MY ETHIOPIAN EVENING
On Monday evening September 19, I participated in a special program for the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews (IAEJ). Held in the Baka section of Jerusalem in the home kitchen of one of the IAEJ board members and in front of 60 paying guests and five Ethiopian staff members, I prepared a vegetarian wot (stew) and discussed Ethiopian history, culture, and cookery. In addition, there was injera (Ethiopian pancake breads made from teff grains and with an interesting sour flavor), a lentil stew, and various Ethiopian snacks, such as roasted chickpeas and popcorn. And there was a pot of iab (pronounced ive), an Ethiopian curd cheese that helps moot the chilies common to many Ethiopian dishes (more on this later). A fun time was had by all. I was especially appreciative that the Ethiopians all agreed that my wot was authentic and among the best-tasting they had had. Some commented on how I helped explain the logic of their cookery. I was one small part of a wider effort to bring Ethiopians into the Israeli mainstream and for Israel to finally accept and appreciate as equals their Ethiopian citizens. (Considering that the Euro-centric Israeli Ashkenazic power structure — including the media, academia, courts, and much of the defense establishment – still looks down upon Sephardim and Mizrachim, uplifting the status of Ethiopians is no small task.) I view Klal Yisrael as a mosaic of Jewish cultures from around the world, each as valid and integral as the others.
My friend Chava, who was my first assistant editor when I started Kosher Gourmet magazine, is currently Resource Development Director of IAEJ. (Here’s their English site: http://iaej-english.org/ ) Together with executive director Ziva Mekonen-Degu, we developed my program. After all, what touches a community, both everyday life and periods of celebrations, more than food. Food carries history; food carries culture. By getting a taste of a community’s food, you get a literal and figurative taste of that culture. So food is one way, certainly a most enjoyable way, to learn about and experience the Ethiopian community.
For more than two millennia, the land lying to the west of the Red Sea served as home to a group of black Jews known to the Ethiopians by the derogatory term of Falasha (“wanderers” in Ge’ez), but calling themselves Beta Israel (“House of Israel”). Although several medieval Jewish travelers mentioned black Jews living in eastern Africa, the Western world only confirmed their existence in a 1790 report by the Scottish explorer James Bruce. Most scholars believe that the Beta Israel are descendants of native Agau tribes converted to Judaism by contact with Jews living in Arabia or by Jewish refugees who arrived in the area by way of either Egypt or Arabia following the destruction of the First Temple. The Beta Israel maintained their independence and their own kings and queens until being defeated in the 1620s by Emperor Susenyos. It was the intersession of the Portuguese at that time that finally led to a shift in the balance of power. (Pointedly, this transformation occurred just two decades before the Chmielnicki Massacres of 1648 decimated Polish Jewry and transformed it from one of wealth and education to poverty and persecution.) The Beta Israel were then banished to the Gondar region adjacent to the Sudanese border and Lake Tana, the source of the Nile River, and subjected to centuries of persecution and aggressive proselytizing efforts.
Before 1977, Ethiopian culture and cookery was obscure to those outside that country. Then during the following thirteen years, more than 40,000 Beta Israel were relocated to Israel, making their ancient traditions accessible to outsiders. Today, the Beta Israel community in the Holy Land comprises more than 250,000 members and Ethiopian restaurants are found in some cities.
There are numerous misconceptions about Ethiopian cookery in particular and Ethiopian culture in general. During the course of the evening, IAEJ and myself helped to dissuade some of those misconceptions through exposure to the culture and foods.
One of the men present mentioned that he thought of Ethiopian food as bland, like that of nearby Kenya. Nothing could be further from the truth. To be sure, Ethiopian cookery is simple and based on poverty food, but it is anything but bland. Of even like that of any neighboring African countries. And simple is not bad. Indeed any good chef will tell you that overcomplicated food is bad. The key to any good cooking is to let the fresh natural ingredients shine.
