Breaking Bread (or Injera) in Ethiopia

Me stirring the sauce for lunch

So my first day in Ethiopia has been spent visiting the homes of families who have been helped by World Vision. Wow. The stories told by the women I’ve met about how their lives have been literally transformed have been incredible. I’ve lots to say and lots to think about.

Today I was struck by how we’ve become desensitised to the significance of sitting down to a meal with other people. I’m talking about the way that people eat in front of the television, or indeed walking down the street. I recently ate a hamburger doing just that. Eating in the street is something that’s simply not done in Ethiopia. Mealtimes are very significant here; food may not be abundant but it is served with generosity, hugely so; I found myself having to refuse at one point today, I was just so full. Ethiopians do not eat alone, they share and also they feed each other, a practice called ‘gursha’ – scooping up a piece of injera plus whatever stews and vegetables are on it, fashioning it into a little bundle and feeding it to the mouth of your family/friend/neighbour/complete stranger.

Today we were invited into the home of a woman called Hannah, literally with open arms. Hannah is a lady who has had support from World Vision, meaning she has gone from literally living on the streets, to having a home, making a living offering a laundry service to people in the community and sending her children to school and college. Her daughter is now studying computer science, volunteers for the Red Cross and wants to become a doctor. Incredible.

Hannah preparing food

Red bean sauce

We arrive at Hannah’s house as she is cooking, her kitchen consisting of a small area for chopping, a work surface and several burners; it’s an excellent use of a small space. Onions and garlic sizzle in one pot, a bright red bean stew plops away in another. A bowl on the floor contains green chillies and potatoes, another a leaf that looks like a cross between spinach and chard. It’s thrilling. The injera is made out the back, in her storage room full of hanging pots and pans and she has a stack to ready to show (and feed) us (they last about 4 days before spoiling).

Storage room, where injera is also made

Injera

The smells tantalise and we sit down to eat; a huge plate of injera arrives, rolled up at the sides like giant cushions and topped with various dishes – it’s a fasting season (for the next two months, up until Easter, many people are Orthodox Christians) and there’s no meat but everything is so full of flavour I am surprised to learn this. There’s a real intensity to the food. Some of the red bean sauce we’ve seen her cook and *cough* I have ‘helped’ to cook by er, stirring the pot a bit arrives and is poured on to the injera; there’s a red lentil stew, potatoes, a yellow lentil dish, whole green chillies and, my favourite of all, the spinach like leaf, flavoured with garlic, onions and chilli.

Lunch!

We all dive in, tearing and scooping; everyone huddled around the small table eating with our hands. Every time we pause for even a single second Hannah asks ‘why you not eat?!’ She has no worries where I’m concerned; I can’t get enough. We feed each other as part of the ‘gursha’ tradition.

Then it’s time for coffee. The Ethiopians make some of the best coffee in the world and there’s a whole ceremony to go with it. First beans are toasted over a fire, the flames fanned with a brush. Suddenly Hannah rushes towards us with the hot pan, flicking water into it as it hisses and spits, steam everywhere; she wafts the pan under our faces to let us smell the beans – bit of a shock that and very dramatic. She then grinds them with a pestle and mortar while burning incense. We drink the finished coffee black with plenty of sugar and BOOM! It’s so strong, and so good. The Ethiopians never drink coffee alone, they will call neighbours around to share it; coffee drinking is when all the issues that need discussing get thrashed out.

Toasting coffee beans

Pounding the beans

The preparation of food here takes time and effort and is so central to cultural practices and economic survival. I share meals with friends and family often, but I wondered today how much the real importance of cooking for others and breaking bread has sometimes passed me by. Mealtimes, in a way, represent stability. A place to cook, a place to serve, a place to share. Hannah can now, thankfully, count on 3 meals a day for her family, when often it used to be just one. She is extremely grateful. ‘Take my kitten!’* She says, half joking. ‘In fact, take me! It’s the least I can offer!’
Tomorrow I visit a group of HIV positive women who are taking part in a World Vision Development programme to improve their lives and the lives of their families by making the Ethiopian staple, injera. I can’t wait to hear their stories.

*I almost took the kitten.

