Ethiopia, Coming Home
Published: April 2009
By Matt Lee, Ted Lee
Thousands of young emigrés raised in the West are reconnecting with their homeland. One of them, star chef Marcus Samuelsson, invites <em>Matt Lee</em> and <em>Ted Lee</em> to join him on a culinary tour of Addis Ababa
The lanky, rifle-toting man who blocked our path wore olive fatigues and a matching Chairman Mao cap. It was as if he hadn’t gotten word that the Dergue, the repressive socialist regime that came to power in Ethiopia in the mid-seventies, had been overthrown 15 years ago. And when our driver said curtly, "Hide your cameras," it dawned on us that this could be serious.
Driving to Mount Entoto had seemed like a marvelous idea. The mountain rises 2,625 feet above Addis Ababa, and from its summit, we’d been told, you can gaze out upon the capital city cradled serenely in the foothills.
So we had enlisted Workafes Waldemariam, Addis born and bred, to take us there at sunset. The winding ride up the mountain, windows down, was glorious: Addis sits at an elevation of 8,000 feet, so as we climbed higher, the air became cooler and perfumed by eucalyptus. In lush clearings, boys played soccer in the waning light, and soon the horizon appeared about a hundred yards from the asphalt. But it was when we turned onto the dirt road that seemed to lead to the choicest lookout that we found the sentry with his gun, standing in front of a chain.
Waldemariam addressed him with a nod, and, miraculously, he unfastened the chain. So we drove onward, got out of the car, and tiptoed—cameras concealed—to a rocky promontory, where the sun was just dropping behind the Bale Mountains in the distance. Beneath us, past the city’s sparse network of avenues, the runway lights of a spanking-new airport blinked to life.
And then, from behind, came a middle-aged man in a three-piece corduroy suit, smiling broadly and calling out enthusiastically. Did we know, he asked, that we stood on the spot where the emperor Menelik II, in 1879, looked upon the valley and decided to build a new city?Was it not beautiful?he asked. The building near where we’d parked was a gallery, he said, in which his paintings were exhibited. Did we not want to see them?We said we were a bit pressed for time. No matter, he replied. If we returned in 18 months, he continued, his observation deck would be complete, beyond the gallery—a tower rising to the sky with a restaurant at the top.
There’s a new exuberance and extroversion in Ethiopia, one that we’d heard about 7,000 miles away, from Marcus Samuelsson, the acclaimed chef of the Scandinavian restaurant Aquavit, in Manhattan. Born in Ethiopia and orphaned when he was three years old, Samuelsson was adopted by Swedish parents and grew up in Göteborg. By the time he was 24, he was at the helm of Aquavit, the youngest chef to have earned three stars from the New York Times.
In 1997, when Samuelsson was 27, he returned to Ethiopia for the first time, and found that as the political climate had stabilized over the previous five years, thousands of other expatriates who had left the country decades before—either because they were adopted, like him, or had to flee the Dergue regime—were returning to their homeland and reestablishing ties with their families, or creating new ones.
Since that trip, Samuelsson has returned every year, and we asked him if he would be our guide to the new Addis. In our time in Addis Ababa, we found a palpable feeling of a country on the move. Many of the so-called repatriates are investing in the country, and you sense that spirit everywhere, not only on the summit of Entoto but also in the city’s nightclubs and restaurants, in conversations with artists and musicians. Vestiges of the old Addis remain—namely, crippling poverty among the majority of the population, and a government that still seems to be shaking itself free of militaristic, Eastern-bloc bureaucracy. But it’s just as likely that beyond that imposing security guard in hand-me-down fatigues is an entrepreneur on the verge of building the tallest tower in Africa.
Like some Americans, we first experienced Africa’s second-most populous country through the cuisine of Ethiopian restaurants in New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C. We’d been enchanted by the way Ethiopians dine—family-style, with dishes gathered on a single platter on a layer of thin, spongy bread called injera in Amharic. Deliciously tangy and slightly malty, injera is a utensil of sorts: you tear a piece from the edge and use it to scoop and wrap up bites of the various dishes of the meal—often curry-style purées, minces, and stews arranged in the center of the bread. And the more we tasted these dishes, the more we craved their ﬂavors: ﬁery chile pastes nuanced with shades of fruit, cinnamon, and clove; citrusy, camphorous spices and herbs that seemed to transport us to a place we’d never been.
As soon as we landed in Addis, Samuelsson took us to just such a place: the merkato. Like a city unto itself, the merkato sprawls across a gently hilly district west of the capital. Its miles of tiny, corrugated-tin stalls are divided by narrow alleys into districts; there are spice, fresh produce, and coffee areas, and one devoted solely to the herbed butter called niter kibe.
