Eating in the Horn of Africa: camel, goat and. . .spaghetti?

Horn of Africa, Somaliland
When my wife and I went to the Horn of Africa last year for our Ethiopia road trip, we were eagerly looking forward to a culinary journey. We weren’t disappointed. Ethiopian food is one of our favorites and of course they make it better there than anywhere else!

While it came as no surprise that the food and coffee were wonderful, the cuisine in the Horn of Africa turned out to be more varied and nuanced that we expected. The two countries I’ve been to in the region, Ethiopia and Somaliland, have been connected to the global trade routes for millennia. Their national cuisines have absorbed influences from India, the Arab world, and most recently Italy.

Ethiopians love meat, especially beef and chicken. One popular dish is kitfo–raw, freshly slaughtered beef served up with various fiery sauces. I have to admit I was worried about eating this but I came through OK. Chicken is considered a luxury meat and is more expensive than beef. One Ethiopian friend was surprised to hear that in the West chicken is generally cheaper than beef.

Ethiopian booze is pretty good too. Tej is a delicious honey wine and tella is a barley beer. They also make several brands of lager and one of stout.

I’ve also spent time in the Somali region of Ethiopia and Somaliland. Living in arid lowlands rather than green and mountainous highlands, the Somalis have a very different cuisine than the Ethiopians. A surprising staple of Somali cooking is pasta. Actually on second thought it isn’t so surprising. The former Somalia was an Italian colony for a few decades. Italian food is popular in Eritrea and Ethiopia as well and makes for a refreshing change from local cuisine. Some Somalis are still pastoral nomads, moving through the arid countryside with their herds of camels and goats much like their ancestors did centuries ago. Pasta is a perfect food for nomads–compact, lightweight, nutritious, and easy to prepare.

The only downside to eating pasta in the Somali region is that Somalis, like most Africans, eat with their hand. I made quite a fool of myself trying to eat spaghetti with my hand!

%Gallery-136247%Goat is a popular meat in the Somali region and is served in a variety of ways. I love a good goat and have eaten it in a dozen countries. It’s tricky to cook, though, and can easily be overdone and end up stringy and flavorless. Good goat, however, is one of the best meats around. For some expert opinion, check out Laurel Miller’s fun post on the cultural aspects of eating goat.

While goat is the main meat for Somalis, what they really like is camel. These ships of the desert are expensive, so camel meat is usually reserved for special occasions like weddings. Wealthy, urban professionals eat it fairly regularly, though. At the Hadhwanaag Restaurant and Hotel in Hargeisa, capital of Somaliland, expert chefs slow-cook goat and camel in clay ovens that look much like tandoori ovens. The meat comes out deliciously tender and fragrant. Lunch at the Hadhwanaag was easily one of my top five meals in Africa.

Oh, and don’t forget Somali tea! A mixture of black tea, spices, and camel’s milk, it’s almost identical to Indian chai. The perfect pick-me-up after a long day seeing Somaliland’s painted caves or looking for your next edible ride at the camel market.

The Horn of Africa has an unfair reputation for warfare and famine. This is because it only gets on the news when something bad happens there. It makes a great adventure travel destination, though, and the determined traveler will find fascinating sights, friendly people, and great food. With any luck I’ll be back there in 2012!

The n-word, the g-word and the hidden perils of travel

n-word, Ice-TLiving in Spain, I get a lot of questions about the United States. One of the most common, and certainly the most disturbing, is if it’s OK to use the N-word.

Let me just say from the outset that I think the term “N-word” is silly. By using it you immediately think of the word I’m trying not to say so, in a sense, I’ve actually said it. On the other hand, if I actually used the word n—–, Gadling would fire my ass, and they’d be right to.

N—– is getting more and more common on American TV shows that get broadcast here. The Wire uses it in almost every scene. Most Spaniards realize it’s a bad word, but are confused to hear it used on TV by whites and blacks alike. I’ve had to explain on more than one occasion that it hasn’t become OK. At least it isn’t OK with this white boy. I don’t think it’s OK for black people to use either, but they’re probably not interested in my opinion.

Now anybody with two brain cells to rub together knows TV isn’t reality, but if you’ve never been to a country before, TV is probably the main way you know about it. The average European has spent far more time watching American TV than talking to actual Americans. Like the guy I met in a bar who was about to go to the U.S. for the first time and used n—— during our conversation. He wasn’t a racist, he just thought the word was OK now. I’m glad I got to talk to him before he got his butt kicked.

