Detour: Ethiopia


Rather than heading for the first of the “B” countries, the Bahamas, we took a detour to Ethiopia this weekend. Here in the Boston area, we’re lucky to have quite a few Ethiopian restaurants that we could pretty much go to anytime, but we found out that an Ethiopian-American pop group, Debo Band, was playing at Harvard University this Saturday, so globetrotting to Ethiopia made perfect sense.

I also like to think that visiting Ethiopia this weekend was appropriate because Derek and I had Ethiopian food together on our second date, and this is the final globetrotting weekend we’ll be able to do before we get married in less than two weeks. In a way, we’ve come full circle.

But more about Ethiopia: its roots can be traced far, far back–in fact, the earliest modern human remains were found there. The East African nation is very ethnically diverse, with about 80 ethnic groups, is the most populous land-locked country in the world, and is the second most-populated country in Africa. It was the second country to adopt Christianity as its state religion (you might remember that we already found out that Armenia was the first). Coffee drinkers may be interested to know that their beloved bean’s origins are in Ethiopia.


The first recipe I made this weekend wasn’t an actual dish, but a spice blend that is distinctively Ethiopian: berbere.  All the chile powder triggered some sneezing as I whisked together the spices, but it was a very minor globetrotting hazard.

We got to use the berbere in our very first Ethiopian dish of the weekend, chechebsa, also known as kita fir fir. Chechebsa is essentially a dish of shredded flat bread lightly fried in a mix of melted butter and berbere. That might sound a little strange, but it was delicious. We ate it with some yogurt and honey, both of which helped balance out the spiciness of the chechebsa.

Those of you who are at least somewhat familiar with Ethiopian food might be wondering about the spoon in this picture. While a lot of Ethiopian dishes are eaten directly with your hands, chechebsa is one dish with which you’d use an utensil.


Next up was preparing injera, another type of flatbread, which is a staple of many Ethiopian meals. Traditionally injera is made from teff flour (which is actually gluten-free), but I decided on a recipe that only called for the more common flours we already had on hand. I knew this would mean that our bread wouldn’t be authentic, but maybe the frugal cooks out there will understand. Here’s a picture of the batter:


The trouble was, even after letting the batter rest an hour, the batter pretty much looked the same, even though the recipe stated that the batter should have risen and taken on a “stretchy” consistency. We let the batter rest some more, while I worked on the two dishes we would eat with the injera, tikil gomen, a dish of spiced cabbage, potatoes and carrots, and misir wat, a red lentil stew.

The injera batter hadn’t changed when I returned to it, but I decided to try cooking it anyway. It actually turned out quite well! Here’s our lunch spread:


We did eat this meal with our hands, using the injera to scoop up tikil gomen and misir wat. While the injera lacked the characteristic tang that teff flour gives the bread, we were otherwise happy with our homemade meal.

After all the cooking, eating and cleaning up, we were more than happy to sit back and watch a short video called “Ethiopia: The Cradle of Mankind,” produced by Ethiopia’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism. The video led us through Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, in addition to the country’s natural landscapes and many historic sites.

We also spent part of the afternoon napping. I can’t find any evidence that Ethiopians take afternoon siestas, but I guess we were both just worn out from the week. After eating some leftovers for dinner, we were feeling refreshed for our evening activity, the Debo Band performance.

Sanders Theatre at Harvard University is quite grand, with lots of dark carved wood, a domed ceiling, Latin inscriptions, and two marble statues flanking the stage. Some might think it a bit stuffy, but Debo Band livened the theatre up with its energetic set, a mix of Ethiopian songs, original compositions, and even a Duke Ellington piece and an Okinawan folk song. The band encouraged people to clap along to the music, and get up and dance. You can see members of the audience congregating near the front of the stage here:


While we couldn’t (understandably) film any portion of the show, here’s Debo Band performing live on the TEDxBoston stage in 2013, which Derek also attended:

We started Sunday by making some more chechebsa for breakfast. After a few household chores, we headed to Jamaica Plain to have lunch at Blue Nile, a cozy Ethiopian eatery. To get a good sampling of dishes, we shared a vegetarian combination platter for two, with kinche (cracked wheat with herbed butter), gomen wat (collard greens), yekik alicha (yellow split peas), yatakilt wat (carrots and string beans), and of course, injera.


When Ethiopians eat with family and/or friends, it’s customary to feed others in the group by tearing off a strip of injera, rolling up some of the vegetables/meat in it, and then putting the piece in another person’s mouth. Ethiopians call this gursha, and the size of the piece is indicative of the friendship/bond between the two people (so, larger = better). Derek caught me off guard not once, but twice, this weekend–once at home, and the second time at Blue Nile–by holding out a generous portion of injera and vegetables in his hand. Both times, I had been rolling out a small piece of injera with vegetable for myself, so I had to reciprocate with my rather stingy helping. Is it obvious who’s getting the better end of the deal in our marriage?

Everything on the platter was delicious, and we felt very satisfied when we finished. To conclude our meal, I ordered a coffee, which was brewed to order. Derek was hoping to try some of the restaurant’s tej, or honey wine, but they were out, so he had a cup of coffee as well.

IMG_1486We’re not coffee connoisseurs, so I can’t wax idyllic about the virtues of Ethiopian coffee, but it seemed good to us. Since we were very full after lunch, we took a walk around Jamaica Pond, part of the Emerald Necklace of parks designed by Frederick Law Olmsted (who designed many parks and academic campuses, including New York City’s Central Park).

Back at home, we worked on some wedding-related projects, and then had some more of our homemade injera, tikil gomen and misir wat. After dinner, we watched the documentary A Walk to Beautiful, which follows three young women suffering from obstetric fistula (and social rejection by their husbands, families and larger communities) who leave their homes in rural Ethiopia to seek treatment at a special hospital in Addis Ababa. It was heartbreaking to hear the stories of these women, all of whom are younger than me, and the physical discomfort and humiliation they’ve endured. But ultimately, the film ends on a hopeful note, since the condition is treatable, and once treated, women can reclaim their lives.

Ending our globetrotting weekend on this note is a sobering reminder that while there’s much to celebrate about Ethiopian culture–or any culture, really–such as its art and music, rich history, and delicious food, there’s also a darker side that we can’t ignore.

We won’t be globetrotting for at least a few more weekends, but the Bahamas seems like an ideal place for a “honeymoon” globetrot!

– Jess

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