Bringing Habasha Home

“Habasha” is what Ethiopians call themselves. I used the word a lot when I was there. Asking the price of something you can, with an eyebrow lift, ask if that is the Ferengi (foreigner) price or the Habasha price. Eating out you can ask for European food or Habasha food. Obviously the whole Habasha food thing is of great interest and importance to me. We’ve been home a month and I find myself missing the food tremendously. We ate out regularly, and with a 4 year old in tow we had our share of chips (french fries) and fish or chicken cutlet (fried fish or fried chicken). But Adina, our home help, cooked a Habasha lunch every day, and I almost always ordered Habasha food when we went out. But what is Habasha food? Here are some key points:

  • Injeera is the staple of Habasha food. It is basically a thin pancake made from a soured or fermented teff-flour batter. Teff is a tiny, hardy grain that grows well in the rocky soils of Ethiopia. Like millet, quinoa, or amaranth it is a tiny grain that requires a lot of labor to harvest. It has a slightly sweet or nutty flavor. It is not especially responsive to fertilizers or chemicals and it is fairly drought-resistant. It is, in short, a perfect grain for a developing country. Think of it as Monsanto’s nemesis. I also like to think of it as the honey badger of grain.
  • If Injeera is the carbohydrate base of Habasha food, accompanying all vegetable and meat dishes and being both a food and the silverware, Shiro is the protein base. Chickpeas are roasted, dried, and ground then mixed with the berberry spice blend into a powder. The powder is combined with tomatoes, onions, and oil into a thick, savory, spicy and satisfying sauce. Although some people in rural areas still make their own shiro powder, it is usually purchased and then sifted at home before using. Adequate shiro is easy to make. Good shiro is trickier and is oh-so-tasty.

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  • Tibs is the generic word for stew-sized pieces of meat, usually lamb or beef, and sometimes goat. The tibs can be cooked with onions and peppers and served “wet” in oil and cooking liquid, poured directly onto the injeera. It can fried and served over a charcoal brazier, “dry” with onions and peppers. Dry tibs are also called chekla tibs (spelling anyone?!) and are, hands-down, Travis’ favorite Habasha food.
  • Beyanetu (again, spelling?) is my favorite Habasha food. It means a mixture of things, and it is always a mixture of vegetable and legume things. This is fasting food, served on the two days a week that Orthodox Ethiopians do not eat meat. When Adina cooked at home she usually made me a beyanetu of beets, greens, and sometimes a cabbage and potato mix. Yum. Travis, in a sweet gesture, arranged a lunch for us all when we were sightseeing in Lalibela, and ordered beyanetu in advance. (This was a sweet gesture because it was May, the month following the Ethiopian Orthodox version of Lent when, post-fasting, a month of gluttony is allowed and no one anywhere fasts and/or eats vegetables. I couldn’t find beyanetu foods anywhere we went out to eat for the last month of our trip. Grrr.)

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The best part of living in Ethiopia was not just eating the food but learning to have it at home, to learn the Amharic words for the foods, to shop for it, and to cook it. On one of our last evenings in town I wanted to have doro wott. This is the national dish of Ethiopia – whatever that means, because Ethiopia of course has many regional cultures and peoples and food dishes. It’s like saying fried chicken, a predominantly Southern food, is the national dish of the U.S. Regardless, it’s delicious and I wanted it. This is not a dish to be taken lightly. Doro is chicken, and there is no such thing as going to the store to buy a pound of chicken breast. Asamen, our guard, went to the market and came home with two chickens (which I think he actually biked home carrying, but I didn’t see him come home so I’m not certain of this). While Adina hid around the corner of the house with her eyes covered Asamen cut their heads off. James and I watched, while my Mom sat there sewing up a hole in Jamie’s pants. I told her later I was quite impressed with her stoicism. Watching chickens get killed in the front yard is not high on most mother’s list of vacation items! Now, the killing is the man’s work. I mean this quite seriously; when I asked Adina what it would take to make this dish at home she laid it out for me and told me Asamen would kill them as it is men’s work. In an effort to be sensitive to their culture I (gratefully!) relinquished the role of chicken-killer. Once dead, the chickens became Adina’s domain. She skinned them, which was brilliant. Like a fool, I’d been wondering how she would pluck them without the aid of those cool chicken-spinners that basically de-feather a chicken for you. My mom, the kiddos and I ran out to pick up something else for dinner and when we came back Adina had started a fire in the front yard for cooking, using my huge doro wott pot. She cooked the onions, garlic, oil and berberry spice down for a long time, then cooked the chicken in that sauce. The chicken meat is taken out and served separately, and hard-boiled eggs are peeled and added to the sauce. All served with injeera, of course. Coolest dinner ever cooked in my home, hands down. DSCN5817_2DSCN5829_2DSCN5838DSCN5857_2

