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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

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.

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