On that hazy morning, we walked down a narrow, cobblestoned lane, dodging vendors balancing coops of squawking chickens on their heads. In the neighborhood where berbere—the ground mixtures of chiles, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, and coriander that are East Africa’s analog to India’s masalas—are made and sold, we smelled the sweet aroma of roasted tomatoes and peppers coming from the doorway of a small stone house, and stepped through this entrance into an unlit room. Men dusted head to toe in red powder stood at the tops of tall ladders, feeding sun-baked chiles into mills that deposited the scarlet spice into ever-growing mounds on the floor. Another worker then shoveled piles beneath the mills into a pyramid of berbere whose tip nearly touched the ceiling.
"Is that incredible?" Samuelsson asked, as we struggled to breathe amid the fog of powdered chile. We pressed on to the honey district, and bought a pound of raw honey, stiff and opaque, with both an intense sweetness and a slightly bitter edge. In a narrow lane of dried-herb vendors, we spied what looked like a bouquet garni, with the perfume of basil, oregano—and marijuana. We learned that the bundle was composed of hops and steeping herbs for making the Ethiopian honey wine called tej. Though it was just past 11 a.m., we were ready for a drink, so we set out in pursuit of a tej bar.
In a district of luggage makers, we found Gonder Tej Bet, a barnlike establishment with green walls and rows of long, low wooden benches painted the same hue. In this cool, dim oasis, merchants in dark suits chatted quietly. The bar had its wine-making operation on-site: green fermenting barrels, shoulder-high, open at the top and draped with burlap.
As we took our seats, a man in a blue work suit approached and poured tej—the only beverage served—from a stout, blue-enameled tin kettle into bulbous glass flasks. The wine was almost opaque, the luminescent color of fresh orange juice, and deliciously off-dry—like a Riesling spiked with turmeric. After a few flasks of the low-alcohol brew, we were ready for lunch and headed to Habesha, Samuelsson’s favorite restaurant in Addis.
Beyond a wide iron gate, we found the restaurant, a dining room with a large outdoor patio, where we sat on short, polished wooden stools arrayed around a mesop—the hourglass-shaped basket that serves as the Ethiopians’ dinner table—and ordered an array of dishes and a round of the light Ethiopian lager called Bati. A woman with her hair in tight braids and wearing habesha kemis—a white ankle-length dress with intricate embroidery—came around to each of us with a silver kettle of warm water and a silver basin for washing our hands.
Our plate of injera arrived with mounds of shiro (a purée of yellow peas enriched with niter kibe and laced with fenugreek) and doro wet (a hearty chicken stew in a sauce of long-simmered browned onions, chiles, and ginger). There were chopped collard greens tossed with a creamy farmer’s cheese, and kitfo, a mince of raw, lean beef massaged with spiced butter, and the fiery, aromatic paste of bird’s-eye chiles, black cardamom, and salt called mitmita awaze.
"Ethiopian cuisine is as rigid as Korean," Samuelsson said as we tucked into the platter. "You’ll always have injera, the shiro, the doro wet." Differences from restaurant to restaurant, or house to house, he noted, are in the variety of dishes served above and beyond those basics, and in each cook’s own recipes for the cuisine’s fundamental condiments: berbere, mitmita, and niter kibe.
The latter, for example, is a clarified butter heated with besobela, a sweet basil with an aniselike note; onion; ground coriander; and koseret—a lemony herb in the same family as verbena.
That night, our first stop was Black Rose, a lounge on the Bole Road. Just three years old, the place is very new-Addis, with Cosmopolitans, flickering glass lanterns, and acres of red velvet that seem straight out of Marrakesh. Samuelsson took the last two empty tables. Addis is a city of 3.5 million people, but for the educated classes who can afford to take advantage of its nightlife, it’s a small town. Not long after we arrived, our two waitresses from Habesha showed up and joined the table. And then Leelai Demoz, a friend who lives not far from Samuelsson’s home in Harlem, made his entrance. A filmmaker and actor, Demoz grew up in Addis, but his family fled the Dergue in the mid-seventies; his mother had recently returned, and Demoz was in town to help her with the move. "It’s amazing what’s happened to Addis in the past four years," he shouted, above the music. "There’s a push to make Ethiopia the headquarters of Africa." The African Union, a coalition of nations modeled on the UN, has chosen Addis as its seat, said Demoz, who won an Oscar for On Tiptoe, his documentary about the South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. "There’s so much creative energy here now."
