Preface by Daniel Jote Mesfin
This cookbook is by no means exhaustive. But I hope it will offer a taste of Ethiopia and give a true meaning to the adage "variety is the spice of life" by virtue of its cultural diversity. Being ancient may not be a qualification per se or even flattering at times, but in Ethiopia's case it is. Longevity and continuity of values have produced a unique cultural pattern and an enigmatic mentality that have not ceased to fascinate and intrigue the most intrepid observers since time immemorial.
Gibbon's contention that the "Abyssinians slept a thousand years forgetful of the world by whom they were forgotten" does not hold water since our introversion did much to develop a per-sonality all our own. And the geography-our mountain fastness and the hostile lowlands-which Gibbons scorned for our millenia of slumber thankfully acted as the concrete that strength ened that personality. It also determined our history and lifestyle.
The world's major religions-Judaism, Christianity and Islam-homed in on the mystery that was Ethiopia. They blended to form a cultural pattern unparalleled anywhere in a manner that literally projects a reflection of the social and religious history of the ancient world. Hence, our strict observance of their taboos in our dietary habits. Reason why you will find nowhere in this book any recipe for a pork dish. You will discover, however, a rich variety of vegetarian recipes-all our women's pride and diners' delight.
Our culinary art and food habits make a delicious part of our cultural mosaic in the same way our traditional costumes mani- fest that culture in a rhapsody of colors. Their significance goes beyond the chore of cooking and the routine of eating. So much so that they have attained artistic heights and created their own value judgement.
Cooking demands unbridled imagination as eating commands a delicate style. Unlike the Western individual table manners, ours reflect our communal dining traditions. People eat from a common platter and the pace of taking in food is more or less uniform. Even a hungry stomach respects the speed limit. And though food is eaten with the hand-the right hand-licking one's fingers is frowned upon.
Feeding a guest by placing big chunks of food into his or her mouth is a mark of honor or affection. This is done with the accompanying remark that feeding just once causes a rift, twice endears, the third time round leads to argument.
Although this sounds quaint, it is symbolic. If you feed your guest once and don't do it again, you are acting the miser. The recipient does not argue. The second time, he or she says that is enough. The hostess insists. The third time the guest and hostess insist. Don't ever imagine meal time is fighting time. On the contrary, it is a game. The hostess must display her hospitality at all times. And the guest must never act like a glutton or one who has nothing to eat at home.
An Ethiopian man is always the diner; never the cook. The kitchen is off-limits to him. His woman doubles up as cook, servant and waitress. In a childless household, she washes her husband's feet and brings him a vessel and water pot for him to wash his hand before touching food. Washing hands before a meal is a must. The lady of the house only promotes herself to chef if she can afford domestic help or has a daughter.
A woman worth her salt values her cooking no less than her looks. In fact, she is more partial to her cooking because she is socially judged by it: an unaccomplished woman makes her husband a laughing stock. Her honor, therefore, depends on her standing in society. It is also a matter of honor and duty that she creates her daughter in her own image-a good cook housewife and mother. That attribute and her virginity make her a prize catch for a suitor. In this catalogue of virtues, good conduct, pleasant character and respectability are plus points. For, as our saying goes, a good wife is her husband's crown.
It is such women who invented these recipes that made Ethiopian cooking distinctive. But you must be forwarned that cooking is individual. No two women-even mother and daughter-never cook a dish the same way. For it is done by instinct. This book has provided measurements to make your venture easy. With time, you will learn to cook by instinct, too. That is when you will occupy a place of distinction among Ethiopian women regardless of your nationality, race or creed. And to bring you to that goal we have transliterated Ethiopian names and words as near to the way we pronounce them as possible.
This is your baptism of fire. Surprise your family or friends with no further ado. Feast them with dishes some of which date back to the time of the Queen of Sheba.
