Sunday, March 18, 2007

Eating in Addis

I loved this article in The New York Times today about restaurants in Ethiopia. If you want to know more about traditional Ethiopian food this is a great place to start.

This is a country that serves up grass-fed beef and organic vegetables by default. There are no trendy macro-organic-vegan movements; rather, the livestock graze in open fields because there are no factory farms, and vegetables are rarely treated with pesticides because farmers can’t afford the chemicals. Going there is a step back in time, literally — Ethiopians follow a version of the Julian calendar, so the year is 1999, and Ethiopia will have its millennium celebration on Sept. 12.

On a trip to Addis Ababa last year, I became increasingly intrigued with the cuisine. Everywhere — from dingy streets to polished hotels — I saw people of every age, class and occupation eating the same food and embracing the same traditions. The food is a source of national pride, and a daily reminder of this country’s history.

There are no appetizers or desserts in Ethiopia. Chefs do not craft menus to whet the appetite with an amuse bouche. Food has a primal role: to be filling, nutritious and packed with as much flavor as possible, whether it’s spicy chickpea hummus with caramelized onions, or grilled chicken dripping with a sweet yogurt sauce.

Even at the city’s handful of high-end restaurants (the ones with table service and uniformed servers), there is an unspoken obligation to provide true sustenance. This is a country, after all, that suffered some of the worst famines of recent decades.

And at the heart of every Ethiopian meal is injera. Basically a pancake — or more accurately, a really, really big pancake — injera is made from tef, a sour-wheat-like grain that is mixed with cool water and a pinch of yeast. But unlike a pancake, it isn’t flipped over, so the topside remains spongy, the better to sop up the vegetables and meat in the saucelike wat (sometimes spelled wot or wett) that is ladled on top. In a country where utensils are scarce, injera is not only your dinner plate, it’s also your knife, fork, spoon and sometimes napkin.

When a platter of injera arrives at the table, covered in dips of fresh, locally grown vegetables and farm-raised meats, it is immediately torn apart by everyone within arm’s reach. The ritual is as much about silent gratitude for what the land has offered, as it is about digging into a great meal.
I can't wait to get over there and experience all this for myself! Well, except for the raw beef part...

I promise to post about how our cultural diversity event went sometime tomorrow. It has been a busy weekend and I haven't had time to sit down and hash out my impressions yet. Hopefully I'll have some free time in the morning. When Z-Man is out of town time to blog becomes a precious commodity!