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Ethiopia, Coming Home

Bobby Fisher A traditional Ethiopian meal of fried Nile perch accompanied by shiro and doro wet at Habesha.

Photo: Bobby Fisher

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.

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