by Drew Martin
It is interesting that the country that I first associate with hunger, Ethiopia, because of the 1983-1985 famine that led to nearly half a million deaths, is home to one of my favorite cuisines. A good Ethiopian restaurant also defines for me a livable neighborhood, such as one I frequent in New York, and others I have visited in D.C., Boston, Cambridge, San Francisco, Berkeley, and Amsterdam.
The traditional dining experience is centered around one of my favorite food-related sculptural objects, the mesob (pictured second from top), a colorful, wicker basket/table with a conical lid, which is filled with a large plate covered with injera, a spongy bread that is something like an edible washcloth. The most authentic injera is grayish brown because of teff flour, but many restaurants serve a whiter, wheat-flour version, which is never as good as the teff injera. The injera is covered with different islands of mushy but delicious, legumes, vegetables, and meats (although vegetarian combinations are filling and satisfying on their own).
A world away in America, the mid-80s Ethiopian famine was not only on people’s minds because it got a lot of press here, but because it created a social response through popular media. The U.K.’s assembled Band Aid with the likes of Bob Geldof, Phil Collins, Bono, George Michael, Sting, Boy George, Paul McCartney, and David Bowie (plus others) sang their hearts out so people would reach into their pockets and donate to relief efforts. Their song Do They Know It’s Christmas? was created with good intentions but it was totally self-righteous, and offensive with a superiority theme and idiotic lyrics such as "…And there won't be snow in Africa this Christmastime…Where nothing ever grows, No rain nor rivers flow…."
Even worse was the album cover (pictured third from top) with a kitsch Christmas-themed collage of illustrations and vintage photographs of spoiled white kids in contrast to two poor and malnourished Ethiopian children, covered in flies, with what appear to be Pop-Tarts in their hands.
A U.S. approach followed on the heels of this with a slightly-better We Are The World, which was written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie, and featured a sea of performers including, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Tina Turner, Billy Joel, Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick, Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen, Cyndi Lauper, Ray Charles, and Bob Dylan. But like the U.K. project, and despite raising a lot of money, this effort had its criticism and got lost in the hype/ego and fame of the performers.
Fortunately, the American view of Ethiopia has improved, and while not much is still known/discussed here, the stereotypes of great endurance runners, beautiful people, and delicious food are positive. While many people may not know Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee, fewer probably grasp that Ethiopian scientists have contributed to advances in satellite radio systems, superfast computers, and genetic engineering.
On a recent trip to Boston, I stayed at a dorm-like residence in a lively neighborhood in the South End. For my first night I ate at an Ethiopian restaurant around the corner, and for my second night I walked to Cambridge to go to an Eritrean restaurant I had passed on an earlier trip. When I mentioned to the waitress I had not tried Eritrean food before, she said it is basically Ethiopian food, and when I ordered a beer with my spinach and collard greens dish, they only had Ethiopian brews. Despite the familiar mesob and injera, I thought it was better in that it was spicier.
I told the beer specialist at my local liquor store back home about the beers I had, and how I was disappointed they did not serve Eritrean beer at the Eritrean restaurant. He mentioned the Frank Zappa quote:
You can't be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline. It helps if you have some kind of a football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer.
Ethiopia has more than a dozen beers. One of my favorite is a fairly new (2013) amber version of the St. George (pictured bottom). They also have Ethiopian Airlines. Eritrea has at least one beer, Asmara, as well as a fleet of planes for Eritrean Airlines, although it has been banned from flying into the European Union since 2012.
Listen/watch: Do They Know It's Christmas?
Listen/watch: We Are The World