I had a similar experience when I spent two months living in Harar, Ethiopia. I was researching a book on Ethiopian history and kept coming across a name for a tribe called the G—-. This word appears in many English-language books about Ethiopia, including many modern ones. One day I was chewing qat with my friend Mohammed Jami Guleid (harartourguide @gmail.com) a local guide and historian, in a small village near Harar. Casually I asked him, “Who are the G—-?”

Mohammed gave me a look like I had just farted in a mosque.”Where did you hear that word?” he asked in a low voice.

“It’s in a lot of books. Some mentioned that the G—- live around Harar.”

“We’re in an Oromo village!” he said, eyes wide.

“So?” I said, confused.

Mohammed shook his head and explained, “It’s an old term for Oromo given to them by the Emperor Menelik. Don’t use it. It’s very insulting. It’s the most insulting thing you can say.”

So insulting, in fact, that I’m not writing it here. Of course, Gadling wouldn’t fire me for using the G-word because the Oromo don’t have any political power in the United States, but respect is respect.

Menelik conquered Harar in 1887 and proceeded to starve the surrounding Oromo clans into submission. About half the population died. Needless to say, the Oromo don’t think very highly of Menelik, even though he’s a hero to many other Ethiopians because he smashed the Italian army at the Battle of Adowa in 1896. Different people see history differently because they experienced it differently. Something to remember the next time Black History Month rolls by.

So when preparing for a trip, it’s important to do your homework and understand the different ethnic groups in that country, otherwise you may inadvertently cause offense by saying something you heard on television, or in my case read in a bunch of history books written by people who should have known better!

If you’re going to Ethiopia and are worried about the G-word, drop me a line privately and I’ll fill you in on the word you can’t say. And if you write out the full word for n—– or G—- in the comments section, I’ll delete it as soon as I see it.

[Photo of Ice-T, who uses the n-word waaaaay too much, is courtesy Steve Rapport]

Ten (more) random observations about Ethiopia

Ethiopia, Harar

When writing last year’s Ethiopia travel series, I collected twelve random observations about Ethiopia. These were interesting bits of information that didn’t fit in any of my articles. While writing my Harar travel series, I collected ten more.

1. The standard traveler’s money belt that hangs from your neck and is tucked under your shirt is very amusing to Ethiopians because Oromo women wear them. You’ll often see them digging them out in the market to get change. The above photo shows them being made.

2. The banknotes smell spicy. This is because Ethiopians eat with their hands and then handle money in order to pay for their meal. A few years of this treatment makes Ethiopian money smell like a spice stall in the market. Crisp, odorless banknotes fresh from the bank don’t seem real!

3. The currency is called birr, which means “silver.” Before coins became common, people used more practical objects as currency, such as bullets and slabs of salt.

4. Ethiopians have a unique dance called the uuzkista in which you jiggle your shoulders back and forth. Check out the video to see how it’s done.

5. I noticed that many crosses people wear are all the same bright green color. I wondered about this until one night I was walking down a dark street with an Ethiopian friend and noticed her cross was glowing in the dark. Soon I was seeing glowing Crucifixions everywhere.

6. Since most streets lack lighting, many cell phones come equipped with a mini flashlight.

7. To get a waiter’s attention, snap your fingers or clap your hands. What’s rude in one culture is normal in another. I saw a guy get kicked out of a restaurant in New York for doing this because in the West it’s the ultimate in low-class boorishness. Here in Ethiopia it’s completely acceptable, but it took me a long time before I could bring myself to clap at a waiter.

8. There’s a shortage of postcards in Ethiopia. Ethiopians aren’t in the habit of sending postcards and the fledgling tourism industry hasn’t printed many. Some entrepreneurs have taken matters into their own hands. In Gondar a local photographer wanders around the castles selling images he’s taken. It isn’t a proper postcard, but the post office accepts them.

9. When Ethiopians shake hands, they bump each other’s shoulder. If your hand is dirty because you’ve been eating, keep your hand closed and your arm straight down to signal that you can’t shake hands. Instead the other person grabs the forearm and does the shoulder bump. If both people’s hands are dirty, you touch forearms and still do the shoulder bump. Don’t forget the shoulder bump!

10. Farmers often carry water in gourds. Now some entrepreneur has come up with the modern equivalent-plastic gourds in bright colors! Some fashionable farmers are carrying these instead of bothering to prepare their own natural gourds.

This wraps up my series Harar, Ethiopia: Two months in Africa’s city of Saints. Thanks for joining me on my adventure through the Horn of Africa!