a delicious flaky crêpe topped with egg and honey, and again at a hotel bar in Kombolcha, where I discovered kitfo—warmed up (but essentially still raw) ground beef tossed with chili peppers and other spices. It was heavenly, and despite my initial misgivings, did not put me in the hospital.

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The food was not the only highlight, however, as Ethiopia has its fair share of delicious and unusual beverages as well.

While we mostly drank nondescript St. George beers with our dinners, in Lalibela I finally found an opportunity to taste t'ej, which I'd been searching for since we arrived. T'ej is a syrupy, mead-like concoction fermented from honey and flavored with local herbs. No companies mass-produce it, so all t'ej is homemade, unfiltered, and unique.

The batch of t'ej we tried came in a traditional round-bellied flask. We popped out the sticky stopper and poured. From the sweet taste, we could tell it originated from honey, but the drink also had a sour, fizzy, somewhat biting aftertaste. Strong as hell underneath all the sugar, the honey wine got the job done, but was not nearly as pleasant as we had hoped.

Coffee was the drink we enjoyed most in Ethiopia, the land where both the bean and the brew were born. (Coffea arabica is a misnomer.) Today, the drink remains intensely popular, particularly in macchiato form, owing to the Italian colonial influence in Ethiopia. In every village or truckstop we visited along our route, no matter how impoverished the town may have looked, we could be sure to find at least one cafe with a hulking stainless steel espresso maker and milk frother. Outside many smaller cafes, a woman would be stationed over a cook fire, roasting the khaki-colored beans on a cast iron griddle. The brews were rich and exceedingly fresh—I've never tasted coffee so good.

Ethiopian wine was less impressive. To give an idea, let me just say that the brand we picked at random from the menu arrived at our table in a beer bottle. But the mixed record of Ethiopian beverages hardly dulled my experience eating in the country. Overall, our visit reaffirmed for me that Ethiopia's cuisine is one of my favorites.

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