After a few bottles of cold Harar, another crisp Ethiopian lager, the group decided to go dancing. There is no dance floor at Black Rose, but even if there were, it’s unlikely Samuelsson’s crew would be up for disco. Even the most recent émigrés agree that the hippest element of the Addis nightlife are the asmari bet, the traditional Ethiopian dance halls that showcase athletic dance moves, singing, and lighthearted comedy in a single package. Inside Yewedal, an asmari bet in a desolate stretch of low-rise commercial buildings with corrugated tin roofs, the house band—a drum, masinko (a guitarlike instrument), and a washint, or flute—trilled from a corner of the spartan room, lit only by a couple of bare yellow bulbs. Two of the house dancers, women in white silk robes and white headdresses, moved around the room, clapping to the beat and singing in a high-pitched, melodious wail, stirring up the long, spindly fronds of kebede—a tall grass—strewn across the floor.
The crowd sat on low benches around the perimeter of the room, watching the dancers make their rounds. One of the women would single out a patron, moving in uncomfortably close and singing an insulting line in Amharic that made the crowd roar with laughter, whereupon the patron was expected to throw an insult back at her and try to outdance her, which was difficult: her upper body moved like a belly dancer’s, shoulders rolling and quaking, her head pitching forward and back like a frenetic flamingo’s.
Waldemariam translated the jokes for us as a dancer zoomed in on one of Samuelsson’s friends, Klancy Miller, a former pastry chef at Taillevent, in Paris, and mocked her short dreadlocks. Then she went after Samuelsson, for his inability to understand a word she was singing—but both victims had played this game before, and held up their end of the dance-off.
Although it was 4 a.m. when our group shut down the club, just a few hours later Samuelsson was ready for a trip to Debre Zeyit, an area about an hour’s drive south of Addis, where he is looking at property for a painting studio. Beyond cooking, painting is one of Samuelsson’s great passions. Hanging on the walls of his Harlem apartment are his own abstract canvases, which appear to have been inspired in equal measure by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Mark Rothko. Over the short decade that he has been visiting Ethiopia, Samuelsson has become connected with Addis’s tightly knit contemporary art scene. While touring Addis, he soaked up as many ideas for his painting as he did for his cooking, noting that a gas can was "a shade of green you’d never, ever see in Manhattan," or wondering whether a sheet of steel in a fabricator’s stall might work as a canvas.
Dotted with crater lakes, Debre Zeyit has always been a resort destination for Addis’s educated classes, although, with an elevation 2,000 feet below that of the capital, it is hotter and drier. When we arrived at the lot for sale, we found it surrounded by an imposing iron gate, beyond which we could see nothing. When the seller arrived, he opened the gate onto a modest parcel of land perched on a cliff about 300 yards above a crater lake. Beyond the lake lay the pristine desert, with mountains rising on the horizon. Samuelsson, who had never seen a picture of the property—he’d known only that it cost considerably less than our SUV—was silent for several minutes. And then he spoke. "From now on, when you can’t catch me on my cell phone," he said to us, "you’ll know where I’ll be."
Ethiopian Airlines runs a 15-hour flight from Washington, D.C., to Addis International Airport four times a week. More frequent flights are available from London, Rome, Amsterdam, Stockholm, and Frankfurt.
Hiring a driver and guide is essential, because road signs and house numbers are few and far between. Any hotel can arrange this for you, for $60 to $80 per day. Taxis are inexpensive, plentiful, and reliable, and some drivers do speak English.
A certificate of yellow-fever vaccination is required upon entry. For a complete list of suggested vaccinations, visit www.cdc.gov.
Where to Stay
Ghion Hotel A motel-like building with a retro style: thatched- roof tukul (huts) and a restaurant shaped like a mesop, or Ethiopian dining table. Ras Desta Damtew Ave.; 251-115/ 513-222; doubles from $68.
Hilton Addis Ababa Visitors love the reasonably priced rooms and mid- 20th-century African vibe. Menelik II Ave.; 800/445-8667 or 251-115/518- 400; doubles from $175.
Sheraton Addis Ababa The Western-resort atmosphere attracts high rollers, UN staffers, and soldiers of fortune alike. Taitu St.; 800/325-3589 or 251-115/171-717; doubles from $272.
Where to Eat
Gursha A homey restaurant named for the tradition of feeding your dining companion morsels of injera during a celebration. Bole Rd.; 251-115/632-545; lunch for two $10.
Habesha Restaurant Bole Rd.; 251-115/518-358; dinner for two $20.
Where to Go Out
Black Rose Bole Rd.; 251-115/217-712.
Gonder Tej Bet Luggage District, the Merkato; no phone.
Yewedal Asmari Bet An underground Ethiopian dance hall that’s tough to find unless accompanied by a local. Zewditu St., near the National Palace; no phone.
What to See
Asni Gallery The best contemporary-art gallery in Addis, housed in a 19th-century mansion. Past the French Embassy, off Arat Kilo; 251-111/238-796.
Mount Entoto Lookout Of the seven mountains that surround Addis, Entoto (10,000 feet) is closest to the city center.