Nestled in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia is steeped in history, spirituality and symbolism. It's also home to a nation that prides itself on its warm hospitality and hearty cuisine. TASTE's Annette Klinger reports on a trip of a lifetime.
1 BLAST FROM THE PAST
The often-told quip that a holiday in Ethiopia will make the visitor feel seven years younger is certainly a drawcard. But what’s the origin of this remark?
Simply put, Ethiopia’s calendar is seven years and eight months behind our Western Gregorian calendar between September and December, and eight years and four months between January and August.
Here, the year is divided into 13 months, the first 12 all having 30 days, and the last month, Pwagme, having five. Christmas is celebrated on 7 January and New Year’s Day on 11 September.
As if all of this isn’t confusing enough, Ethiopia’s midnight only starts at sunrise, which means that when it’s 7 am in the rest of East Africa, it’s only 1 am in Ethiopia.
2 SPICE SPICE BABY
Saddle-bagged donkeys, gambolling goats and sporadically hooting cobalt-blue taxis are some of the common sights you’ll see at Addis Ababa’s frenetic merkato, purportedly Africa’s largest open-air marketplace.
Standing cheekby- jowl, stalls purvey everything from coffee and clothes to incense and perishables, but it’s the hessian sacks brimming with spices that will set most foodies’ hearts aflutter.
Deep-red dried chillies as large as your hands, big, brown pods of Ethiopian cardamom, gnarly knobs of ginger, delicately aromatic koseret leaves, pungent powdered garlic and ochre-hued turmeric are some of the most frequently used spices in local households and abound here by the bagful.
3 DAILY INJERA
An integral part of Ethiopians’ daily diet, injera are large, pancake-like flatbreads that have a slightly sour taste. Their surface is characterised by huge bubbles that form during the fermentation of the teff flour-andwater mixture used to make the batter for the breads.
During the course of a meal, pieces of the spongy injera are broken off with the right hand and used to scoop up its accompanying sides. Injera are also used as edible “plates” to soak up the juices of the various tiny mounds of stews piled on top of them, and are eaten at the end of the meal.
4 TO MOCHA WITH LOVE
When visiting an Ethiopian household, chances are you’ll be invited to stay for a traditional coffee ceremony. The ritual, often involving the burning of heady incense, sees green coffee beans being roasted in a castiron pan over a brazier, before they’re ground and brewed in a traditional earthenware jebena (coffee pot) over a bowl of coals.
The coffee, or bunna, as it is locally named, is served black in tiny, bowl-shaped cups called cini, and it is generally considered bad form to leave before drinking at least three cups. If time is of the essence, however, and you prefer to grab your coffee on the hoof, the 50-year-old Addis Ababa coffee shop Tomoca (www.tomocacoffee.com) will give you your caffeine fix, pronto.
5 WOT'S UP
Wot is an umbrella term used for a variety of spicy sauces and stews in Ethiopia and is always accompanied by injera at meals. The base ingredient of all wots is nitter kibeh – a clarified butter flavoured with garlic, onion and spices such as turmeric, ginger and cardamom – but they may contain anything from lentils or split peas to chicken or lamb.
Stews like defin misir wot (brown lentil stew), doro wot (chicken stew) and kai sega wot (beef stew) contain spicy berbere, but if the dish’s name features the word “alicha”, it will be milder and mainly flavoured with turmeric.
Examples of tamer stews include ater kik alicha (split-pea stew), doro alicha wot (chicken stew) and yebeg alicha wot (lamb stew).
6 VIVA ITALIA
Along with Liberia, Ethiopia is one of the only two countries in Africa that has never been colonised.
It wasn’t for Italy’s lack of trying though, as this nation tried to colonise Ethiopia in 1896 and then occupied it between 1936 and 1941 before finally giving up the ghost.
Not surprisingly, there are still some Italian influences visible today: on top of enjoying strong black cups of bunna, urban Ethiopians also love a good macchiato (made in espresso machines imported from Italy), and most Ethiopian restaurants have some sort of Italian offering on the menu.
