The freshest of Ethiopian feasts
18th March 2018
Although trekking in the Ethiopian highlands is not often described as a foodie experience, you can’t separate the sometimes startlingly fresh produce and local flavours from the experience itself, as Benjamin Allan discovered.
I can’t remember what time it was when I arrived in Lalibela for the start of a trek with The Mother and The Brother along the edge of the Meket escarpment. It was too late to see the churches, too early for dinner. I dumped my bags and sat down for something which might be the Ethiopian equivalent of afternoon tea.
It would take me a page or more to describe the setting properly. To say it was a rustic African patio surrounded by huts and low walls would not do it justice, but it will have to do for now. I was instructed in fairly shrill terms by my excited clan (who had arrived a few days earlier) to try the honey and the coffee. My concern for their blood pressure was matched by my long-time curiosity and love of trying local produce. The flavours of both were fuller and more genuine than any counterparts I’ve found before or since, and were to become a welcome part of the trip’s routine.
That night we met with our friends at a local restaurant. We sat on low stools, drank the local larger, ate the local meat, inhaled the roasting coffee and departed much, much later. I was introduced to enjera, the Ethiopian staple (now accoladed with a stall in London’s Spitalfields Market). A large, round, thick savoury pancake, it was served whole on large plate perched on its own pedestal.
Each lunch time of our four-day trek one enjera would be presented to the three of us, one to the Swiss couple hiking with us, and a couple to the guides. Atop the enjera would be a selection of vegetables, lentils and the like, stewed with various spices. I kick myself now for not asking what was in them, but I suppose it’s testament to their flavour that I was too busy eating it all to ask questions.
There is a knack to eating enjera, a knack which you’ll see as second nature to the locals; a knack which despite your efforts you won’t even come close to mastering. It involves holding the enjera in an open-ended pocket amongst your fingers and jabbing it into the chosen stew which, somehow, ends up inside the pocket ready to be eaten. Clean and neat. Despite being informed it was good manners to eat in a way that didn’t require you to lick your lips or fingers we all failed miserably for the duration of the trip. Our guides sympathetically smiled as we tore the enjera from the edge and tentatively tried to shovel spiced lentils at first onto the enjera and then into our mouths. Bloody delicious though.
We had heard that at one of our overnight stops we would be able to buy a live goat to be eaten for dinner that night. Obviously we wouldn’t be able to finish a whole goat by ourselves, so other villagers would be invited for a feast. I had primed my clan that this was absolutely an offer to be taken up. We asked our guide, Tefera about it and he smiled, “Yes, we take a goat and kill it for the meal. And if you want to, you can…” I jumped at the chance: “Yes, I do want to kill a goat.” My response came partly from the fact that this wasn’t a situation I could guarantee I’d ever come across again, and partly from my belief that since I’m a meat eater I should have no problem standing by any part of the process.
The next evening, some locals brought the goat over as I was finishing off a game of X with The Brother. I won’t go into detail. Suffice to say I blessed it and slaughtered it in the Orthodox Christian tradition. I was concentrating too hard on getting it right for the sake of the guides and locals to wonder on the goat’s behalf. The Brother found it pretty grim and I think only half watched. The Mother couldn’t stomach it at all so went for a shower. Afterwards I needed a cigarette. The guides seemed pleased with my work and summarily strung it up for butchering. I wouldn’t say I particularly enjoyed the act, nor could I say I particularly disliked it. I was pleased with myself for having done it as a feat (and still am to this day), but my dispassionate undertones seemed hollow compared to the joy on the faces of the guides and locals.
Inside the hut, it was time for food. I was now fulfilling a life ambition of eating something I, myself, had killed. The guides smeared the heated pan with the large intestine, releasing the fat for cooking. The goat, cut up into bite-sized chunks, was thrown in with wild thyme and fried. Then we all dug in. It was tasty but tough since it probably hadn’t led a particularly docile life.
At one point I tried to be daring and picked up a piece of small intestine, I think I finished chewing it about 20 minutes later as one of the locals sat opposite me with the whole large intestine and a knife, lopping bits off and chewing away as he chatted. Our guide clocked that our Western palates weren’t fans of the fatty bits and collected a pan of choice cuts which we worked our way through, amidst some laughter from the locals, I think. But all in all it felt genuine and I would always list it as one of the best experiences I’ve ever had, partly because the unabridged version makes for a damn good story.
After the goat we sat and drank beer and gins, which The Brother had become particularly fond of. (The gin was good there, and the tonic sweeter.) The guides and locals begun to create a beat with barrels and claps. Before long our guide was on his feet leading the dancing. Around us people bounced, gently shaking their shoulders and lunges back and forth at each other, huge grins on their faces. This went on for I don’t know how long, while they sung and chanted and laughed. We had no idea what they were saying, and I could never work out whether an element of it was a show they had put on for us or whether by that point we were just bystanders to their fun. Probably a bit of both. Again, I’ve been some places and seen some stuff, but I’ve never seen or been part of another culture in such an authentic way.
There aren’t really enough common reference points to satisfactorily impart what Ethiopia is like to people who haven’t been there. You say you went to Ethiopia and the response is usually a simple and reverential “Oh, wow!”, perhaps a “What did you do there?” the subtext to which you feel reads “what does one do in Ethiopia?”. Any stories you tell anyone are met with a special kind of silence reserved for times when your audience recognises they won’t be able to fill in the blanks, so they hang on every word and inflection. Born of a frustration of not being able to aptly recreate the images and a desire that your friends should also experience what you did, you’re left with only one concluding remark – “You really must go to Ethiopia”.
Read more about Benjamin Allan’s experience in his post, A journey free of preconceptions.