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 Ethiopian coffee ceremony

We’ve all heard of the Japanese tea ceremony, but in Ethiopia they have an elaborate ceremony for that other great caffeinated beverage–coffee.

The Ethiopians discovered coffee, surely the greatest of their many cultural achievements, so it’s not surprising they developed a ritual around it.

It was my wife’s birthday last week so I took her to Madrid’s one and only Ethiopian restaurant, Mesob Restaurante Etíope on Calle Manuela Malasaña. Madrileños will know that Malasaña is one of the best barrios in town for eating out, and I’m happy to say this outpost of East African culture is holding its own against some tough competition.

We arrived at the restaurant to find the settings laid out on a mat in front of our table. A portable stove, some handmade pitchers, and an incense burner were the main items. Our hostess sat on a wooden, three-legged stool and filled a small pot with unroasted coffee beans. She fired up the stove and started roasting them over the open flame.

As she shook the pot back and forth to turn the beans, she explained that the coffee ceremony is one of the cornerstones of social life in Ethiopia. Women go from house to house to see friends and end up attending four or five coffee ceremonies a day. She was also kind enough to teach me some Amharic and not smile too much at my bad pronunciation.

The beans were beginning to roast now and occasionally she took the pot off the flames and wafted the steam under our noses. Heaven! To keep us from going crazy waiting for the coffee she brought out some fatiira, which is sort of like a crepe made with honey. It’s a common dish for breakfast or at a coffee ceremony. As we munched she finished roasting the beans and lit an incense burner, which she passed close to our faces so we could get a good whiff. Then she ground up the beans and put them in a ceramic pitcher called a javena.

The javena went onto the stove and she poured some hot water into it. Not too much, mind you, because Ethiopian coffee is best served strong. We each got a nice cup and our hostess went back to making another javena of coffee. It’s interesting that only just enough is made at a time for each person to get a small cup. That way none goes to waste. You can, of course, just keep filling the javena if you want more coffee. We each had three cups but I’m sure the workers who carved all those churches at Lalibela out of sold rock probably drank more!

The whole ceremony took about an hour. I found it very relaxing, with the smell of the roasting beans and incense filling the air, and the soft rattle of the beans as they were shaken in the pot. The coffee was great, of course, but the best part was chatting with our hostess about life in Ethiopia and learning some Amharic in preparation for our trip in February. I’ll be interested to see if the coffee ceremonies are any different in the various regions of Ethiopia.

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Makeda in New Brunswick, NJ

MakedaA friend of mine thought after a long holiday celebrating food and feasting for days would slow down my appetite and for a second I did too, until I walked into the Ethiopian spot she had been talking about on our ride from the airport to my hotel. The only thing is I hadn’t eaten much during my travels my earlier that day, so by the time we made it to Makeda I felt like a lion who’d gone months without a meal. As we walked in and through the restaurant I saw the cutest set-up of African chairs and tables in the bar/lounge and several great pieces of art hanging from the wall. Before I even caught sight of the menu, I knew Makeda had flavor. Our hostess seated us in the main dining area towards the back, but close enough for me to look into the bar area. It was empty and quiet at the time of our arrival, but my friend states Makeda is the place to be on Friday nights when there is live music and lots going on. I tried to imagine handsome couples sitting together starring into the others eyes and digging into their delicious dishes with their hands. Passion being exchanged between each bite taken from the meal and love secrets being exchanged with each whisper across… Using my imagination started making me hungrier so I stopped to look at the menu and get some real food action going at the table.

To start I ordered Zaalouk, a diced pan fried eggplant in virgin olive oil with a blend of garlic, ginger, chopped parsley and cumin with a hint of lemon. It was too spicy according to my friend, but that only meant more for me and less for her. I gobbled down all the egg plant on my own after she sampled two. I thought it was well-seasoned and the right kick-off for any dinner. The main course followed shortly after I devoured the appetizer and what my waitress sat in front of me was by no means a small portion. The plate was filled with a hefty amount of everything I had ordered. My plate consisted of the following: Assa Tibs, marinated filet of Cape Hadie seasoned with fresh herbs, sautéed in Shiba wine with African salsa; and from the veggie menu Atakilt Wat and Ful with Ethiopian bread. I don’t recall breathing much as I wrapped my food into the bread almost taco-style and inhaled it off my plate. I was in an Ethiopian food lotus land. What had taken me so long to dine like this before? I’ve longed to visit the country for centuries almost, yet I’d never even taken the simple pleasure of eating out at an Ethiopian restaurant with so many past opportunities! Sometimes I don’t even understand myself or how I managed to finish the evening off with a serving of vanilla gelato, but I don’t question these things too long.

Although it was my first time eating Ethiopian cuisine, I’m going to highly recommend you go if you’ve never been. If you have by chance please share your thoughts.

Makeda Ethiopian Restaurant is located at 338 George Street, News Brunswick, NJ 08901. Ph. 732.545.5115. Meals range from $13-36.

D.C.’s Dukem Ethiopia Restaurant

Ethiopian SeafoodSince I’ll be spending a short weekend in D.C. two weeks from now, I thought I’d search for a dining experience that is new for both my father and myself. The Dukem Restaurant immediately sold itself as being that experience. I’ve eaten at several Zagat rated places, but never an Ethiopian one with a RAVING Zagat review! Not that I base my attendance at any place solely off reviews, but a number of recent great ones from CNN, USA Today, AOL CityGuide and numerous newspapers doesn’t hurt. Apparently Dukem has achieved local and national acclaim for exceptional cuisine and popular entertainment. Dinner shows run from 6PM – 9PM on a pretty regular basis and the atmosphere is elegant while being relaxed. As far as the food is concerned, Dukem Restaurant has a complete menu with dishes like sambusa, kitfo, tibs, kornis, alicha, and the fish and vegetarian combo which is only served during fasting season. Looks very, very promising. I can’t wait to dig in!

Dukem Ethiopian Restaurant is located at 1114-1118 U St. & 12th St NW, Washington D.C. 20009

Little Ethiopia – Los Angeles

Of all Los Angeles’ little ethnic neighborhoods one that I most regret spending the least amount of Little Ethiopiatime in is Little Ethiopia. I’d always cruise through the little area using Fairfax Ave as a way to weave in and out of city traffic. On a good day free of work and school, I would have pulled over and gazed into the shop windows or gone inside to make small-talk with the retailer, but these days were always few. So instead I kept my foot on the gas looking sadly out the window towards little Addis Ababa styled stores and restaurants. My heart would beat fast.

My interest in visiting Ethiopia one day is as genuine as visiting the other twenty plus countries on my growing list, but in the meanwhile I’ve got to learn to take advantage of the small finds tucked inside this melting pot of a country. There is a lot to learn and a lot to find on the tiny strip. For language enthusiasts kick back in a cafe and listen to the sounds of Amharic and Tigrinya, the two main languages of the country. The piece found here at Urban Mozaik appears a tad dated, but has a great handful of suggestions if you’re hungry for the cuisine. Merkato provides a more hands on experience to dining, while Nyala has a more Western one. If cold beer is the only thing on your mind, swing by for Harrar at Rosalind’s and Messob. Of all things I can promise you this – a stroll down the sidewalks of Little Ethiopia might not be far off L.A.’s beaten track, but it will be far more culturally enlightening than Hollywood Blvd.