A Heaping Helping of Ethiopia

By Amanda Miller

It’s not just the fire-and-earth red of the doro wat chicken stew simmering in the kettle. It’s not just the spongy elasticity of the crepe-style injera almost sticking to your fingers. It’s not even just the dark aroma of coffee beans roasting over in the coals in preparation for brewing buna. Something about the entire sensory experience of making Ethiopian food is so much more than just getting food on the plate (or on one round tray, in this case). My soul ends up being fed just as much as, if not more than, my stomach.

That isn’t to suggest in the least that Ethiopian food simply doesn’t prove satisfying, regardless of the preemptive opinion of several staunch meat-and-potatoes Midwestern farmers. I’ve been teaching cooking classes at a local kitchen store this summer, and was attempting to persuade one of my groups to allow me to introduce them to some East African cuisine, fully aware of the stark contrast to central Kansas dining. Their pre-class joke about “learning how to eat bread and water” expressed what can be unfortunately common social sentiment of other countries’ food and accompanying culture — lack of both awareness and curiosity. I, however, have more than enough enthusiasm to go around, and was happy to share.

Accordingly, I overrode their trepidation and took the disdain as a challenge. Even just in planning the menu, I often had to stop and take a moment. Every recipe is so much more than ingredients and quantities (especially since those are all just nebulous ideas anyway) — each recipe is of names and faces and stories. I was living outside a refugee camp in northern Kenya when I met Ethiopian food and the people who make it, and they are inseparable in my memory.

I know how to watch for yeasty bubbles to pop in the thin injera batter, showing it’s time to peel it off the hot skillet, because early one morning a young woman my age walked me through the steps. She didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Amharic, but she was an excellent and patient teacher. My kitchen these days doesn’t include a clay oven and a giant flat cast-iron, but I can’t make injera without remembering the smell of the charcoal fire and the tin teapot she used to drizzle out the batter.

I know that transliterating doro wat into simply “chicken stew” is almost a tragedy, because that just doesn’t prepare you for a stew like none other. Not only does the deep red of the long-simmered onions in hot pepper berbere catch my attention, but so will the instant flavor inferno in my mouth and stomach. Literal kilograms of hot pepper in the pot will do that. In between gasps for breath, I taste the undeniably delicious fall-off-the-bone chicken and signature hardboiled eggs; I can’t help but keep eating. This is the traditional feast reserved for only holidays and honored guests, and it’s rare to be able to prepare it in the camp. But there we were, being served doro.

I know brewing buna takes patience, because every time I asked my friend if the coffee was ready, she would emphatically observe, “Not yet!” The coffee ceremony is an integral ritual of Ethiopian culture, so much more than a shot of caffeine. No one takes coffee alone (which is probably good, because someone could have a heart attack with how strong it is). Starting with green coffee beans and going all the way through a triple-boil process, the process of enjoying buna is just that — a process to enjoy, something to share with others. Each round of successive almost-thick espresso brings people closer together, and the random popcorn is just another bonus.

I want to go on and describe how the earthy sweetness of cabbage is brought out in turmeric-y alicha wat, or how buttery and meaty tibs makes a day in the desert worth it, or how the pudding texture of spicy lentil shiro is so oddly delicious. The culinary aspects of those observations don’t necessarily mean anything to me; what I care about is the sweet shy smile of the lady who showed me where she prepared her distinct alicha, how lines of men shoveled in their trays of tibs on long low tables in silent acceptance of the awkward white people also eating there, how my hardworking cook friend served me shiro in a mini cast-iron pot on my birthday.

It is impossible for me to forget the flavors of the food, and it is impossible for me to forget the faces behind the food. The instantaneous beam of recognition from the work-worn coffee man every time we came into his shop. We would share a nod as he automatically began to pour out the milk for my untraditional mkiato no sukari (the typical dose of black espresso and sugar is close to lethal for me). Or the silent pain in the eyes of a woman who is one of the last refugees from her region, still waiting after 22 years of watching others being resettled. She prepared our most memorable meal in the camp as a farewell, but then we left to go back to our homes, and yet again, she still stayed. Or the innocent, undeveloped grins of a girl too small and young for her age, who will never receive the special help she needs, since there just aren’t extra resources when everyone is simply trying to survive. The camp is all she’s ever known; maybe it will always be.

Just from the little I’ve known of the camp, I feel like I could keep writing for days, trying to compile a photo album of all the faces that are stories that are lives. The snapshots of memories in my mind travel all the way into my heart each time, pain plus joy. I hear reggae and catch a waft of incense and see dust floors when I cook injera and wat, in an almost startlingly holistic emotional reaction to Ethiopian food.

Food isn’t just food; it’s relationships and community and culture. And when you catch even just a glimpse of those through a tangible medium, such as preparing and eating a meal together, you form this bit of a connection that makes the literal other side of the world not so far away after all. Geography and anthropology aren’t just school subjects anymore. Facts and figures and news clips become real.

The culture of food has something deep and real served up with it, something that lasts even longer than the five rounds of espresso. There isn’t always enough injera to go around, so everyone reaches in with their hands as they gather around the same tray, focusing as much on sharing and fellowship as on eating. When guests visit, they are treated with intense generosity, so hosts might just go without food for the next couple days.

My Ethiopian refugee friends live faith, because they have truly lost everything and maybe everyone they hold dear, and yet somehow they trust. They keep on cooking up stacks of spongy injera, stewing up pots of lentils, brewing up kettles of pitch-black buna. So do I, sharing with anyone who is willing to try.
But I went home after my time in the refugee camp. And they didn’t. Most of them never will.

“For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body … and if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it.” 1 Corinthians 12:13a, 26a.