In an effort to bring some habasha home I tried to spend time in the kitchen with Adina. This didn’t go as well as planned, with two kids hanging on me. Even with grandparents around there didn’t seem to be a good way to do this. DSCN4747

But I did absorb some lessons, and I did think a lot about what habasha meant to me. Here’s what I decided to bring home:

  • Dial back the pantry items. Habasha food (and many cuisines of developing countries) revolve around a staple item or two that people eat every day. The staggering diversity of food here in the U.S. is overwhelming, and the clutter of beans and whatnot on my pantry shelves actively stresses me out. Michael Pollan named his book well when it called The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Some days it was lovely to just eat the injeera and shiro – to enjoy good food without over-thinking it. Focusing on a few key items to build our pantry around at home will be a fun and worthwhile experiment*.
  • Shop more, eat fresh! Adina or I went shopping for food items almost every day. Here at home I sort of do this already, so I’m just making it a priority to keep it up.
  • Drink your dessert. Ethiopians pretty much drink a bit of tea with their sugar, and while I have never gone that far, I have started putting some sugar in my tea. It brings out more of the flavor in the tea and it makes the tea feel a bit more like a treat. I find I am satisfied with a bit of sweet tea after a meal and I’m less inclined to reach for dessert. Less inclined. Not uninclined.
  • Oil is a food group. Ethiopians use ridiculous quantities of oil in their cooking, and this makes a lot of sense in a culture where calories were regularly scarce**.  I brought 32 oz of coconut oil with me to Ethiopia and Adina killed it in about two weeks. Yikes. (And delicious). My plan is to continue using oil as a food group, but to genuinely treat it as a food group. I just have salad fixings for dinner? Make up a lovely and calorie-dense vinaigrette to go on it. There’s a rice salad on the table full of oil? Just have a small portion of it, and scale back everything else on your plate. Celebrate oil!
  • Leave some things to the experts. Almost every day we bought fresh injeera. Adina could certainly have gone to the trouble of making it at home, but the fermenting takes time and space, you need to build a fire and have the right kind of pan to really do it properly. The fresh injeera we bought tasted so good, and supported a local family business. At home, I take on project after project in the kitchen. But I have two kids, a home, a farm business, a rental business, another part-time job… and sometimes, my bread doesn’t rise and my jam doesn’t set. It’s okay to let the experts do these things sometimes.
  • Food should be a ceremony. Coffee ceremonies are a quintessential Ethiopian treatment of coffee. Starbucks has nothing on them. Especially in rural areas, if someone drops by you stop what you are doing. You get the charcoal going. You roast green coffee beans. You grind them yourself. You boil water. You pour it over the coffee and let it steep almost like tea while you burn incense, and then you pour it around. In cities, most restaurants feature a coffee ceremony corner and they offer coffee after lunch or dinner. Most hotels offer a coffee service of some kind. Traditionally, everyone gets three cups, all brewed from the same grounds so it gets progressively weaker (a relief really – despite being from Seattle I have a low caffeine tolerance). I love this ritual. I need to cultivate more of this in my life.

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At it’s core, I take eating habasha to be all about community. You eat with your hands (right hand, specifically). You share a platter with your fellow meal-takers. When someone comes by, you drop what you are doing and take a moment to have a ritual and share a cup of something. These are things I can get behind. Let the summer of habasha at home begin!

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*Here are my bulk pantry items that I will be focusing on:

  • Raisins
  • Walnuts
  • Cashews
  • Brown rice
  • Quinoa or millet, rotate-able
  • Lentils or peas, rotate-able
  • Beans – two kinds only, rotate-able
  • Dates – mostly for baking/cocoa-nut-snacks

I do not need tri-colored quinoa, attractive though it is. I do not need four kinds of beans and two kinds of rice. I do not need three different kinds of dried fruit. I do not need amaranth AND millet AND quinoa. If anyone wants to comment on this list, add to it or suggest I remove/replace/whatever, feel free!

**Ethiopia had a famine as recently as 2008. The famine before it, in the years 1983-1984, was the worst seen in a century with over 400,000 deaths. Let’s not discuss in detail here the causes of the famines, sufficient to say that government policies had as much to do with it as drought. Indeed, food insecurity is a better term than “scarcity”. Whether it is called scarcity or insecurity, both the reliance on a grain like teff and the use of oil as a food group make a lot of sense.

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