Ethiopian cuisine, rich in history, tradition and refinements in culinary culture rivals any cuisine offered in Paris or New York.

Sometime in the late 1970s and 80s, a certain enterprising Eritrean diaspora in Los Angeles opens a sprawling restaurant in the western section of the city that instantly develops a large client base. The Ethiopian and Eritrean communities flock to the restaurant, for it offers generous portions of the usual fare of injera and wot on the cheap.

“You must not wolf down your food,” corrects an irate Ethiopian reprimanding his American friend, who is grabbing handfuls of morsels from the large round tray, gebeta, bedded with a piece of injera onto which portions of wot prepared from lentils, chickpeas, other vegetables and meat sauces have been placed in a dazzling array of colours, textures, smells and flavours.

The lesson in teaching the etiquette of Ethiopian feeding habits proves to be useless. The American barely recognises the admonitions of his friend but continues to snatch and gulp entire mouthfuls with total abandon. His companion, after several attempts to cock his companion toward the decorous ways of how Ethiopian food is consumed, and noticing that the dish is rapidly diminishing at the concentrated assault of his friend, forsakes the lesson and indulges himself in the orgy of gulping, smacking of lips, and devouring the rich sauces and spicy mutton bits with equal fervor.

Once the round tray is wiped clean, the friends relax, strengthen their backs, whipe their lips and hands and resume a normal conversation, and the Ethiopian broaches the etiquette issue again.

From its pleasing colors and aroma, taste and texture to its nurturing nutritional values, Ethiopia cuisine suffers from very little shortcomings.

“You are supposed to enjoy the food, taking your time savouring it slowly,” he resumes sheepishly, recognising his own actions.

But the American is past reproof for the food has nurtured his primordial longing for comfort and security. Why apologise for the ecstasy of consuming food that adds to one’s gastronomical experience? Why make excuses for losing oneself in the aura of the delight of the senses of taste, smell, sight and touch?

The delight of the senses and gastronomy! That is what Ethiopian cuisine has retained through the millennia of its existence, remaining mainly unchanged and essentially unaltered since the time of its first emergence during the time of the Axumites and through its migration to the United States and elsewhere.

Ethiopian cuisine has resisted the push and the idea of ‘fusion’ which other cultural foods from Spain, China and Japan have succumbed to in the West. Unfortunately, with that resistance has come the price of being labelled ‘cheap’ immigrant food even when offered in modern and fancy settings.

From its pleasing colors and aroma, taste and texture to its nurturing nutritional values, Ethiopia cuisine suffers from very little shortcomings.

Nearly all attempts by well-intended entrepreneurs to pull the cuisine forward, to raise its profile, and to transform it to haute cuisine with high-end ingredients and refinement have not materialised. The question now is why is there a necessity to change or fuse Ethiopian food to fit modern culinary fashions?

The main reason is to raise its profile and remove the harmful label of ‘cheap’ food from the public consciousness. Nearly all Ethiopian food in the diaspora is prepared by men and women who have inherited their cooking skills while growing up in their family homes, primarily from their parents and relatives. The absence of trained chefs practising in proper kitchens has most likely hampered the evolution of Ethiopian food to haute cuisine. Even the world-renowned chef Marcus Samuelsson seems to have given up trying to fuse Ethiopian food, choosing to adapt the major Ethiopian ingredient, berbere, or spiced red chillies, into his cooking rather than pushing for the cuisine’s transformation.

Historically, dishes prepared in well-to-do families are noted primarily by their elaborate attention to details of preparations. In wealthy households, the freshest ingredients are obtained, cleaned and washed thoroughly. The chilli pepper pods and spices like fenugreek, ground ginger, onions, garlic, cardamom and coriander are sun-dried on raised beds where foreign particles, peels and seeds are meticulously removed.

By maintaining the richness and purity of what goes in the food, and by choosing the correct combination and portions of the ingredients, the wealthy retain the authentic flavours and tastes of Ethiopian food. Also, by employing Ethiopian chefs skilled in food preparations and cooking, they are able to maintain the food quality of the highest standards.

In recent times, the commercialisation of the ingredients forced by modern living has plunged its quality. The gradual decline of skills and cooking knowhow of chefs, once employed by the wealthy, have no doubt contributed to the current sad state where Ethiopian food remains buried in the doldrums of the food universe where it is unfairly relegated to cheap immigrant food category. The standard Ethiopian recipe, the rich dishes, the variety of offerings, the unparalleled flavours and aromas of the cuisine point to a possibility that is beyond what has been achieved so far.

The Achilles hills of Ethiopian cuisine are its poor quality of ingredients and preparations. The Ethiopian tomato salad prepared using cheap vinegar and palm oil is no match for one prepared using olive oil and fresh lemon; as match as berbere prepared using unwashed peppers and poor ingredients soils an otherwise good wot.

For the Ethiopian diaspora of the early 1980s in Los Angeles, deprived of home and country, the mere fact that lentil and chickpea wot, prepared with whatever ingredients the owners can muster, is good enough. Even injera, traditionally made from teff, but now offered baked from pure milled-flour, is eagerly consumed. There is no other choice, and no one would complain about something that is beyond their reach.

But in 2019, we must wonder why there are no centres of teaching and institutions devoted to Ethiopian cuisine. The myriad cooking schools dotting the country seem to have no more ambition than collecting fees and graduating cooks that fare no better than the mom-and-pop operators in Washington, DC and Los Angeles, who are drowning Ethiopian cuisine in mediocracy rather than reaching for excellence in culinary culture.

PUBLISHED ON Aug 03,2019 [ VOL 20 , NO 1005]

How useful was this post?

Click on a star to rate it!

Average rating 0 / 5. Vote count: 0

No votes so far! Be the first to rate this post.

Put your comments here

N.B: A submit button will appear once you fill out all the required fields.

Editors' Pick