Abyssinia: The Gift of the Blue Nile in the Horn of Africa.

Abyssinia is the old name of the present day Ethiopia. There is a mention of this place, I was told, in the Old Testament, and they say King Solomon and Queen Sheeba’s romantic episode happened in this very place. The story goes on to say that when the Europeans and Arabs came to Africa, they saw the people looking dark, so they called them Abyssinians, meaning ‘burnt faces’ and the place, Abyssinia.

A more authentic version, however, is that the word Ethiopia comes from the Greek term Aithiops, ‘an Ethiopian’ and the place, Ethiopia. The word ‘Abyssinia’ comes from an early Arabic form of ‘Habesha’, the ethnic groups of people in Eritrean and Ethiopian Highlands who spoke languages belonging to the South Semitic stream of the Afro-Asiatic family.

It’s one thing to eat some foreign food in your own homeland, but it’s entirely another thing when you eat the same food often on its home turf. There you’ll find more local-ness and more authenticity. You get food in its crude form… made in the local way, with the locally found ingredients, using the local methods and utensils that have changed little over decades.

What am I ranting about? I’m coming to that; please bear with me for a while:

The article “Fingers Stand in for Forks, Hungry City: Abyssinia in Harlem, NY,” under Dining & Wine section of The New York Times on September 18, 2014 took me some 30 years or so back in my life, when I had a wonderful time in Addis Ababa, the capital city of modern Ethiopia. My dad worked for the Ministry of Education and my mom was a physician at the Police Force Hospital in Addis Ababa. Like everybody else, I, too, often feel nostalgic about some events in my life and my life in Ethiopia takes the prime slot.

Abyssinian Cuisine in Harlem:

The Abyssinian Restaurant at 268, West 1335 Street, Harlem, is run by the owner and chef, Frehiwot Reta, an immigrant Ethiopian, who had sold ‘injera’, the staple flat-bread that’s compulsory in an Ethiopian lunch or dinner, to the other immigrant Ethiopians in the locality for some years until 2011 when she opened her Abyssinia Restaurant, where you see not only Ethiopians but also the other nationalities who are strong enough to withstand the spicy Ethiopian cuisine.

I could have rushed to this Abyssinia Restaurant immediately after seeing that article, but no, I didn’t do that. The cuisine is probably reformed or sophisticated to be in lieu with the health regulations of the New York State. I’m sure the taste changes and the ingredients are chosen to suit the tastes of the American guests, including the immigrant Ethiopians in and around Harlem, Manhattan. (Mrs Frehiwot Reta, the owner and chef of AR, confirmed my suspicions in the article.)

The Food Eaten Years Ago Brings in Pure Nostalgia:

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No, that wouldn’t do. I still have the “original” flavor and taste of those colorful and tasty items of food in my mind; the smell of raw ‘kibe’ (butter) cooking and the taste of ‘injera’, a thin, round pan-cake or soft flat-bread made from a kind of cereal called ‘tef’, cooked, rather baked, on local open fires on mud pans using wooden spoons. In fact, I saw with my own eyes how ‘injera’ was cooked and our house-maid often cooked ‘kiwoth’, a red, hot stewy meat curry (‘ki’ pronounced as ‘ki’ in “kite”); ‘dorowoth’, an equally red and hot stewy chicken curry, and ‘tibs’, meat curry, not as stewy as ‘kiwoth’ or ‘dorowoth’.

And there was this vegetarian curry ‘misserr-woth’ (a thick saucy pulse curry) and the ‘inkulal firfir’, scrambled eggs, that had a taste of its own, usually eaten with ‘dabo’, a tough and hard bread as large as a bun, eaten mostly for breakfast. ‘Gomen’ (mustard leaf) and ‘tikil gomen’ (caggabe) and ‘kik alicha’ (split peas) along with potatoes (dinnich) and tomatoes (timathim) are some of the most common vegetables found in the ‘sook’ (shop) or ‘markato’ (market). ‘Shankurth’ (onion) is not so compulsory but is found in almost all the dishes.

We were first surprised and then laughed in wonder when we heard that they had a separate dish for those who were fasting: they ate a separate meal called ‘som migibb’, (‘som’ means “fasting” and ‘migibb’ means “meal”), in which they ate fish… but not meat or chicken.

