There is more to Ethiopian food than tasty, hearty dishes. We explore the philosophy behind a cuisine that may well be the next big thing
Ethiopian food deconstructed: a symbol of love
By the time you read this, the party will already be underway.
Monday is New Year’s Day, according to the Ethiopian calendar (which is based on the Julian Calendar), and it heralds not only the end of the country’s four-month rainy season, but the conclusion of a five-day fast. Celebrations began with pre-dawn religious services, before the UAE’s nearly 10,000-strong Ethiopian community dispersed to visit family and friends.
With a sizeable international Ethiopian diaspora – estimated at around two million and spread mainly across Western Europe and North America – coupled with growing international interest in a nation steeped in culture, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to imagine Ethiopian New Year joining the ranks of Mexico’s Cinco De Mayo and Ireland’s St Patrick’s Day as a major global celebration, marked with parties and street festivals.
But that isn’t the Ethiopian way, according to Meley Tsegaye, an Ethiopian national who has called the UAE home for seven years. “It is about family, friends and generally being grateful,” she explains. “And at the centre of it all, I mean literally, is the food. There is no New Year without good, hearty food.”
Tsegaye knows what she is talking about. As the manager of the Abu Dhabi branch of the popular Ethiopian eatery Bonna Annee, on Salam Street, she explains that New Year’s Day is a bustling time for trade, as Ethiopian expats share celebratory meals with friends and loved ones.
While it can be consumed on any day, the occasion’s signature dish is doro wat, which literally translates to chicken stew. The dish takes no prisoners when it comes to flavour. Pieces of chicken breast or leg are cooked in a thick red curry made from the traditional berbere spice, chilli powder, fenugreek and ginger, and served with a boiled egg.
If that isn’t daunting enough for those with a mild disposition, doro wat – like all Ethiopian curries and stews – is served on top of a bed of injera, a gluten free spongy sourdough flatbread. The overwhelmed look of my non-Ethiopian eating companion when the food is served, is something that Tsegaye has become all too familiar with. We sit on a circular table around a large serving pan. The doro wat sits proudly in the middle.
The dish is served with no accompanying plates. Looking across the restaurant, which is festooned with serene images of the northern Ethiopian mountain region of Gondar and the classic urban splendour of the capital Addis Ababa, I release there is not a single knife and fork on the near dozen nondescript tables.
“This happens all the time when non-Ethiopians visit for the first time,” she explains. “They are taken aback, and are very intimidated by the fact you have to eat the food with your hands. Now, some restaurants may provide a knife and fork but I don’t do that. It defeats the whole purpose. So I encourage customers to use their hands. I explain to them and tell them how to do it.”
Tsegaye demonstrates how it’s done – she takes a healthy strip of injera and spreads it across her four fingers, which are cupped in a semi-circle. The sizeable amount of curry scooped up remains in place due to her thumb, which acts as an anchor, limiting any spillage.
The doro wat is impactful; the berbere offers a spicy punch, while the ginger gives the chicken a strong aromatic flavour. It is here that the boiled egg starts to make sense – the creamy, powdery texture of the yolk undercuts all that heat.
It is worth noting that not all Ethiopian dishes are a carnivore’s delight or high on spice. A hallmark of the Ethiopian Orthodox faith is numerous periods of fasting, which include the non-permissibility of consuming any dairy products. As a result, a wide variety of hearty vegan dishes form part of the nation’s cuisine.
Often times, deeply sautéed onions are used as a replacement for clarified butter. “That is probably the first and toughest job in the kitchen. We spend nearly two hours cooking the onion until it becomes this thick paste,” Tsegaye explains. “We use about 30 kilograms of onions per day here.”
A highlight of the vegan offering is undoubtedly shiro, a decadently creamy curry made from powdered chickpeas or broad beans. Tsegaye is amused at the notion that it could be considered as the Ethiopian hummus. Then there is the alicha, a stew made from potato and carrots, and the ye’abesha gomen, which is essentially seasoned and braised collard greens and kale.
It is partly the latter that drew Rosalind Hester to Ethiopian food. The African-American schoolteacher, who flew in from North Carolina to Abu Dhabi last week to celebrate New Year’s Day with Tsegaye’s family, says she identifies with the communal spirit coursing through Ethiopian cuisine.
“As far as I am concerned, this is African soul food,” Hester says. “You’ve got the collard greens and the chicken. It is all just big and rich flavours. Whenever I try it, I just think of my grandma’s cooking back home.”
For Seyoum Getahun, the link is more direct. The Ethiopian taxi driver, who is a regular at Bonna Annee, explains that he didn’t grow up with the notion that food is something merely to be consumed. “It is deeper for me,” he says.
“I grew up in a village near Addis Ababa, and I can tell you that in many of the houses, there are no individual plates. Instead, each family has one big sharing plate which they eat from, or share with guests. It is about eating together. We use the food not just to fill the stomach, but to also grow and continue relationships.”
Getahun, who has spent nearly a decade in Abu Dhabi, highlights an important social custom dubbed gursha. Literally translated from the native Amharic language to mean “mouthful”, gursha is the principle that all relationships – ranging from the familial to friendships to a business deal – are ratified over a shared meal.
“I view it as a symbol of love,” Getahun says wistfully. “Nothing has meaning without you giving it gursha. Once you share that food, then whatever you are doing becomes good and important.”
The concept formed the inspiration behind chef Beide Worku’s debut restaurant. Launched in November last year, Gursha Dubai is located in the Palm Jumeirah’s picturesque Club Vista Mare. With a mix of cabana-inspired furniture, Ethiopian fabrics and earthy art work, Gursha Dubai is arguably the most glamorous Ethiopian restaurant in the UAE, and marks an ideal entry point for the uninitiated.
“In my experience, there are two kinds of Ethiopian restaurants,” Worku states. “There is the good hole-in-the-wall kind of place and then there is the other kind, which is on a main street, but the food is really not Ethiopian. I wanted to combine both and do it right. While, based on the location, our patrons are mostly non-Ethiopian, we do get our fair share of Ethiopians as well.”
With the restaurant hosting weekly cultural performances, including music and dance, Worku looks at Gursha Dubai as confirmation that Ethiopian food is officially in vogue. “I do feel there is this movement of people now who just want to have something authentic. They want to experience real food and make real connections,” he says.
“I think that Ethiopian food does that. It is inclusive in that anyone can eat it, whether you are gluten intolerant or a vegan, and it is just a lot of fun. I think it is now the new cool food.”