“Food is not rational. Food is culture, habit, craving and identity.” Jonathan Safran Foer
When it comes to food, Ethiopia is sadly often associated with famine. Yet with its rich, spicy stews and diversity of flavours, Ethiopian food also qualifies as one of the world’s greatest stand-alone cuisines. Influenced by trade exchange with the Middle east, Asia and the Mediterranean, Ethiopian cuisine is unique, diverse and totally different to any other cuisine you encounter in this region of Africa.
No doubt, Ethiopian food is best known for the spongy sourdough flatbread called injera. Traditionally made out of fermented iron-rich teff flour (a tiny grain that flourishes in the highlands of Ethiopia), injera is the national staple and fundamental to every Ethiopian meal. Not only is teff very nutritious, it is also gluten free. The overwhelmingly tangy taste of injera can be an acquired taste, but give it another few mouthfuls and it will start to grow on you. Interestingly, injera also replaces crockery and cutlery at the table. The injera is spread over the table, and portions of stew are piled on top of it in order to soak up the juices. A tourist is said to have once mistaken injera for the tablecloth! Generally, the meal is finished when not only all the stews are eaten, but when the tablecloth – the injera – has been eaten too.
Ethiopian cuisine is also unique for its culinary tradition, gursha. The tradition of gursha involves your food companion scooping up the best bites of delicious stew, and proceeding to feeding it into your mouth. The trick is to take it without letting your mouth come into contact with the person’s fingers or allowing the food to fall. This culinary tradition marks the sign of great friendship or affection. Food is not meant to eaten alone in the culture of Ethiopia. Thus, food is always served on a communal platter without the use of cutlery, which is designed to share food with each other.
During my time in Ethiopia, I also had the chance of tasting tera sega(raw meat) served in specialised shops with an appearance of a butcher shop. The experience involves picking out the fresh carcasses hanging by the entrance and literally eating the beef raw using sharp knife as utensils, and awazi (a kind of mustard and chilli sauce) as accompaniments. Considered a delicious delicacy by many in Ethiopians, tera sega is traditionally served by the wealthy at weddings or other special occasions. Such tradition apparently originated during times of war when fighters hiding in the mountains ate raw meat to avoid making a fire which can expose themselves to the enemy. Whilst eating raw meat remains a tradition of Ethiopians, it is also exposing the nation to health risks such as tapeworms and salmonellas!