Believe it or not, until tonight I have never tried my hand at cooking Ethiopian food. There are a number of reasons for this. First, when we got home from Ethiopia we were rather overwhelmed with life in general, and new recipes were not at the top of my "to do" list. Also, Y and MJ had no trouble adjusting to our American diet; they ate everything we put in front of them, and lots of it, so I didn't feel the need to prepare foods that were more familiar to them. Finally, we were less than enthusiastic about our experience with Ethiopian food while we were there (except for our breakfasts, which were cooked at the guest house where we stayed and offered fluffy french toast every single morning). Almost everything we ate in Ethiopia looked, smelled, and tasted pretty much the same. Actually, we came home feeling as though not just the food but everything in Ethiopian smelled the same to us. It was the smell of berbere, an Ethiopian spice that seemed to us to permeate everything in Addis Ababa. Even the money smelled like berbere (you can still smell it on the bills we brought home for the children). On our first day in Ethiopia the smell seemed exotic and intriguing. By the time we were departing for home it seemed cloying and clinging and not very appetizing anymore.
Fast forward about a year to our visit to an Ethiopian restaurant (about a month ago). We all loved it. All eight of us scraped the plates and downed every crumb of injera (Ethiopian flat bread, which is served with every meal). As I look back, all but two of the meals we ate in Ethiopia were what I now somewhat affectionately refer to as "street food". We were not allowed to go out of our guest house with Y and MJ, so most of our meals were ordered from the same mysterious vendor who, upon receiving a phone call from our guest house, would rush there on foot with a menu and take our order. The menu included several Ethiopian dishes, along with spaghetti and ravioli. We would place our order, and the man would disappear, then reappear shortly with our dinner, which always included large portions of injera. We quickly discovered that "spaghetti" and "ravioli" were code names for pasta covered in some sort of berbere flavored paste. We could also order pizza, which tasted remarkably similar to the spaghetti and ravioli, except the berbere paste came on a pizza crust, and was accompanied by little packets of some spice which we found to be painfully hot. Jim bravely attempted to order an Ethiopian dish from the vendor one night. It was called Beef Firfir. He still doesn't like to talk about it. This all sounds as if we have a very negative opinion of Ethiopian food, but I'm just saying that in retrospect we've realized that most of what we ate there wasn't very good Ethiopian food. We did have two wonderful meals while in Ethiopia, both at authentic Ethiopian restaurants, but unfortunately it was the "street food" which left a strong impression. (Y and MJ didn't mind it a bit, I must say; more than once MJ put away a man-sized portion of "Ethiopian ravioli.") Oh, and Jim wants me to point out that we never had a bad cup of coffee while in Ethiopia (though I learned the hard way that you do have to specify that you want sugar when you order a mocha latte from Kaldi's, the Ethiopian version of Starbucks).
When we brought Y and MJ home, we also brought a large bag of...berbere. It has remained in our pantry for 13 months, tightly sealed in a freezer bag so as not to permeate all of our food with the smell. So finally this week I decided to try cooking with it. I found a recipe for "Ethiopian Sloppy Joes", an adaptation of a dish called Dinish Wat. And when I opened the bag of berbere, I really did flash right back to the first day in Ethiopia, when that smell was exotic and intriguing. (And I longed, as I have many, many times over the past 13 months, to be there and experience beautiful Ethiopia all over again. But that's another story.) I started preparing dinner, and while it was cooking I had to make a run to the grocery store and left R tending the pot. When I came home and opened the front door, the whole house smelled of berbere, and I froze in the doorway because I was overwhelmed with the pleasure of it. It's amazing how smells can spark memories and emotions. And how time can allow lovely memories to overcome the difficult ones. I was so excited to put that food in front of MJ, knowing how much she would relish it, and I wasn't disappointed. It's been awhile since she's eaten a man-sized portion of anything, but she did it tonight. Actually, everyone loved it. I'm even claiming medicinal qualities for this dish, because Jim has a bad cold and the berbere cleared his sinuses right up.
The next time I go to Ethiopia (can you hear a prayer in there?), I'm going to relish the Ethiopian food. Even if it's "berbere ravioli." I'm going to appreciate it...value it...enjoy it.
Meanwhile, here's a shot of our "Americanized" Dinish Wat:
And here's a link to recipe:
Ethiopian Sloppy Joes
But if you want it to be really good, you're going to need some of this:
And I'm not sure if I'm willing to share mine. I checked, though, and you can order yourself some on Amazon. Enjoy.