Top photo courtesy of Kayla Robertson – World Vision

Category: Drinks, Eritrean food, Ethiopia, Wine | Tags: , , , , , 23 comments »

23 Responses to “Breaking Bread (or Injera) in Ethiopia”

  1. Donald Edwards

    The injeera looks awesome, slightly different colour to the ones I’ve had in the UK….

    p.s. looking forward to a post on the Ethiopian wine…

  2. Ed

    Looks like an amazing experience. Keep the reports coming.

  3. msmarmitelover

    Fantastic. This is making me hungry and jealous. I had a go at making injera recently. I bought teff flour in Jerusalem.
    It wasn’t that successful so I must have another go. Quite similar really to uthapatham (http://marmitelover.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/pancake-day-masala-dosa-and-uthapam.html) which I wrote about recently. These pancakey fermented doughs, love ‘em.
    Injera is full of iron, really good for you.
    @foodbridge, an israeli blogger, has also written a great post on Injera. I tried one of the suggested recipes but it needs work.

  4. Helen

    It’s also more sour. Not sure why! Hmmmm yes Ethiopian wine…AHEM.

  5. Helen

    Difference in taste I think and also longer fermentation is diff climate? The injera I mean. Gawd knows what happened to the wine…

  6. Helen

    It’s incredible! Cheers Ed.

  7. Helen

    Amazing! I think you can also get it on Kingsland RD. I saw your injera post…it looked good even if not right. I’m going to see injera ladies today so will report back!

  8. molla

    Really,really,thank you very much for your candid observation about Ethiopia.Do you know why I said that? some people delibrately prefer to write bad sides of Ethiopia. However, the good sides, by far, surpass the other sides.I reached a conclusion that you are a woman of yourself,free from any kinds of prjudices.Keep it up!!! you can find many marvelous things in Ethiopia.

  9. Chloe

    Inspiring. Love the look of the injera & the sound of the whole coffee ritual, would love to have experienced that.

  10. Paul

    Great stuff! I have a feeling you can’t get some of the ingredients here in the UK or maybe they just don’t travel well and that’s why it isn’t quite as good. Looking forward to the next post

  11. Hungry

    What an amazing experience for you. Really looking forward to reading more.
    That red curry looks awesome too.

  12. Helen

    Hello Molla, thank you for such a lovely comment! Yes, I am here to see the positives and as you say, they far outweigh the negatives! I’m having a wonderful time – it’s a special country.

  13. Helen

    The coffee is seriously the best I’ve ever had! Bought some to bring home.

  14. Helen

    I think you can buy teff in Dalston. It;s the spices I’m not sure of though…

  15. Helen

    Amazing indeed! Loving it. The red curry was one of the best bits.

  16. Gill Watson

    Love the idea of everyone feeding each other – I can imagine the horror if I tried shoving sloppy bread into a stranger’s mouth at dinner. Cooking really is salvation and it makes me rage that we have brought up an entire generation here who have lost the ability to cook and feed their families.

    Will you be there long enough to post on meaty feasts?

  17. Helen

    I won’t be here long enough sadly, but may well do something about my favourite Ethiopian restaurant in the UK when I get back and there will be recipe posts as I’ve had some translated while ive been here. Travelling up North tomorrow! Will see what I find there.

  18. Donald Edwards

    Thinking about the wine, I’d imagine that a good half of the problem will have been the storage…

  19. Helen

    I can believe that. YOU JUST WAIT EDWARDS.

  20. Donald Edwards

    Did you see? I’ve lined up three of the most esteemed wine commentators in the country to join in our tasting :)

  21. Helen

    Oh dear…we’re tasting the ‘other one’ now. It’s the same but sweet.

  22. Jess

    Enjoying your posts about Ethiopia and will definitely look more into World Vision – looks like great work that is making a genuine difference to peoples’ lives. Also that lunch looks flippin’ delish!

  23. explodyfull

    I am starving now after seeing your photos, that food looks amazing, it looks so much better than any Ethiopian food I’ve had in restaurants. Homemade is always better.

    It was also really great to hear about how World Vision has helped improve the live of Hannah, makes me want to give to charity more often!


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