THE ETHIOPIA CHRONICLES: Part 1
Addis Ababa, which in Amharic (Ethiopia’s main language) means new flower, is not, and how do I put this delicately, the garden city of Africa. Ethiopia’s Solomonic lineage traces back 3000 years, when Queen of Sheba traveled from her capital in Axum to Jerusalem to visit King Solomon, returning to Ethiopia pregnant with his son, who she named Menelik. Over the next 3 millennia, the location of the capital shifted; fast-forward to 1889, Menelik The Second rose to power and reigned from the temporary capital of Entoto. While away on a military campaign his wife, Empress Taitu Betul moved the court to the site now known as Addis Ababa, owing to natural springs that provided water, trees for firewood and the beautiful surroundings. The new flower analogy while true at the time has been sadly lost. Today with a population of some 4 million and ever increasing due to emigration from rural areas, the city is a vast sprawl of mostly nondescript buildings, nothing really ugly, nor is there much to grab my attention. Despite this, the friendliness of Ethiopians is on display at every turn and this is the city’s saving grace; its citizens. Ethiopia recently was voted the ‘world’s most welcoming country,’ and while I was not included in the balloting, Ethiopians would have received my vote. When I arrive at the Nexus Hotel after midnight, I’m immediately greeted by Berry the French-speaking concierge and welcomed by all the other staff. When I awake in the morning and head for breakfast, all the staff restaurant staff again greets me and welcome me home (Ethiopia is not my home, but I’m touched that hotel staff all over the country so embrace me).
Coffee and cuisine are for me the other highlights of Addis. Here you drink coffee in the land
where it originated. The apocryphal story recounts how centuries ago a goatherd noticed his goats all energized after eating the berries of a certain shrub. He tried these berries and found himself similarly energized. Impressed he brought the berries to a nearby monastery; the monks who sampled them found this buzzed feeling to be unnatural and deemed these the fruit of the devil, so tossed them into the fire to destroy them. The resulting aroma was so irresistible the monks raked the beans from the fire, and voila coffee was discovered. Cute, not likely true, but what is true is that there is excellent coffee all over Ethiopia and in Addis one can drink it Ethiopian style; tiny cups of strong brew, sometimes with salt (not to my liking) also with herbs (much to my liking), or in the cafes that are holdover from Italian occupation, café macchiato being the local favorite, strong espresso with frothed milk, an elixir I could drink every day for the rest of my life.
Ethiopian food makes use of many spices, grains and vegetables that are indigenous to the country, imparting flavors that are mostly unfamiliar to foreign palates. Every meal includes injera, the local bread made from the indigenous grain teff. Teff is ground to flour, mixed with water, allowed to ferment, and the batter then poured onto a large griddle (traditionally heated by fire) to form a disc, about 18 inches across. The batter is always poured from the outside towards the center, yet each instance some kindly woman hands me the batter, so that I can make injera, I’ve started pouring from the center, to the collective mirth of all Ethiopians watching, who cannot suppress their laughter. Apparently this is just not done. The resulting bread is more like a giant thick pancake, smooth on the bottom, porous texture on top (it is not flipped over like a pancake). My cosmetically flawed injera still tastes fine, with the proper spongy texture and the sour tang that is its hallmark. Injera is both plate and utensil, various meat and legume stews along with vegetable salads placed atop a large disc of injera and heaps of rolled up injera placed next to plate. One tears apart pieces of injera, using the porous side to wrap around pieces of the various stews. One of the crowning glories of Ethiopian cuisine is doro wat, a chicken stew; pieces of chicken are cooked for hours in diced red onions, with the addition of berbere, a curry like amalgamation of spices that include fiery dried chilies blended with herbs both sweet and savory. It’s addictively good, and all Ethiopians (and most visitors) can never get enough of this. The zingy flavors that are found in every meal, from sweet, sour, tangy, spicy, bitter fuse in endless manners to create tastes have won my palates’ seal of approval.
Once all my guests have arrived, we let the journey begin. Addis has beautiful Ethiopian
Without a guide, I’d still be wandering there, trying to find my way out. Fortunately Tesfaw, our guide and by now my good friend is with us, and shepherds us on to our next stop: the Itegue Taitu Hotel. Empress Taitu Betul, who chose Addis Ababa as site for the capital, was also concerned that visitors to her Empire also have food and lodgings, and she founded the first hotel and restaurant in Ethiopia in 1905. It is still in operation today, and this is our destination for a late lunch. It’s a modest looking building, the interior comfortable and exuding much faded charm. I love it for its historical significance, and also the food is pretty darn good. However for a taste of Ethiopia over a century ago, this place cannot be beat.