One Addis Ababa restaurant dedicated solely to Italian cuisine is the famous Ristorante Castelli (Mahatma Gandhi Street, Addis Ababa; tel: +251 1 563 580), which is still going strong after it was first opened by Italian soldier Francesco Castelli in 1948.
Well known for its colourful antipasti platter and delicious handmade fettuccini with truffle sauce, the stalwart has been graced by the likes of Brad Pitt and Bill Clinton, and was hailed by Sir Bob Geldof as the best Italian restaurant in the world.
7 SWEET THING
Tej is a particularly potent local honey wine that is made by fermenting honey, water and the twigs of the gesho plant, a species of buckthorn that’s endemic to Ethiopia and imparts a slightly bitter taste to the drink.
Although many households make their own tej, there are several commercial brands on the market. In fact, the drink is so widely consumed, there are tej betochs (houses), where the amber liquid is served in long-necked glass berele (decanters) and quaffers can be seen toasting their health with ebullient exclamations of “Letenachin!”
Another local tipple that packs quite a wallop is the sweet and aromatic rose-hued gibto areke, which is made from fermented gibto beans and is believed to have myriad healthboosting properties.
8 BERBERE, DONE THAT
Whether it’s shop-bought or made from scratch, every Ethiopian household’s kitchen cupboard is always well-stocked with berbere, a local spice mixture used to add zing (and a distinctive dark-red hue) to everything from sauces to traditional stews.
Here is a quick recipe for berbere if you'd like to make your own at home
Although recipes vary, the main ingredients are usually ground dried chilli, garlic, fenugreek, ginger, cloves and cardamom. Berbere enjoys a starring role in an especially delicious fiery dip called awaze, which is made with berbere, vegetable oil and red wine, and is often served as a condiment with injera and wot.
9 HIGH DAYS AND HOLIDAYS
The dominant religion in Ethiopia is Orthodox Christianity, the devotees of which spend approximately 180 days a year fasting. During the fast, no meat, fat, eggs or dairy may be consumed and people may only eat after 3 pm.
Forgoing meat and dairy means getting creative with vegetables and pulses, which is something the Ethiopians do with aplomb.
One of the most popular dishes enjoyed during the fasting period is shiro, a chickpea flour, tomato and onion stew, imbued with the aromatic flavours of garlic, ginger, cardamom, turmeric and berbere, which is best mopped up with pieces of spongy injera.
10 VIEW FROM THE TOP
The small rural outpost of Lalibela is most famous for its mammoth rock-hewn churches that date back to roughly the 13th century. According to folklore, the churches were completed within a mere 25 years, with the help of a host of angels and, once you clap eyes on these colossal, intricately carved structures, you could well believe in this alleged celestial intervention.
The mountainous surrounds are truly breathtaking and offer several vantage points from where visitors can appreciate the beauty of the landscape. One such spot is Ben Ababa Restaurant, housed in a rather peculiarly designed, conical building atop a hill called Chula Mba.
Order an ice-cold local St George’s beer and fuel up on traditional injera (foodies keen to make their own can learn how at the daily demos that happen at 11 am) and spicy wot as you take in the awe-inspiring view.
WATCH TASTE'S JAN RAS' VIDEO HIGHLIGHTS OF HIS TRIP TO ETHIOPIA WITH WRITER ANNETTE KLINGER
Featured in the video is owner Senait Mekonnen of Addis in Cape Ethiopian restaurant in Cape Town.
EXCLUSIVE OFFER FOR TASTE READERS
The TASTE team flew to Ethiopia courtesy of Ethiopian Airlines (www.flyethiopian.com) and the Ethiopian Embassy (www.ethiopia.visahq.com) and Kuriftu Resorts (www.kurifturesortspa.com).
TASTE readers can enjoy 50 percent off accommodation booked until 30 October 2012 at the Kuriftu Debre-Zeit Resort Spa on Lake Kuriftu, 45 km from Addis Ababa.
To take advantage of this special offer, contact email@example.com.