It’s not often that we get to escape the comfort zone, that’s because it’s nice being comfortable. But once in a while, an opportunity arises that pushes you out into a world that’s very different from your own daily experience. Sarah Parfitt was fortunate enough to have one of these adventures when she went to Gende Tesfa in Eastern Ethiopia for a week. Her goal was to set up a community journalism project and a school link between Holy Trinity School here in Cookham and the Gende Tesfa School. It’s been 30 years since the famine in Ethiopia and Sarah has been doing a lot of fundraising for Partners for Change Ethiopia, a charity established to aid the 1984 crisis in Ethiopia.
Today’s post is about Sarah’s culinary experience in Ethiopia, this is a food blog after all. Considering the country was plunged into famine in recent history, it’s interesting to look at how and what the villagers are eating today and it gives us a chance to reflect and compare their eating habits to our own abundant, often wasteful ones. Sarah enjoyed the privilege of spending time in Gende Tesfa with a local family.
Sarah, can you describe meal time with an Ethiopian family?
Generally speaking you will sit on the floor, but if you are a guest you will be found something to sit on. Typically people live in one room and so it can be very cramped. Somebody will come round with a bowl and some water, they will pour it on your hands – sometimes there is soap. It is part of the ceremony of eating in Ethiopia. Then everybody shakes their hands dry – there aren’t any towels.People eat with their hands – most meals come with the Ethiopian version of bread called injera. It is like a spongy pancake – made with a grain that is only grown in Ethiopia called teff. It is highly nutritious and normally served flat on a big round dish. On top of the injera they serve different types of stews, usually lamb or beef but most people can’t afford meat so they have a lentil stew. People will then tear off bits of the pancake and make little parcels with the sauce and pop it into their mouths.
Everybody shares the from the same plate, helping themselves to more of the pancake (if there is any) which is placed on the side of the main dish in fat little rolls. If you are a guest and have stopped eating the hosts will force feed you saying ‘gursha’ as they push injera and sauce into your mouth!
What were some of the more confronting elements of eating in Ethiopia?
It is very difficult sometimes because when you visit a house (which is normally a one room shack) people insist on offering you food. You know they don’t have much and feel terrible taking what little they have, but you cannot offend them by refusing. It’s a humbling experience and a lesson in generosity we can all learn from.
Hygiene can be challenging. Most people don’t have running water and the water they do have may not be totally clean. Ethiopian digestion has adapted to this and they have a higher tolerance but foreigners can experience real stomach problems. But it’s a risk you take in order not to cause offence.
What were some of the most memorable eating experiences from your trip?
The first day I was invited to go to the Chicken House in Dire Dawa with a colleague from PFC Ethiopia. It’s a very popular place in the heart of the city which was buzzing with tuk-tuk drivers. Opposite is the Chicken House is an Ethiopian Orthodox Church where local people chew on khat, a local plant stimulant.
My colleague bought me two chickens. I noticed some feathers flying around and he told me that all the birds were killed on site.
I also had the most amazing night with one of the PFC Ethiopia community volunteers called Selam – she is one of our case studies for the community journalism project. She cooked injera and a bean dish for me, and then organised an Ethiopian coffee ceremony for me (which included popcorn!) and invited friends and family around – it was amazing. I felt very privileged. I spent the night in her home. Even when people have nothing, they give it away…True Ethiopian hospitality, very special indeed.
Can you describe some of the flavours and textures of the food?
Ethiopian food is distinctive. Injera is unlike any other food – and for some people it takes some getting used to. The ground teff is fermented for three days in water and so the taste is a bit sour like sourdough. The texture is odd and a bit spongy and the gray colour can be a bit off-putting for some. Ethiopians are mad for it and it’s a huge part of their culture.
The sauces are normally spicy – most have berbere in them which is a combination of ground chillies, garlic, ginger, basil, korarima, rue, ajwain or radhuni, nigella, and fenugreek. You can smell berbere as soon as you get off the plane when you arrive in Ethiopia. Berbere and roasting coffee are the smells of Ethiopia and accompany you wherever you travel in the country.
If you’re curious about the sound of Ethiopia, listen to Haymanot Tesfa sing. Haymanot is an Ethiopian born artist who performs regularly in London to promote cultural awareness and supporting PFC. She sang recently in the House of Commons for a PFC event which Sarah also attended.
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