One of the most interesting cultural experiences in a new county is THE FOOD! And in Ethiopia the local cuisine is surprisingly different and unique tasting. The staple food of the Ethiopian people has been called:
- a pancake (the size of a tyre!)
- a sour crepe bandage
- a pale chamois cloth
- a hand towel
- a serviette
But however unusual the look, and indeed the taste, you have to learn about it and then give it a try!
Injeera (as this staple dish is called) is made from a grain unique to Ethiopia and is called TEFF, an ancient grass! It is apparently the smallest grain in the world (teeny tiny) but packs a powerful punch in terms of its nutritional value. Although only grown in Ethiopia, news of TEFF and injeera is spreading to the west due to the fact that it is gluten-free!
The “bread” is made by fermenting the grain for a short period (around 3 days). It is then made into a pourable paste and then cooked over coals on a large and very hot flat iron pan, usually greased by using cabbage seeds! A small amount is poured quickly, in a circular motion on the large, round, hot iron pan. This is then quickly covered with a clay lid until steam is seen to be coming out of the sides. Then you flip this large round hot, steaming, fermented pancake over. It is spongy/bubbly/holey on the one side and then flat and smooth on the other. It is best eaten fresh, although it can be eaten up to 3 days later if stored carefully. Injeera can be baked at home or bought fresh daily from local stores.
AND THE SAUCES:
Once the injeera is ready, one of these is usually layed open on an equally large round platter, holey-side up! On top of this “table-cloth” of injeera is then poured the various small bowls of sauces (wat) that have been selected. Most of these “wat” sauces will be spicy: Ethiopians love the spicy foods! They can be mild (made from lentils, or vegetables) or with meat (lamb or beef). One of our favorites was Shiro (made from chick peas, buttery with a hint of spice).
AND THE UNTENSILS:
The injeera bread becomes the eating utensil as well. In addition to the round table-cloth injeera, you will be given other portions of injeera to use as well. With either, you will tear off a small bite-size portion, throw it bubbly-side down onto the food you want, wrap it around the food in one swoop directly into your mouth! It takes a bit of practice but just watch a local person for a few mouthfuls and you should be ready to try yourself.
AN INTERESTING CUSTOM:
We discovered an interesting sign of friendship: if an Ethiopian makes a little swoop with injeera onto some sauce and then leans across to you placing the food near your lips, open up and eat it! It is a sign of hospitality, friendship and respect. If you are brave enough, you can attempt to reciprocate!
So don’t be scared of the food: it looks weird, but roll up your sleeves, tear away at the injeera, scoop up the sauce, pop into your mouth and savor the surprising rich and spicy taste of Ethiopia’s food: I guarantee you will order more!
(And in case the injure does not grab your taste, there is usually rice available and some yummy fresh bread… but at least try once!!)