Ethiopian food is like the Ethiopians themselves: spicy, subtle, piquant and most of all, unforgettable. The variety is astonishing. Are you a vegetarian? So are mil- lions of Coptic Christian Ethiopians, for some 200 days a year. To meet the need, their ancient culture produced and refined scores of vegetarian dishes with great delicacy of flavorings. Are you a carnivore? An Ethiopian meal might lead you to think you were already in heaven. Beef cooked and beef raw, beef cubed and beef ground, beef marinated in a fiery red pepper sauce with more flavors blended in than the most sophisticated foreign palate can identify, beef stewed in a sauce that can make you sweat or make you sing, or both. And lamb. And goat. But no pork, which is avoided by both Ethiopian Moslems and Christians.
And of course chicken, too, is probably the most widely known Ethiopian dish of all: doro we't (chicken in sauce). A festive meal without a richly flavored doro we't, and a hardboiled egg or two steeped in that extraordinary we't is practically a contradiction in terms. And complementing the vital flavors of the we't with its red pepper base and its original (every cook has her secrets) blend of spices and herbs, is the slightly sour injera, a pancake crepe that is eaten even as it serves as fork, spoon and knife. The contrast between the spicy we't and the sensible injera is high culinary art. Why is Ethiopian food so delicious? And if it really is so, why isn't it better known?
To talk about Ethiopian cuisine, it is necessary to talk about Ethiopia. Except during tragic droughts, such as the past twelve years-the highlands of Ethiopia receive a heavy rainfall-so heavy, in fact that since the dawn of time the Nile has been overflowing in Egypt, thousands of miles away, with the runoff from the well-soaked highlands.
The normally plentiful rainfall, and the wonderfully temperate climate of those plateaus so near the equator but over a mile high, have always been hospitable to growing things, plant and animal. Cattle, sheep and goats have thrived for thousands of years beyond the reach of the tse-tse· and other tropical scourges. Grains and vegetables ripen after every rainy season. Sometimes there are Small Rains as well as Big Rains, and then the earth is even more bountiful.
Although most Ethiopians live on the plateau where the air sparkles and braces, there are mountains to 15,000 feet and deserts below sea level, and a river gorge that can swallow up the entire Grand Canyon (deeper and wider). The variety of plants that grow in these habitats, and the zones in between, is
so great that Ethiopia is recognized as one of the few remaining treasure houses of plant genes in the world. Thousands of years ago, the Ethiopians realized that they lived in one of Nature's finest spice gardens. Seizing the opportunity, they invented, and have steadily perfected, the blends of spices that linger in the mind long after they have faded from the tongue.
A favored climate and Nature's bounty partly explain the richness of Ethiopia's cuisine. But another ingredient is the time not just a century or two, but ten, fifteen, even twenty centuries-required for traditions to mature, to absorb the influences of neighboring cultures across the surrounding Red Sea and desert barriers, while remaining unquestionably Ethiopian. Regional variations reflect local crops and other influences, but over the, centuries a national cuisine has emerged.
Why has Ethiopian cooking remained a well-kept secret? Perhaps it is because Ethiopia, the Abyssinia of earlier times, has had so little contact with any but its neighbors. Marco Polo never visited (though Vasco de Gama's son did, and is buried there). Perhaps it is because most of Ethiopia was never colonized,
merely occupied by the Italian fascists for a few years, and so was never brought into intimate relations with a world power. Perhaps it is because nowhere else could one find a.matchinq natural spice shelf, or the favored grain (t'ef) for the injera, which grows best at high elevations.
Even now, it is the Ethiopians themselves, who wouldn't dream of leaving their cooking behind, who are bringing it to us. In cities across the United States, Ethiopian restaurants now serve the growing numbers of refugees who have escaped a brutal and dogmatic regime. The few Americans who have been to Ethiopia can't believe their good luck when an Ethiopian restaurant opens nearby. A few adventurous others wander in, intrigued. A few more are brought by Ethiopian friends. And so it grows. Once hooked, it's for life.Much more could be written. About a cuisine that developed completely without sugar, and that traditionally put salt in its coffee. About a country where coffee trees still grow wild, and where they probably grew first in a province called Kefa. About a country where feeding one's guests is taken literally: a host or hostess will take a piece of injera, wrap it around the choicest morsels and put the whole parcel, a care package if ever there was one, into the guest's mouth.
But all this would put off the feast, and we've waited too long already. So turn the page, find your favorites in the table of contents, and get busy.