By John Rex
Shortly after an Ethiopian restaurant opened here in Buffalo, a friend suggested we try it. His suggestion sparked many memories. I first encountered traditional Ethiopian food in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Sept. 11, 1962, when I was a member of the first group of Peace Corps volunteers who had arrived in the country days earlier.
As the guest of an Ethiopian family, then celebrating New Year’s Day, 1955, on their calendar, I was taken to a restaurant that was a larger version of a traditional round house, where we sat on three-legged stools and the food was delivered on a single large round tray, placed on a round woven basket-like table with no flatware.
It is almost impossible to describe what a truly traditional Ethiopian meal is like because it is so unlike anything else most Americans have experienced. The main components are injera and wat.
Injera has been described as a kind of a sourdough flatbread or a spongy pancake on which any number of spicy stew items, called wat, are deposited in separate mounds. The trick, I learned, was to tear off a piece of injera with my right hand, and then to use that injera to grasp a load of chosen wat to plop into my mouth.
Part of the challenge was that a major ingredient of some wat was the spice berbere, which was awesomely hot and spicy, enough to burn the mouth of the uninitiated. We volunteers had been told that the berbere was a preservative, so important where there was no refrigeration.
I left Ethiopia in 1964, and didn’t return until 2010, when I was a part of a group from Habitat for Humanity building houses in the same village where I had taught school years ago. Along with other Habitat volunteers, I visited the same round restaurant in Addis Ababa.
The cuisine looked just the same, the familiar large injera with its separate mounds of spicy wat. What struck me quickly was that nothing seemed as hot as I remembered it. I was told that in the intervening years of civil strife and famine, the prices of spices had gotten so high that less was used, and the actual hotness of the food had diminished permanently.
To be sure, it was still spicy and tasty. Just not quite so burning. Perhaps I was just growing old and losing my taste buds!
Here in Buffalo, I was pleased to go along with my friend’s suggestion. I told him that I had actually never eaten or even seen a salad in Ethiopia in those early years, nor had I had any encounter with Ethiopian soup, perhaps because we ate with our fingers. I urged him to try something new, sans flatware.
When we finally sat down for an Ethiopian meal, sure enough, there were knives and forks and spoons on the table. I looked around to see diners cutting the injera with a knife and eating with a fork. It all seemed strange, even wrong. But then again, hadn’t I been raised the American way, to the tune of: “Don’t eat with your fingers”?
In a May Washington Post story, Tim Carman described Ethiopian cuisine as “a spicy and essentially sweet-free set of dishes that are consumed with your hands, the tactile experience as important as the gustatory one.” I would add a practical note that it is best that you feel any small bone or hard object before putting it in your mouth.
We both enjoyed our dinner. I ate my injera and wat with my right hand. He had soup and salad. As for an authentic Ethiopian experience for him: perhaps another time.