Monday, March 19, 2007

Getting to know Ethiopia Through its Food.


(first posted Saturday, March 17, 2007)

I think I'm falling a little bit in love with Ethiopia.

Danielle Pergament writes in today's New York Times:

"This is a country that serves up grass-fed beef and organic vegetables by default. There are no trendy macro-organic-vegan movements; rather, the livestock graze in open fields because there are no factory farms, and vegetables are rarely treated with pesticides because farmers can’t afford the chemicals. Going there is a step back in time, literally — Ethiopians follow a version of the Julian calendar, so the year is 1999, and Ethiopia will have its millennium celebration on Sept. 12."

" the heart of every Ethiopian meal is injera. Basically a pancake — or more accurately, a really, really big pancake — injera is made from tef, a sour-wheat-like grain that is mixed with cool water and a pinch of yeast. But unlike a pancake, it isn’t flipped over, so the topside remains spongy, the better to sop up the vegetables and meat in the saucelike wat (sometimes spelled wot or wett) that is ladled on top. In a country where utensils are scarce, injera is not only your dinner plate, it’s also your knife, fork, spoon and sometimes napkin.

"When a platter of injera arrives at the table, covered in dips of fresh, locally grown vegetables and farm-raised meats, it is immediately torn apart by everyone within arm’s reach. The ritual is as much about silent gratitude for what the land has offered, as it is about digging into a great meal."

The communal aspect of Ethiopian dining is further enhanced by gursha. From Trekshare:

"...if you do eat, say with some good friends, beware that gursha is more than likely coming your way....Gursha is when the host (or) anyone else who feels close to you, crates a little packet of nibbles and injera from their own plate, and feeds it to you by hand."

Now isn't that lovely? Feeding one another in such an intimate way! How can you harbor ill-will against someone with whom you've not only broken bread - they've even put food to your lips? I just can't imagine it.

I always enjoyed going to so called "banana-leaf restaurants" in Singapore and Malaysia, where your platter was a big banana leaf and you conveyed food to mouth with only your hands. Same with Malay meals, and at some Peranakan meals, which my grandmother would announce: makan tangan (eat with your hands.)

I remember hearing an elderly relative remark that as one can only get to know one's spouse by touching him or her, that's also the only way to truly know one's food. It really is quite sensual to discover first hand, literally, the various textures and temperatures: warm rice, cold relishes, tender meat curries, crispy fish. As the old folks used to say, it was a more satisfying meal. With a little practice, feeding oneself with a single hand is easy, and not at all messy. Really!

I had another memorable hands-on dining experience in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. The traditional lanna kantoke meal offers an array of dishes and a bowl of glutinous, or sticky rice. The diner forms a little ball of rice, dunks it into the desired main dish, then pops it into his or her mouth, making sure the fingers never touch the mouth.

Squeamish types probably wouldn't feel at all comfortable with lanna kantoke, banana leaf dinners or the injera b'wat, but remember - every such meal, especially in Ethiopia, begins with an elaborate hand-washing ceremony.

Want to try it yourself? Here's an injera recipe.

And wat to serve on the injera? (sorry, I can't resist a pun.) Here are more recipes, and information on Ethiopian cuisine.

Take a look at these pictures of Ethiopians preparing injera, from

And read the rest of Danielle Pergament's article, Where the Dinner Table is an Altar of Thanks.

S'far as I'm concerned, EVERY meal should be an act of thanksgiving; something we in this country should strive to express.

(After writing this post, I remembered studying a little bit about Ethiopia as a fifth or sixth grader. A few of us were so taken with the name of the capital city, we started calling ourselves the Four Dragons of Addis Ababa, and tried to say it as fast as possible without tripping on the syllables!)

Eric Idle Takes on Handel

One of my favorites from the Monty Python bunch is writing an ORATORIO!

Sounds like Eric Idle's latest effort will be based on Life of Brian. The oratorio's title: Not the Messiah (He's a Very Naughty Boy).

“It will be funnier than Handel, though not as good,” said Idle.

How on earth....?

Turns out the Toronto Symphony Orchestra's music director, Peter Oundjian, is Eric Idle's cousin. Every time they saw each other, they'd toy with the idea of collaborating. When the war in Iraq began, they considered doing a musical comedy called Peter and the Wolf Blitzer. That didn't come to fruition. Finally, the Toronto Symphony joined the Luminato Festival to commission the comic oratorio, which will debut this June.

Idle's working with his Spamalot collaborator John DuPrez on Not the Messiah.

I love Eric Idle's wonderfully ludicrous and inappropriate songs, such as "Always Look On the Bright Side of Life," from The Life of Brian.

Read more about Not the Messiah on the BBC, the Globe and Mail and Times Online.