When I told people I was going to Ethiopia, a common response was “Ethiopian food is so great, you’ll love it!”. So Ethiopian food is clearly pretty familiar to many people, but I didn’t know the first thing about it before I came here and was frankly unprepared, when I sat down to dinner on my first day and ordered something rather at random off the menu, to find my meal arriving wrapped up in what appeared to be a grey dishcloth. More alarming was the fact that there was no cutlery – in fact, said dish cloth (which turned out on closer inspection to be a kind of spongy grey pancake) appeared to be the cutlery. Eyeing the other diners cautiously, I broke off a piece and tasted it – I was expecting plenty of things, but insanely sour was not one of them, and why the hell would you make a sour pancake in the first place (still not entirely sure about that)? Thus was my first experience of injera, which seems to be the basic component of all Ethiopian meals.
Haing gained a little more experience over the past couple of weeks, below is my highly unscientific explanation of Ethiopian food as I have encountered it so far, based on a rather classy meal I accidentally ordered yesterday, image courtesy of MS Paint and the "speed" of my office internet, which allows plenty of time for artistic endeavour in between clicking “refresh” on my college email account.
Things to note: the total lack of vegetables fairly sure the green stuff doesn’t count), the emphasis on spices.Technique: unroll injera, chuck everything else on top of it. Rip off small piece of injera, use to convey food to mouth. Repeat, without making too much of a mess (this is much more difficult than it sounds).
Really, I have no quarrel with the concept of injera, as it is certainly miles easier than eating rice by hand (oh, the humiliations I have suffered in pursuit of that particular goal). My main issue is the paucity of napkins. Ethiopian food is big on sauceuceuce, and the consequences can be messy. In many cases napkins are not available at all, in which case you are obliged to resort to surreptitiously attempting to wipe your hands on the tablecloth or other pieces of injera, or other such unsatisfactory measures. What is almost worse is when you think you have been managing quite well and not dripping too much, when you see a couple of waitresses exchange horrified glances and come at you bearing armfuls of the things, which is not especially good for your self-esteem. Clearly, then, my injera technique could use some work, and for the moment I am forced to choose food that is easily pick-up-able. Thus shiro, which is a kind of delicious chickpea stew, is right out, as it has the consistency of thick soup and I have completely failed to master the digital contortions necessary to convey it from the plate to my mouth in the absence of a spoon. Similarly wat, which is a pretty standard curry-type dish also tends to be a messy eating experience (often the meat comes of the bone and I have not yet worked out how to pull it off the bone politely).
Thus, despite being generally delicious, Ethiopian food is fraught with minefields for the incautious, and until I get better at injera, I am eating rather more raw meat than I would have previously thought possible simply for its ease of manipulation (kitfo is actually dead good though). Fortunately, the food is filling enough that you only really need to eat one meal a day to be sorted, and the rest of the time there are plenty of coffee and juice places around to take the edge to provide the necessary balance (protein, carbs, fruit and caffiene do the job, right?). I have high hopes that by the end of my time here I will be eating wat with impunity and ordering shiro with gay abandon, but for the moment, I’ve taken to carrying a supply of napkins everywhere I go.