Ethiopia, unlike the rest of Africa, was never fully colonized by Europeans (the brief Italian period did not impact the local culture) and, therefore, the area’s cookery evidences none of the European influences. (Try to think of Moroccan or Tunisian cooking without French or Libyan without Italian.) Ethiopians, no matter their social status or class, ate the same foods, although the richer might enjoy more and better quality meat. Ethiopians traditionally ate two major meals each day — breakfast and dinner. In between, they snacked on roasted corn kernels, roasted peas and chickpeas, and seeds. Legumes serve as the base of many dishes. The principal vegetables are the traditional cabbage, carrots, collard, lettuce, and onions and those introduced from America corn, potatoes, squash, and tomatoes. Chilies, garlic and mushrooms help to enhance dishes. Onions are essential, uniquely first cooked without any fat, which helps them to better break down during cooking to thicken and flavor the sauce.
There is not a lot of variety in Ethiopian ingredients, but each item taste quite different even when using the same spices. Ethiopian cooking is both spicy and fiery, the latter produced by chilies and particularly berbere, an essential homemade chili powder used as a condiment. Mixing the powder with a little oil and tej (honey wine) and allowing the mixture to ferment produces a hot sauce called awaze, used as a condiment. Every Ethiopian household maintains a jar of berbere and/or awaze, often homemade from a time-honored recipe. Ethiopian spice mixtures –- typically cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, ginger and turmeric — reflect Arabic and Indian influences, the result of millennia of trade. When most Westerners first taste an Ethiopian dish, it reminds them of the cooking of southern India. Since most Ethiopian meals were vegetarian, clarified butter, and typically plenty of it, was common to many dishes, while iab accompanied and ended most meals. Butter is made from ergo (fermented whole milk).
In Ethiopia, they lived in tukuls (mud-and-straw huts). Typically, diners sat on stools around six to eight inches high or on the floor around a low round wicker table. The two principal Ethiopian dishes, around which all meals revolve, are injera (a thin batter bread made from teff grains) and a thick vegetable or legume-based stew, prepared in spicy/fiery versions made with berbere called wot and milder ones known as alicha. The injera batter, prepared by frying on round terra cotta trays and skillets, was typically made in large batches to be stored for up to a week in woven grass sacks. Several thin, large gray injera are stacked on a communal tray and the wot, cooked salads, and legumes then spooned in sections on top. Each person, using their right hand, pulls off a small piece of injera while scooping up some of the food, then folds it between their fingers to eat. The tart, spongy injera complements with spicy-fiery stew. Coffee, native to Ethiopia, is typically served at the end of the meal. There is no dessert.
In the impoverished Ethiopian communities, meat was generally reserved for special occasions; cooked meat dishes subsumed under the category of tib. Chicken, the predominant meat, was occasionally prepared by roasting over an open flame, a dish usually reserved for the Sabbath. Goats and sheep were raised for meat and wool, while most dairy products were produced from cow’s milk. Livestock was ritually slaughtered by the local kes (priest), then salted and rinsed to make kosher. Fresh-water fish from local streams and lakes were enjoyed when available.
The Sanbat (Sabbath) is a very special part of the Ethiopian Jew’s week. The meals were prepared in advance with everything ready before sundown on Friday and all dishes served at room temperature. At Sabbath meals, the Beta Israel serve honey-wheat bread cut into slices called dabos. Aspecila treat was a salad made from pieces of dabos and iab. Even those who cannot afford it during the week, make a special effort to have a little chicken or meat in their Sabbath wots. Ethiopian Jews lacked wine and, therefore, for Kiddush used tallah, a grain alcohol-based drink similar to beer and fermented by gesho leaves. An amber-colored spirit similar to mead is made from tedj (honey). A unique festival of the Beta Israel is the Sigd, which, thanks to the efforts of IAEJ, is now recognized as an official holiday in Israel.
IAEJ, founded in 1993, is dedicated to advocacy among national and regional decision-makers. IAEJ gives voice to the needs of the Ethiopian-Israeli community to advance wiser, more effective and more efficient policies in the spheres of education, employment, housing and community empowerment.
