Eating

posted in: Life in Ethiopia | 1

As in many countries, there is a lively street food culture, with women sitting on the side of the pavement, preparing snack foods – roasted corn, various grains, a sort of samosa filled with lentils, even chips (though it does seem somewhat incongruous to see a small electric deep-fat fryer on a crate, sizzling away.)  I am not even slightly tempted by such offerings (and all the more so when I saw one woman spit into the pan to see if it was hot enough), though I did try one of the samosas from a bakery – tasty enough, though with a harder shell than its Indian cousin.

But it is Ethiopia’s signature dish that rightly takes prominent place in a discussion of its food.  This is enjira, a sort of large pancake (though with lots of tiny air bubbles within it, so I guess prepared with some form of rising agent.)  It is the major staple, to accompany a wide range of other foods.  Sometimes it covers the entire plate, with small piles of other dishes on top (though one of the tastiest is sometimes the only accompaniment, a sort of pea and bean puree) and sometimes a pair of enjira, one brown, one white, are rolled and laid at the side.  The accompanying dishes are most varied – as well as the puree, it can be spicy mince, like a spicy Bolognese; curried potato; spinach; hard-boiled eggs in a sauce; quite commonly a small pile of spaghetti, topped with a sauce.

Enjira

But it is not the what so much as the why that makes it so special and distinctive.  First of all, it is virtually always eaten communally, one huge plate served to a group of people (and if the group is too large, then more such plates are brought out).  Mealtimes are important social occasions, and the idea of eating alone, unless by force of necessity, horrifies them.

The other vital aspect is that it is eaten with the hands.  Or rather hand.  The right hand is for eating, and it is very bad manners to allow one’s left hand to touch the food.  One tears off a piece of enjira – it takes a bit of practice to learn how to do this with only one hand, and then, with it sitting between your first four fingers in a sort of claw, you make a sort of parcel of one’s chosen filling, but taking time to turn and shape it, before popping it into your mouth.

Ethiopians are not alone in using their hands to eat, of course, and it certainly encourages a more intimate and physical connection with one’s food.  Our South African/Indian friend Egan took care to demonstrate how to go through a similar process of turning and shaping a mixture of rice and vegetables to make a ball, before lifting it to one’s mouth – it is the tactile experience which is almost as important as the food itself.  And one of the most memorable meals our family has enjoyed was when we were invited to share a traditional African braai, about ten of us standing around a high table, reaching and sharing and talking and laughing, and not an implement in sight.

What all of these cultures share is the importance of washing your hands in advance, and in Addis, even the humblest street-side café has a bowl of water with a tap, to ensure your hands are clean before you start.  (And in fancier places, such as Yod Abyssinia, waiters bring a kettle of warm water to the table.)  Of course, in Western countries too, there are many foods which are eaten with the hands – sandwiches, hamburgers, pizza, party food – but I am sure we are nothing like as fastidious about ensuring our hands are clean first.

We provide lunch for the cast at the end of the rehearsal, which is prepared on site – the film school has its own kitchen.  Or rather cupboard, for really it is not much bigger.  And from this the two women produce an astonishing amount of enjira with accompanying dishes, a succession of huge plates emerging (as well as coffee and snacks at other times.)  I am always invited to share the food with them, but mostly I decline, as politely as I can; it is too large a meal for me at that time, I am usually pretty exhausted after the rehearsal, and, in truth, I am not so very fond of enjira, which I find to be somewhat tasteless edible wrapping, and a bit stodgy.  But on one occasion when I did join them, I was introduced to one other aspect of Ethiopian food culture that I found rather astonishing, and which I have never encountered before, which is to be fed by someone else, quite literally to have a ball of food popped into one’s mouth.  A bit too intimate for me, to be honest, and providing a rather larger mouthful than I would have chosen for myself.

But in other ways, I do think that actually connecting with one’s food by handling it is something I appreciate and enjoy.  Knives and forks (and for that matter chopsticks) are a way of distancing you, of getting food into one’s body in an almost clinical manner (and isn’t eating fish and chips out of the wrapping far superior to having it on a plate?)  Though whether I’ll extend the same principle to the Sunday roast is a moot point.

  1. Pamela Blair

    Interesting commentary, Chris. I remember enjira as resembling a thin piece of foam rubber, and about as tasty (although I think it’s made from one of the oldest grains in existence, whose name I forget at the moment.) I remember being taught how to eat ugali, the maize staple the consistency of thick mashed potatoes–one reaches in with the (right hand) fingers cupped in such a way to pick up the ugali, then it’s dipped in a sauce. I like your idea of the food feeling more intimate when eaten with one’s fingers, although it doesn’t seem so when it’s a sandwich, french fry or hamburger. I wonder what the difference is.

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