What I ate and read to learn about Ethiopia

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I wouldn’t be surprised to see an Ethiopian comic book with a superhero whose special power is using injera to stop crime.

On a long meandering walk during our January 2020 trip to Ethiopia, I sketched out this concept to my husband. The superhero, man or woman, could use the ubiquitous stacks of this spongy flatbread to wrap innocent citizens in protective layers and thus shield them from villainy. Massive sheets of injera also could be dropped over bad guys, stopping them in their tracks. The superhero could make walls of injera to block floodwaters. Tubes of injera could reach people trapped in wells.

I offer this idea with tremendous affection for injera.

Our trip to Ethiopia made me happy about having the District of Columbia as our home base. How sad it would be to become briefly acquainted with Ethiopian food and then return to a place where it can’t be found.

In D.C. and its nearby suburbs, there are many restaurants where you can order dishes to be served on big circular plates of injera. When we eat at Ethiopian restaurants in greater Washington, my husband and I tend to get a lamb stew known as tibs and a sampler order of vegetarian dishes. Many Ethiopian dishes are seasoned with berbere, a mixture of dried chiles, cloves, ginger, coriander, and allspice and sometimes fenugreek.

With injera, you use your right hand to take bits of the spongy bread and scoop up bites of the tasty dishes. You focus on your food in a way that we don’t always do these days. The communal plate of injera demands your attention. And it tends to be big enough to crowd cellphones off the table.

Another popular Ethiopian dish is a chicken stew called doro wat. I’m an enthusiastic cook. I particularly like steps involving chopping herbs and grinding spices. But I only once considered making doro wat. I took a look at the long list of ingredients for it, and decided to stick with ordering doro wat in restaurants. Besides, I’d never get the injera right.

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The key to making injera is having a special grain, known as teff. It’s apparently tough to find outside of Ethiopia.. except…

“If we want real injera with teff, you come to D.C.,” said celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson, who was born in Ethiopia, said during a 2018 interview on WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi Show.

Greater Washington is home to much of the Ethiopian diaspora. Thousands and thousands of Ethiopians fled due to the Derg, a Communist dictatorship that controlled the country from 1974 to 1991. This graphic from the Migration Policy Institute goes a long way to explaining why the injera is so good in D.C.

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My husband and I started going to one of D.C’s most famous Ethiopian restaurants, Lalibela, in our dating days in the early 2000s.

Our visits to that restaurant piqued our interest in its namesake city where churches were carved from stone in the 12th and 13th centuries. We talked for many years about traveling to Ethiopia.

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Lalibela as seen in January 2020
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Pilgrims visiting Lalibela ahead of Ethiopian Orthodox Christmas, 2020. My husband and I are in the top left corner.

As Washingtonians, we took pride in eating with our hands in Ethiopia.

On our first night, we visited a fun restaurant, Addis Ababa’s Yod Abyssinia, which had a show of eskista. This is an Ethiopian dance that involves fluid movement of shoulders and at times energetic kicking. It’s both beautiful and impressive to watch like ballet or a Radio City Rockettes' holiday show.

At Yod Abyssinia, we sat next to a fellow American who was dining with her Ethiopian husband. I thought I saw her nod to him as we ate our inerja, leaving the utensils the waitress brought us untouched.

It would be impossible to overstate the importance of sharing food in Ethiopia. One night we ate a restaurant in Bahir Dar that seemed to get only a few foreign tourists. I got a personal order of tibs and my husband decided to shake it up and get a plate of pasta. We had to stop the waitress from adding his spaghetti to my plate of injera.

On our last night in Addis, we went to a place similar to Yod Abyssinia. Habesha 2000 also offers eskista shows and draws many tourists. The waitress at Habesha 2000 urged us to try the buffet for dinner. We thought at first she did so because she was busy. The waitress had many tables to cover alone. Then we saw the other foreigners were taking food from the buffet on plates to their tables to eat with knives and forks. We guessed the waitress thought the buffet would be most comfortable for us.

We assured her we wanted our food served on injera. As we ate, she returned to check on us. She then brought us an extra basket with more rolls of injera than two people could possibly eat. We had as much as we could of our dinner, leaving behind traces of doro wat and lentils. The busy waitress stopped by our table again and urged us to eat more.

Our waitress’ friendly admonishments reminded me of a passage in a book I read during our trip.

In “The Wife” by Aida Edemariam, the main character is Yetemegnu, whose husband is a priest. The husband’s role in the community appears to be akin to a county judge or municipal official in the United States.

