Rutina Samuel (27/06/2014)
Africa. It has a rich cultural tapestry has always captivated me; the flamboyant attire, the many languages and tribal rituals and the music that has so heavily influenced the more western R&B I love to listen to. Music, and particular singing, is a great passion of mine and has become what I live and breathe, what keeps me calm and concentrated when I need it most. That said, it is second only to the most important cultural treasure the “Dark Continent” has gifted to me; food.
My father is Ethiopian. Some of my earliest memories are of my father and I travelling into nearby South Africa to buy clothes, jewellery, hats and scarves for our family run store from the colourful markets Johannesburg is inundated with. Although I loved the hot scotch eggs and fried dough treats you could find on street corners, my favourite thing about ‘Jozi’ was the Ethiopian cafés, coffee houses and restaurants. I quickly learnt about Injera how to eat it in the traditional way, all with the help of my father of course.
Not once have I ever used a utensil to eat Ethiopian food; it is simply not the done thing. Ethiopian food is eaten with your hands. Injera is a spongy sourdough flatbread native to Ethiopia and Eritrea and is made from Teff flour which is a grain that originates in the Ethiopian and Eritrean region. The flour is mixed with water and left to ferment overnight and is then cooked in a flat pan giving it an almost pancake-like appearance. It is then placed on a flat dish and is the base for the many curries (Wats), vegetables and salads that can be eaten with it. For instance Tibs, shredded meat of choice sautéed with berbere (traditional seasoning typically consisting of ground ginger, cardamom, chillies, cloves, nutmeg and allspice) and other vegetables.
Ethiopian cuisine is suited to people of varied dietary needs. The actual Injera bread is yeast and gluten free, making it ideal for those with Coeliac Disease or Yeast Intolerance. Vegetarians have the option of eating Misr Wat, a red lentil stew made using berbere, Yemisir Wat or Misir Alicha (variations of lentil stews using different seasoning such as turmeric sauce or using a different type of lentil). My personal favourite vegetarian dish is Gomen Kitfo which is boiled and dried collard greens that are then seasoned with chilli and mixed with cottage cheese. Although I tend to steer clear of cottage cheese in western meals, Gomen Kitfo provides a sourness tinged with the heat of the chilli that I feel compliments the other wats on the mixed communal platter that around 4 people can all eat from. Another vegetable dish I adore is Tikil Gomen which consists of cabbage, potatoes and carrots seasoned with salt, pepper, turmeric and garlic. I feel that the mildness of this dish as well as that of the surprisingly western salad always readily available, delivers a sort of respite from the heat and spice of the other wats.
As previously mentioned, I moved from vibrant market and agricultural town in southern Africa to a relatively quiet old market town in Norfolk, South East of England. Don’t get me wrong, I love England and all the opportunities this beautiful country has provided me with, but I do catch myself daydreaming about the food and people I could be learning about and from, first-hand.
So great is this yearning for further knowledge of my heritage that I regularly drag my mother to a small Ethiopian restaurant near Finsbury Park called The Blue Nile. The fact that I speak a grand total of about six words of my father’s native language (Amharic) has always made me feel like a foreigner amongst my own people. Despite the language barrier, one waitress sat with us for a good twenty minutes explaining what each dish on the menu was, how spicy the dish was and which dishes went together the best. It may not have been a Michelin star worthy establishment but to me it may well have been Buckingham Palace. The most important thing was that I reconnected with my roots and my traditions which was something I feared would not happen unless a boarded a plane back to Africa. That restaurant has become my little piece of Ethiopia and I am determined to never forget where I came from.
Author: Rutina Samuel Email: