Lemons, garlic, and olive oil. I call these the holy trinity of Lebanese cooking, she explained. Her smooth fingers glided from knife to board in a rhythmic motion that revealed years of practice in the kitchen. Flitting gracefully between the counter and the standalone stove, she went on to explain the foundations of her native cuisine: Turmeric and paprika go hand in hand – they are a marriage that you will see over and over again in our food. Another is the ‘baharat’ blend of allspice, pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg, which is typically used in sweet dishes in the West but in savory dishes in Lebanon. Here we are preparing the blend for ‘shakshukah’, a breakfast dish consisting of poached eggs in a thickened tomato sauce spiced with turmeric and paprika…
To the unsuspecting observer, this could easily have appeared a cooking class for farenjis (foreigners, in Amharic) – a sight not uncommon in Addis. Some do it to relieve boredom, but I suspect most do it to compensate for a lack of food-related activities and outlets in town.
In Ethiopia, food is generally seen as subsistence rather than indulgence, and cooking a daily chore rather than an art. In other words, people eat to live. (If you know anything about me, you’d know that I hold the opposite to be true: I live to eat.) When one considers the country’s history of poverty and famine, it makes sense that a culture of food appreciation and innovation hasn’t taken root here. It almost seems inappropriate to debate the purity of mitmita pepper blends available in the market when, all around you, hungry children are begging for five cents to buy bread. Even when you try to discuss cooking methods for traditional dishes, most people tend to respond with disinterest that “you just use the spice bags that you can get in local grocery stores.” For self-proclaimed foodies like me who come to Ethiopia with dreams of endless conversations about local food traditions and methods, the pervasive indifference is a real disappointment, especially given how varied and rich Ethiopian cuisine tends to be portrayed abroad.
And so you can imagine my excitement when Yasmine, a 28 year-old Lebanese-Canadian living in Addis, invited me to her house for an authentic Lebanese brunch and cooking demo. We had met one month earlier over dinner at a Lebanese restaurant. As the token representative at the table, she had given us an enthralling tour through the beautiful spread of mezze on the table. I remember being mesmerized by the passion she displayed for the food and, within it, the cultural heritage of her people. We learned that there are two sides to a piece of pita bread: a lighter, meatier side, and a darker, thinner side. We also learned social customs; for example, in characteristic Arab generosity, one would typically offer the preferable ‘meatier’ side of the pita to his or her dining companion. The browned side, with its deep, toasted flavor, would then be reserved for pairing with the grilled meats later on in the meal.
Amazingly, the nuances extended to each plate on the table. Tabbouleh requires that the parsley be fully dried before chopping, and tradition has it that you scoop the chopped salad into the lettuce ‘boats’ lining the plate. We even got cooking tips: If you want, you can even add green Tabasco sauce, which adds depth to the acidic notes… it’s the family secret! By contrast, the ‘farm salad’ (called fattoush in Arabic) is a simpler dish—more forgiving of the ingredients chosen by convenience. By the time Yasmine was done with Lebanese Cuisine 101, there was no doubt in my mind that we would be great friends.
And that is why I am writing about a Lebanese brunch today, rather than Ethiopian food as I had promised earlier. We started around 10am on a Sunday morning, washing, peeling, chopping, and mixing dozens of ingredients we had gathered the previous day. Yasmine put together a fine menu:
- Rosewater lemonade
- Coffee spiced with cardamom
- Labneh — a tangy yoghurt dip with crushed garlic and dried mint leaves
- Foul (not pictured) — Lebanese-style fava beans with lemon, garlic, and olive oil
- Shakshukah — a traditional Palestinian dish of poached eggs in a red pepper tomato sauce (Note from Yasmine: the red pepper paste is known as ‘harissa’ in North African cooking.)
- Ijjeh (not pictured) — an omelet with zucchini pulp and cinnamon spice (ijjeh is a Lebanese style omlet usually served as small fritters)
- Slices of white cheese — flavored with pepper (Note: also called ‘Istanbouli’ cheese)
- Side plate of fresh vegetables: sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, green onions, radishes, fresh mint, and olives
- Technically not a mezze dish, but… Fresh pita bread!
- Fresh grapefruit, oranges and strawberries
- Sfouf — little squared pieces of sweet yellow cake made with semolina, tahini, and turmeric spice
- Fresh dates
The results? See below for a visual feast. My favorite was probably the sfouf cake. Sfouf means ‘rows’ in Arabic, and the naming derives from the fact that sfouf is typically arranged in rows. The semolina flour imparts a rough, gritty texture, complemented by faint scents of turmeric and rosewater. Because we had greased the cake pan with tahini, the hardened crust was especially fragrant with strong hints of sesame. I can’t wait to make it again myself.
While we are on the topic of food, I thought I’d share this amazing looking pizza that we found in… well, a neighborhood bakery. The dining scene in Ethiopia has strong Italian influences — from the ubiquitous Italian pastries in all the coffee shops to even pasta on injera, the traditional Ethiopian bread. That said, I was not expecting to find pizza in a bakery. Pretty brilliant idea if you ask me!
After two weeks of downed internet connection, I’ve accumulated a couple of posts to share. But, before then, I am off to the Northern region of Ethiopia tomorrow (Bahir Dar and Gonder) for the long holiday weekend. More updates to come next week!