“𝘠𝘦𝘵𝘦𝘮𝘦𝘯𝘨𝘶 𝘸𝘰𝘶𝘭𝘥 𝘸𝘢𝘪𝘵 𝘧𝘰𝘳 𝘩𝘦𝘳 𝘩𝘶𝘴𝘣𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘵𝘰 𝘧𝘪𝘯𝘪𝘴𝘩 𝘩𝘪𝘴 𝘸𝘰𝘳𝘬 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘯 𝘦𝘢𝘵 𝘸𝘪𝘵𝘩 𝘩𝘪𝘮 𝘪𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘯𝘪𝘯𝘨. 𝘚𝘩𝘦 𝘩𝘢𝘥 𝘴𝘢𝘪𝘥 𝘴𝘩𝘦 𝘸𝘰𝘶𝘭𝘥 𝘯𝘰𝘵 𝘦𝘢𝘵 𝘶𝘯𝘵𝘪𝘭 𝘩𝘦 𝘤𝘢𝘮𝘦 𝘩𝘰𝘮𝘦, 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘩𝘦 𝘩𝘢𝘥 𝘴𝘢𝘪𝘥 𝘩𝘦 𝘸𝘰𝘶𝘭𝘥 𝘥𝘰 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘴𝘢𝘮𝘦 𝘧𝘰𝘳 𝘩𝘦𝘳. 𝘉𝘶𝘵 𝘪𝘵 𝘸𝘢𝘴 𝘩𝘦 𝘸𝘩𝘰 𝘸𝘢𝘴 𝘰𝘧𝘵𝘦𝘯 𝘭𝘢𝘵𝘦. 𝘈𝘯𝘥 𝘸𝘩𝘦𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘺 𝘧𝘪𝘯𝘢𝘭𝘭𝘺 𝘴𝘢𝘵 𝘥𝘰𝘸𝘯 𝘩𝘦 𝘸𝘰𝘶𝘭𝘥 𝘥𝘦𝘭𝘢𝘺 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘮 𝘧𝘶𝘳𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘳, 𝘸𝘳𝘢𝘱𝘱𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘴𝘢𝘶𝘤𝘦 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘪𝘯𝘫𝘦𝘳𝘢 𝘪𝘯𝘵𝘰 𝘣𝘪𝘨 𝘮𝘰𝘶𝘵𝘩𝘧𝘶𝘭𝘴 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘤𝘢𝘳𝘳𝘺𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘮 𝘪𝘯𝘵𝘰 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘳𝘰𝘰𝘮 𝘸𝘩𝘦𝘳𝘦 𝘩𝘪𝘴 𝘤𝘩𝘪𝘭𝘥𝘳𝘦𝘯 𝘴𝘭𝘦𝘱𝘵, 𝘸𝘢𝘬𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘵𝘳𝘺𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘵𝘰 𝘧𝘦𝘦𝘥 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘴𝘭𝘦𝘦𝘱𝘺 𝘧𝘰𝘳𝘮𝘴, 𝘧𝘰𝘳𝘤𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘮𝘰𝘶𝘵𝘩𝘧𝘶𝘭𝘴 𝘰𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘮 𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘯 𝘪𝘧 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘺 𝘵𝘸𝘪𝘴𝘵𝘦𝘥 𝘢𝘸𝘢𝘺, 𝘣𝘭𝘪𝘯𝘬𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘢𝘵 𝘩𝘪𝘮 𝘸𝘪𝘵𝘩 𝘴𝘭𝘦𝘦𝘱𝘺-𝘳𝘦𝘥 𝘦𝘺𝘦𝘴 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘵𝘪𝘨𝘩𝘵-𝘴𝘩𝘶𝘵 𝘮𝘰𝘶𝘵𝘩𝘴….𝘚𝘩𝘦 𝘴𝘩𝘰𝘶𝘭𝘥 𝘣𝘦 𝘩𝘢𝘱𝘱𝘺 𝘩𝘦 𝘸𝘢𝘴 𝘴𝘰 𝘴𝘰𝘭𝘪𝘤𝘪𝘵𝘰𝘶𝘴, 𝘴𝘰 𝘵𝘦𝘯𝘥𝘦𝘳 𝘵𝘰𝘸𝘢𝘳𝘥 𝘩𝘪𝘴 𝘤𝘩𝘪𝘭𝘥𝘳𝘦𝘯. 𝘚𝘰 𝘮𝘢𝘯𝘺 𝘮𝘦𝘯 𝘸𝘦𝘳𝘦 𝘯𝘰𝘵. 𝘉𝘶𝘵 𝘸𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘥𝘪𝘥 𝘩𝘦 𝘵𝘩𝘪𝘯𝘬, 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘴𝘩𝘦 𝘸𝘢𝘴 𝘭𝘪𝘬𝘦 𝘢 𝘴𝘵𝘦𝘱𝘮𝘰𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘳, 𝘶𝘯𝘤𝘢𝘳𝘪𝘯𝘨? 𝘛𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘴𝘩𝘦 𝘩𝘢𝘥 𝘯𝘰𝘵 𝘧𝘦𝘥 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘮?”

The author of this book is an Ethiopian-Canadian journalist who tells the story of the life of her grandmother.

The United States also is home to several excellent writers who were born in Ethiopia, including Maaza Mengiste, Dinaw Mengestu and Abraham Verghese. Their books appear in the bibliography I’ve posted on my website, www.dooleyyoung.com.

Written by

Journalist fascinated by art, history, medicine, politics and food. Has visited museums on six continents, eaten in more than 50 nations. Knows FDA, Congress.

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