I am just back from Addis Ababa. It is big and sprawling and amazing and smoggy and fascinating and filled with traffic and rubble and green and yellow painted corrugated tin construction fences.
Food-wise the most stunning thing was that for the most part the Ethiopian food I encountered there was shockingly like the Ethiopian food I’ve had in the United States. One place, in particular, served up a “fasting foods” combination that seemed magically tele-transported from the long-defunct Odaa restaurant in Minneapolis where I ate many a “vegetarian combinations” in high school.
That said, not every bite was something I’d had before. A delicious example was a flat bread (ambesha) made for holidays (the occasion for my tasting was St. Michael’s Day) that seemed a lot like some version of foccacia topped with berbere and melted butter instead of rosemary or garlic. At first the cook didn’t want to top it with the berbere because she, like many Ethiopians, believed that foreigners don’t like spicy things. Our host, who was better versed in the many and varied ways of foreigners, assured her we would be fine. And as we pulled off pieces and stuffed them in our jet-lagged faces, we were.
An equally interesting example was the fried goat I tucked into at the “Honeymoon Resort” – that was the actual English name of the place, not some creepy euphemism as evidenced by the fact that it was filled with extended families enjoying a leisurely and in no way illicit lunch – and washed down with tej, the remarkably Tang-tasting slightly effervescent honey wine of Ethiopia.
The tej and goat were consolation for our inability to see the waterfall, baboons, and medieval monastery we had set out to see. As we headed back to Addis our driver-friend asked if we wanted to stop for lunch. There was a place famous for it “and meat too” in the next town. The answer to that type of question, in my mind, is always and enthusiastically yes.
After we toasted our unsuccessful but enjoyable morning with tej, our server offered us ox, sheep, or goat. When we chose goat he wondered if we would like it raw, boiled, or fried.
I wish I were brave enough to order raw goat at a roadside restaurant on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, where even in the city most meat is sold from shops like this open-air number where the butcher simply cuts off a piece of the carcass hanging behind him unrefrigerated and exposed to the dust and exhaust that fills the street -
- but fried it was. The oil, we figured, would take care of most possible contaminants. It arrived piping hot and was kept so by the live charcoal burning under the cast iron serving plate. Can you see them? The live embers?
We scooped up the small bits of crispy meat with the injera and dipped or dredged each bite in the trio of spicy dollops alongside. The tej softened the heat as we worked out way through the pile of goat. I soon forgot how very baboon-less my morning had been.
As we went about the rest of our day I noticed that my companion that day kept asking where the bathroom was and then sneaking off and back with alarming frequency. Later that night I learned exactly why. The next morning I started the day with just tea and crackers, but was right as rain by lunch time. It was my only instance of digestive disturbance during two weeks in Africa, and it served to remind me that discomfort is not always to be avoided.
Would I, knowing the lack of sleep I would get that night, still have eaten the fried goat in order to share a specialty with someone excited and proud to show off his country’s delicacies? Absolutely. Just as I happily endured the swollen feet that come with 24-plus hours of plane travel to get there in the first place.
More tales from Africa to come. I promise.