the tradition in Ethiopian food runs the gamut from the simple, like bread with tea, to the sophisticated.

When I was a kid, I lost many things. It is part of being a kid. But one thing that I did not lose was my teacup. No ifs or buts, if it was the morning, I was most certainly with it.

As the elder, it was my sister’s duty to buy bread from a bakery and prepare tea. My responsibility was to rise and shine before breakfast was served – what awaited me was nothing sophisticated but tea with bread. If she went on without my being there, she was asking for trouble, as that automatically sent me through the roof. I would be throwing at her whatever was at my disposal, sometimes my teacup.

This was why soon after she finished the preparations in the morning, I had to be ready. Tearing into the bread, I smelled warmth and freshness. To my delight, back then, a 10th of a Birr would buy five pieces of bread. Still, it was never enough, especially as I was used to dipping the bread in the tea, which goes on to make it easier to consume a lot.

Waiting until the tea cools off, the sound of crust being chewed under the tenderness of the inside continues. Then the bread would be moistened with the tea so that it gets malleable. It was pure joy for me but hassle for whoever ends up cleaning the glass.

Indeed, bread dipped in tea is a particular invention in Ethiopia for breakfast, especially in lower-income households. It is a fascinating exercise in the simple mixing of food items that were absolutely delicious, as far as I was concerned.

But the tradition in Ethiopian food runs the gamut from the simple, like bread with tea, to the sophisticated. Children usually enjoy the bread with tea. With adults, a simple but highly prized Ethiopian meal would involve eating raw meat with awaze, a chili pepper blend. Many would also find that tibs, sautéed meat with spices and some vegetables, is one of the relatively easy traditional meals to make. It is a mainstay at any bachelor’s house.

But then there are the complex foods, the Mount Everest of any cook worth their salt. At the top is probably Doro Wot, a tasty elaborate chicken stew. Costly, its preparation is time-consuming and complex. It is the Western equivalent of a lobster dish. Unsurprisingly, it is rare to find Doro Woton the menu of most restaurants – only a few are willing to brave the preparation process on a daily basis.

Making all of this possible are the spices, which themselves take skill and time to prepare. They are used to flavour, colour and preserve almost all the types of food items we enjoy, as well as those for medicinal purposes. Indeed, the talent of any cook lies in their ability to identify and figure out how different spices might combine to give a certain taste. It is a saying that a great chef of traditional Ethiopian foods should be able to tell what spices are in a food just by smelling it.

Let us also not forget the traditional snacks, the most famous of which is kolo, made mainly from barley, and made more delicious when eaten with peanuts. They accompany most social gatherings and have recently been commercialised to great success and fandom by the likes of Elsa Kolo.

This diversity of foods did not come about in a fortnight. It tells a history and carries with it a long tradition of social cohesion. Ethiopians may be divided on many issues, but rarely do they haggle about the near divinity of Kitfo, minced raw beef marinated with spices. It is a continual process of trial and error, eventually perfected into cuisines any cultured person on Earth would know. It is a long way from bread and tea.

PUBLISHED ON Dec 11,2020 [ VOL 21 , NO 1076]

Tadesse Tsegaye (, a polyglot with experience in multicultural-cum-institutional settings in resources management.

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