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An Anecdote that Made Us Laugh and Curse at the Same Time:

One of the several anecdotes my father tells his listeners whenever the topic of our life in Ethiopia props up in casual conversations is a funny one and showcases how newcomers at a strange place face some initial difficulties: When we first arrived in Addis, we were accommodated at the Tourist Hotel, Aarathkilo, in the heart of the city where the Ministry of Education and some other important offices were located. When we went to the dining hall for a meal, my father cautioned the waiter that we wouldn’t eat beef or pork, so asked the waiter to bring any dishes of egg, mutton, chicken or fish. The waiter who did not understand English fetched another one who was ‘good’ at some foreign languages, including English. And when my father repeated the caution, the knowledgeable one, with an air of authority, instructed the other waiter, in Amharic, the official language those days, to bring us only ‘lam siga’ meaning ‘veal’ dishes instead of ‘barre siga’ or ‘ye siga’ meaning beef as we would not eat beef. So, we were served veal but not beef!

My father came to realise the fact that we had all eaten ‘veal’, which is otherwise ‘beef’, when, some weeks later, somebody pointed out the names of the different meats and their meanings, including ‘bugg siga’ meaning ‘mutton’, ‘aasa’ meaning ‘fish’ and ‘aasama’ meaning ‘pork’! Even after all these years my mother keeps muttering curses on the day we broke the sacred vow of not to eat beef and the ‘clever’ waiter who served us the meal, and, of course, my father, who was supposed to take care of such mishaps from happening, even if we were all innocent of the sin!

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The First Round Coffee Ceremony:

Coke was available plenty, and so was beer. The tea was usually served black, without mixing milk. Offering and serving coffee, Bunna, was a ceremony. (The first ‘coffee’ beans are known to have come from Ethiopia.) Coffee beans, fried on charcoal stoves, were then grounded using locally made mortar and pestle, usually made of wood, and then strained or percolated. The first round was called ‘abol bunna’ and the guests were given the right to the first round. ‘Bunna ba wadath’ meaning ‘coffee with milk’ was another thing. Though I was too young to take tea or coffee, I often heard that the first round black coffee was too strong for non-Ethiopians, and that most non-Ethiopians preferred coffee with milk which looked very frothy and smelled very pleasant, and that refusing to accept the first round coffee offended the host.

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I wonder if Abyssinia Restaurant at Harlem and several others of the same kind in the States and the UK serve the traditional Ethiopian hot drinks called ‘Tej’ and ‘Tella’ which were drunk by the Ethiopians in Ethiopia as beer was drunk by Germans or Hungarians in their countries. And there was this local liquor called ‘aarake’, which was mostly made illegally at homes, like the moonshine distilled in our backyards, I understood. As my father was a teetotaller, we never had any of those drinks, including beer, kept at home. We used to keep soft drinks, mostly coca cola, in stock for the guests (and unofficially for me).

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Feasting on the Raw Meat:

I wondered if any of the numerous Ethiopian restaurants here offered ‘raw meat’ to their guests, which custom was held very highly in Ethiopia, and I was surprised to find out that there were some which did offer, especially, the kitfo, a raw or half-cooked beef dish. In the bygone days in Ethiopia, I saw people ate raw meat in some bars and, especially, at festivals, special celebrations and family parties.

The Ritual of Showing Hospitality:

The host hangs a fat muscular part of a bull’s or cow’s carcass, usually the rump, on a six-foot wooden frame right in the centre of the hall or room. Each guest is given a plate on which they find a generous amount of berbere (red, hot chilli powder) and a small, sharp knife with which each one carves off a chunk from their preferred part of the carcass (normally some 300 grams on average) and after seating themselves comfortably, cuts the chunk into small pieces, dabbing each piece onto the berbere, and proceed to munch on, having a sip of tella or tej all the while to wash the raw meat down, talking and joking all the while.

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When this “ritual” is over, which often takes the best part of the feast, the host and the hostess lead the guests to the main meal which has all sorts of meats, vegetables and fruit. The host and the hostess and the other members of the family go about the room, touching each and every guest, encouraging them to have more of this and more of that, and even serving the dishes themselves if the guest happens to be a newcomer or a non-Ethiopian.

