Dispatch from Ethiopia VI: Culture is the Spice of Life (part 2)

For those of us who are wanderlusters at heart, there is a persistent internal voice that whispers promises of something more: more than the cubicle in which we dwell, more than the paycheck we receive for it, more than the grind most of us resign ourselves to as a means to an end. But what do you do when the means come up woefully short of the end you truly desire?

Meet Paul Voigt, a midwest native and communications professional who began scaling the corporate ladder, and realized it was time to take the path less traveled instead. Paul has graciously agreed to guest blog periodically, sharing his experiences with us from his new home, in Ethiopia. This is the fifth installment of his story, sent from Ethiopia. This post is the second in a series of three this month about Ethiopian culture.

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Food
When I think of different cultures, one of the first things that comes to mind is food.

Ethiopian food is unique in the world. Ethiopians depend on injera, made from the grain teff, as the staple of their diet. Teff is unique to Ethiopia, although it’s now being grown in Idaho, Nevada, California, and Texas to meet the demand of Ethiopian immigrants in the United States. To make injera, teff is milled to flour and then made into a batter. The batter is then poured onto a hot metal or clay plate to cook. The result looks like a spongy pancake. A two-ounce serving of injera made from teff has as much protein as an extra-large egg, is rich in iron, gluten-free, and contains more essential minerals than other grains.

Ethiopian flat “bread” called injera, topped with shiro wat (chickpea stew), cabbage, potatoes, and beets. This is what I eat for lunch almost every day. Photo by Paul Voigt.
Ethiopian flat “bread” called injera, topped with shiro wat (chickpea stew), cabbage, potatoes, and beets. This is what I eat for lunch almost every day. Photo by Paul Voigt.

Another advantage of injera…no utensils required. You tear off a piece of injera and use it to scoop up different stews (wat), meats, or vegetables. Eating with your hands is the Ethiopian way. Two common wats, shiro wat made from chick peas and misur wat made from lentils, are prepared with a red pepper spice called berbere. Most dishes prepared with berbere are not for the faint of heart or tongue. Ethiopian food can be very spicy. Potatoes, onions, and cabbage are staple vegetables in my town.

Another common Ethiopian dish is called t’ibs, a combination of boiled goat or ox meat with onions and spicy green pepper.

A popular dish for special occasions in my area is called chumbo. It’s made by pouring cheese (Ethiopian cheese has the consistency of cottage cheese and doesn’t taste like the hard cheeses we’re used to) and liquid butter mixed with berbere on top of flat circular bread. Delicious!

My site mate Adam and I are about to indulge in the dairy delicacy known as chumbo, made from Ethiopian cheese and spicy butter on flat wheat bread. Photo by Paul Voigt.
My site mate Adam and I are about to indulge in the dairy delicacy known as chumbo, made from Ethiopian cheese and spicy butter on flat wheat bread. Photo by Paul Voigt.

I can’t talk about Ethiopia and food without talking about hospitality. If you’re invited to someone’s house to eat, expect your hosts to stuff you with urgings of “Eat, eat!” When your helping starts to get low, someone’s there instantly to refill the empty space. Your beverage glass never gets to the halfway point before it’s topped off. Sharing what’s available is common. I was invited to lunch on the spur of the moment recently by a friend, and the lunch that was meant for him and his wife was divided into lunch for three.

Eating together means eating from a communal plate. You can’t be afraid of a little old thing called “someone else’s germs.”
Eating together means eating from a communal plate. You can’t be afraid of a little old thing called “someone else’s germs.”

Ethiopia is famous as the birthplace of coffee. Coffee is celebrated here with a special coffee ceremony. A woman or girl is in charge of the ceremony. While guests are chatting, the coffee preparer roasts coffee beans on a metal plate over a small charcoal stove. The smell of the roasting beans fills the room. Once this step is complete, she will pound and crush the roasted beans into powder inside a mortar with an iron rod or pestle. Next, she’ll boil water in a traditional clay spouted coffee pot called a jebena. She puts the ground coffee in the jebena and lets it sit for a few minutes. After putting a couple teaspoons of sugar in each cup, the coffee is poured into cups. Some people prefer salt but I find salted coffee quite undrinkable. Guests are then served three rounds of the finest, freshest coffee you could ask for.

Ayantu performs a coffee ceremony at Faasika (Easter). She’s pouring coffee from a jebena. The small charcoal stove for roasting coffee beans and boiling water is on the left.
Ayantu performs a coffee ceremony at Faasika (Easter). She’s pouring coffee from a jebena. The small charcoal stove for roasting coffee beans and boiling water is on the left.

Clothing

Ethiopian traditional clothing, especially women’s dresses, are as beautiful as any in the world. These days traditional clothing is often replaced by clothing common to Western societies. Traditional clothing is usually worn for celebrations and holidays. In my small town of Shambu in west central Oromia, most women wear long skirts, often of thin material, along with a western style shirt or top. Men wear ordinary shirts and pants. You also see a lot of American-donated clothing, especially random t-shirts. It’s fun to see some guy walking down the street sporting Green Back Packer wear 7500 miles away from Wisconsin. Clothing styles in the modern capital city Addis Ababa look like a scene from any American city.

Students at my college wearing their traditional clothes for Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Day which celebrates the diversity of Ethiopia. Photo by Paul Voigt.
Students at my college wearing their traditional clothes for Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Day which celebrates the diversity of Ethiopia. Photo by Paul Voigt.

Dancing

Every region of Ethiopia has its own traditional dancing. A common feature of Ethiopian dancing is shoulder dancing. Dancers shake their shoulders to the music, up and down or all around. Every day, Ethiopian TV broadcasts music with dancers from different regions in their beautiful traditional outfits.

An Oromo cultural dance performed during the celebration of Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Day.
An Oromo cultural dance performed during the celebration of Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Day.

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Join our community of travelers on Facebook: www.facebook.com/RollerbagGoddess

Paul Voigt was a corporate communications writer and freelance copywriter in a former life. He gave up pop culture, Midwest winters and softball to serve for two years as an English teacher with the U.S. Peace Corps in Shambu, Ethiopia.

Look for additional updates from Paul Voigt in the near future. You can also send him your well wishes by leaving a comment here.

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Creative Commons License

Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World by Charish Badzinski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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