Brizaf isn’t home when we arrive at the compound: an oblong-shaped courtyard with rooms that open onto a grapevine and brick pile, a cooker for injera housed in a sheltered corner. Hannah is greeted by Meron with a bright, luminous face and twin braids that begin at her widow’s peak and wind back around her scalp. It has been months – Hannah has been in another part of Ethiopia, and her Mekelle family has missed her dearly. We take a seat in the house – one room, but not so cramped – and wait for Brizaf to arrive.
Meron fanning the flames of the brazier, gomen (cabbage) cooking
This is my second trip to Ethiopia this year; the first was for the Fellow program’s midyear conference held in Addis Ababa in March. This time, I’m on Hannah’s farewell tour, saying goodbye to the disparate places where she worked during the 2014-2016 fellowship cycles. First to Arba Minch, found in Ethiopia’s deep southlands, green crags of the Western edge of the Great Rift Valley; followed by a night in Addis and a flight to the opposite pole of the country, Mekelle (also spelled Makele or Mek’ele, among others) far closer to the contentious border with Eritrea, once unioned with Ethiopia.
Brizaf has come back home, her son Unael beside her. She greets Hannah with effusive hugs and kisses, shakes my hand and kisses me four times – double the Italian style – and forces me into a seat on the sofa. We are banned from any form of work to help her in preparing the food: thus, today is a lesson in Ethiopian cooking and hospitality, to watch the food that I’ve eaten for a week be prepared in front of me, with the loving cook squatting in front of a charcoal brazier on the house floor.
We brought cabbage, tomatoes, onions, and potatoes – the base of the cuisine. Meron works from a cutting board, a worn object with a deep center divot, chopping the cabbage into strips, her knees on either side. On the brazier, a two-tiered cooker with fire in the lower cavern heating an open, upper bowl where a pot is nestled among black and grey charcoal chips, everything is smoldering. In the pot, an inch of oil bubbles with pinches of chopped garlic, tomato, and onion – Brizaf, the overseeing chef, checks Meron’s work and stirs in the gomen (cabbage), settles the lid on top, and sets her daughter to the task of fanning the brazier fire.
In Ethiopian cooking, there seem to be two primary spice foundations – red or yellow. It reminds me of New Mexico roadtrips, where every dish ordered requires either red or green peppers, and waiter follow your request with that question, “red or green?” For today’s gomen, the base will be yellow: alicha, a mix of tumeric, cumin, and ginger, enflamed as needed with hot peppers.
Alicha, a spice blend of tumeric, cumin, and ginger
The second base – red – is found in another dish for today’s lunch: silsi, an oily, oniony fire blended with pulped tomato, garlic, and Ethiopian magic. The red is berbere, a mix of spices that lies at the root of nearly every dish. Each cook has his or her own berbere blend, consisting of dried and ground chili peppers, garlic, ginger, and basil, and a collection of spices local to the Horn: korarima, rue, nigella, and fenugreek.
Today’s meal could be a fasting one – in Ethiopia, fasting refers to vegan food, instead of absolute abstinence. Sudan might be the most Muslim place I have visited, but Ethiopia is the most Christian – practiced in the orthodox variety, with dogma infiltrating everyday aspects of life (the definition, after all, of Orthodoxy). Menus list “fasting” items separate – always the vegan accommodation. When the gomen is finished, Brizaf starts the shiro, spooning the ochre-colored powder from a Quaker oats can. Shiro is ground chickpea and spices, a powder mixed with water and oil and sometimes, if you have the means, onions and tomatoes. She mixes it slowly with oil and berbere, scrapping the powder from the edges of the pot as it boils and bubbles, thickening like like an orange edible lava. Americans, sometimes we forget – oil is not just for taste but needed calories, especially when your diet consists of injera and gomen and berbere. In my photographs, the finished shiro comes out smooth, silken, deep orange.
I follow Hannah to arrange my plate: unroll injera, the bread base. Injera is made from tef, a local grain, mixed with water and allowed to ferment for a period before being cooked on a smooth, hot surface – the cooker from the yard, with a space beneath the griddle surface for open flame. The result is a vehicle for both arranging food and a getting that food to your mouth – no utensils, just torn strips of injera to pick up gomen and shiro.
Lunch plate: injera base, with shiro, gomen, and silsi, clockwise from 12
Brizaf continues her hospitable chores as we eat. She is a woman of the village, now settled in one of the largest Ethiopian cities. Her forehead sweeps back from her brows, crossed by a thread-like braid, Tigryan style. A chain from one side of her forehead to the other, gathered at the middle, demonstrates her status as a married woman. She is tattooed as well: a faint circle between her brows and spaced chains on her neck. Meron makes a plate to split with her brother, and gives the first bite – a pocket of injera with shiro, silsi, and gomen in a happy mass – to her mother. Brizaf’s hands are busy – she’s begun the coffee ceremony, roasting green and pale brown coffee beans in a small pot. She shakes them like popcorn, popping and darkening and calls after her daughter, who roots through the curio cabinet for fancier cups – a prerogative for guests.
Coffee ceremony, beans roasting
As with Ethiopian coffee tradition, a full spread is laid: beans roasting in a pot on the brazier, a smaller incense burner pipping with charcoal and a stick of incense, small china cups and saucers that resemble espresso cups. Coffee is an ancient ceremony in Ethiopia, outpacing the Italian occupation and the West’s obsession with the beans. She shakes the smoking pot, beans now roasted black, for us to smell – the beans almost oiled black and deep brown. She puts the jebena – the round bottom traditional coffee pot – onto the brazier coals as we finish our lunch, the oil of silsi coating our fingers.
We drink cups of coffee, three in total, stirred with sugar. Throughout, Hannah uses her Tigrinya and Brizaf speaks to us – sometimes through her older son, able to translate, often through smiles and phrases we cannot understand.
Cup Number Three
There are moments, though, that we speak the same language. She laughs as Hannah takes photos of her son and shows them to him, his bashful smiles becoming peals of laughter. I show her pictures of my niece and nephew, 4 and 2, dressed in their Easter best and she smiles and kisses my phone. It’s the universality of the human experience, that we don’t always need the same language to communicate. She speaks to us with her food, we speak to her by our enjoyment of it: the heart of hospitality.
Much love to Hannah for always explaining Ethiopian ways to me.