Most of the time, a tray as large as a small table is placed on a stool or short-legged table before a group of 4 or 5 guests, and some injeras are placed, spread open or folded or rolled and cut into some six-inch long rolls, and generous quantities different curries — meat varieties, vegetarian varieties — are placed on or around the injeras. All the 4 or 5 guests eat from the same tray, rather the large plate. This custom, they say, is to show togetherness among people.

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This way of eating from the same plate was mostly observed during family reunions where everybody took some food from everybody else’s shared plate and fed one another. The very innocent custom of feeding the guests or guests feeding one another was, in the beginning, seemed very embarrassing for us, but we got used to that and even respected it over the course of our stay there.

At some more wealthy parties, you find a few young male and female Ethiopians in the Ethiopian traditional white clothes dancing to the tunes of Ethiopian music.

And the most striking aspect of the whole feasting is the conclusion of the meal. As all most all of the Ethiopian dishes are eaten by hand, thus the name ‘Fingers stand in for forks’, the fingers get really very greasy (believe me the food looks red, smells strong, feels buttery and tastes spicy).

Guests are ready to wash… not at the hand-wash sink or basin. The host, hostess and the closet family members, with broad genuine smiles on their faces, bring a basin, a pitcher full of water, a cake of soap and a clean towel hanging on their arms, and go to each guest who is ready to wash, bend down to pour the water on their hands, offer the soap cake and after the guest rinses their hands, offer the towel, and only then will they stand straight, and move to the next guest, following the same process.

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When the number of guests is high, several of the family members go about the ritual dutifully and find great satisfaction when the carcass on the frame is carved clean to the bone, the bowls on the table are almost empty, the bottoms of the pitchers of tella and tej are visible, the crates of beer and the trays of wine and whiskey are half empty and the guests start to belch… some deliberately and loudly. A guest is made to feel very important from the start to the end of the feast.

And once you were at a feast of this kind, you would be so satisfied that you certainly longed to invite the host to your home and give the same satisfying treatment to them, too. I wonder if the same tradition is followed in the Ethiopian restaurants in the States and else where abroad.

Some Ethiopian Restaurants in USA:

It seems you can find an Ethiopian restaurant almost in every corner of the States, and most of them are named Abyssinia or Ethiopian Restaurant, though they are not a chain of restaurants. There is this Abyssinia Restaurant at Harlem; Abyssinia Ethiopian Cuisine in Midtown, CA; Cafe Abyssinia, Ethiopian Cuisine, on 3511 Magazine St., New Orleans; Markatho Ethiopian Cafe, Las Vegas, and many more.

However, reviews show that most of them are not doing well, especially those which have no liquor license, and whose location is a little out of the way. I thinnk it’d be beneficial for all of them if all the individual Ethiopian restaurant owners and chefs formed a group, like a cartel or a business association, under one main Brand, and pooled their resources and finance and got high-end permits and licenses to make a healthy chain of restaurants, each branch having the same menu with the same high standards, like McDonald’s or KFC or Pizza Huts, and keeping their own income for themselves but paying a certain amount as membership fee to the ‘cartel’ to see to that the competition is healthy and the standards are maintained! Don’t know if it works or if it has already been tried.

My Old Buddies in Addis Ababa:

I lived most of my school days in Addis, in one of the flats in the ‘Twin Buildings’ or ‘Diplomatic Buildings’, the two eleven-storey buildings in Arathkilo, opposite Menelik II Comprehensive School and beside Arathkilo Church, learning and playing with children of almost all the nationalities which I had not known existed, including Ethiopians. I had friends from all over the world, whose parents worked at the UNO, All African Union and other NGO offices.

Anaar, my best friend from Azerbaijan; Takumi from Japan, Charles, his brother and his sister from Uganda; some from Togo (sorry, I forgot the names); Ida and her brother from Spain; Soko, older than I was, and Walado, younger, from Bulgaria, not a friend but used to hang out with us; some Indians, and Teddy, whose father we respected the most, (Theodrous/Theodore) and some other locals. I enjoyed that multi-culture atmosphere and learned a lot from them.

(My viewers must forgive me for mentioning all the names of my old friends here. I did this on purpose hoping that any one of them may see this article and get in touch with me, which I sincerely feel, will be the most pleasant surprise.)

Posted by Mash Bonigala

Mash is a Brand Differentiator & Strategist, Film Maker, Traveller, Author and Zen Practitioner. He loves mindfulness, branding, online marketing and startup business challenges.