In February 2011, IAEJ advocacy led to a unanimous Israeli Knesset decision to extend the affirmative action policy in national civil service posts (achieved in 2007) to regional government offices and state-owned companies.
In February 2011, IAEJ advocacy led to the repeal of a discriminatory housing policy which limited Ethiopian-Israelis to utilizing mortgage grants only at designated addresses, often in unsuitable high-risk neighborhoods. IAEJ was subsequently invited to participate in revising more constructive guidelines for mortgage grants.
In May 2011, a study commissioned by IAEJ revealed steep gaps in educational achievements between Ethiopian-Israelis and the general Jewish population. The data commissioned by IAEJ led the Ministry of Education to decide to evaluate the effectiveness of educational programs under its auspices. The Ministry will also increase the number of educational hours allocated to Ethiopian immigrants (during the first six years they are residing in Israel).
In June 2011, IAEJ-together with young Ethiopian-Israeli activists (“Mateh Hamaavak LeShivion Hevrati LeYotzei Ethiopia”)—won a precedent setting decision made by Israel’s High Court. The Court found that that key provisions of the Israeli government’s 2008 “Five Year Plan” to advance Ethiopian-Israelis were not implemented-including allocations in the amount of NIS 100 million. IAEJ took on a two year legal struggle (supported by volunteer attorneys) and made the case to Israel’s High Court that the funding be restored. In its June 2011 decision, the High Court ruled that the NIS 100 million allocation be disbursed in keeping with the original plan. The High Court ruling also requires the government to extend the Five Year Plan through 2014 and to reserve 1,000 mortgage grants to young Ethiopian-Israelis to be utilized through 2015. IAEJ will monitor the implementation of this ruling-as part of its broader aim to assure that programs and funding intended to advance Ethiopian-Israelis are properly implemented.
Oh, here is the stew I prepared that evening. To turn it into a wot, add 2 to 4 tablespoons (30 to 60 ml) ground dried red chilies:
Ethiopian Vegetable Stew (Tikil Gomen Alicha)
(5 to 6 servings)
2 medium onions, chopped
3 tablespoons (45 ml) vegetable oil
1 pound carrots, cut into ¼ inch slices (3 large/455 grams)
2 to 4 cloves garlic, minced
About 1 cup (240 ml) water
1 pound small potatoes, cut into ¼ inch slices or quartered (about 6/454 grams)
1 to 2 small green chilies, seeded and sliced (optional)
About 1 teaspoon (5 ml) salt
About ½ teaspoon (2.5 ml) ground black pepper
½ teaspoon (2.5 ml) ground turmeric
¼ teaspoon (1.25 ml) ground cardamom
¼ teaspoon (1.25 ml) ground cinnamon or coriander
¼ teaspoon (1.25 ml) ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon (.625 ml) ground cloves
1 tablespoon (15 ml) tomato paste (optional)
1 pound (455 grams) green cabbage, sliced, 1 bunch chard, sliced, or 1 pound green beans
1. In a dry large skillet, cook the onions, stirring constantly, over medium heat until they begin to soften, about 3 minutes.
2. Add the oil. When the oil begins to sputter, add the carrots and garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add ½ cup water, bring to a boil, and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the potatoes and, for a more fiery stew, chilies, cover, and simmer for 2 minutes.
3. Stir in the salt, pepper, spices, and, if using, tomato paste. Add the cabbage and remaining ½ cup water. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender-crisp, about 20 minutes. If the cooking liquid reduces too much, add a little more water and continue cooking. Serve warm or at room temperature with injera or various flat breads and, if desired, yogurt or lab (Ethiopian cheese spread).
Ethiopian Gingered Vegetable Stew (Yataklete Alicha): Omit the turmeric, cardamom, cinnamon, ground ginger, and cloves and add 1 tablespoon (15 ml) minced fresh ginger with the garlic.