My children love injera. This makes me incredibly happy. In fact they love injera and Ethiopian/ Eritrean food so much that they are complaining that, here in Ethiopia, they aren’t getting enough of it. They demand to be taken to “traditional” restaurants. They talk longingly about the food they will eat there, sometimes looking forward to it all day.
Injera, (Taita in Tigrinya) as many of you know, is a platter-sized, spongy, savory and slightly sour pancake. A number of different kinds of stew are placed on the injera and then the injera is used to scoop up the stew. The soaked, soggy injera is a delicacy by itself. It is traditionally served on a large round platter with everyone eating off a shared plate with their hands. Many of the stews are spicy and seasoned with berbere, the local spice which varies a great deal, but always consists of some combination of ground red pepper powder, ground dried garlic, ground dried onions and other spices. Some stews are mild, but heavily seasoned with garlic and onions.
Yona’s favorite dish is tibsi, which is bite sized chunks of beef, lamb or goat sautéed with onions and garlic. It is served “red” in a sauce made with berbere or “white” without the berbere. It is usually accompanied by a side of awaze, which is sort of like Ethiopian ketchup or butter in that it is almost always available. Awaze is a sauce with a berbere base mixed with Ethiopian spiced butter and sometimes horseradish for an extra kick. It is served with tibsi and other dishes and also in restaurants alongside bread and butter. When we came here last July without the kids, I was surprised to see a friend’s six year old daughter sopping up awaze with a piece of bread. Now, I’m no longer surprised. It is one of Yona’s favorite things to eat. When we first arrived (influenced no doubt by bizarre you tube videos of “food challenges”) he wanted to challenge himself to eat the spiciest thing on the plate. Now he eats the spicy foods, even when they cause him pain, because he genuinely loves them.
Sami’s favorite dish is shiro—a chick pea powder porridge seasoned with garlic, onions, tomato and sometimes berbere. Sami is our picky eater. Before he was born, I believed that picky eaters were cultivated, not born. With an abundance of hubris, I was sure that I would not give birth to and raise a picky eater. In our house, kids eat what we put on the table or don’t eat. Unless the adults are eating something way too spicy, we don’t make special “kid” foods in our house. As a result, Yona eats adventurously and everything. But Sami turned out differently. His repertoire consists of bread, macaroni and rice (preferably plain), French fries, some fruits, injera and shiro. So we have to give him shiro at least once a week to avoid malnutrition.
When I first went to Eritrea in 1995 to teach English, I was teaching a unit on food. I used the sentence “I like to eat shiro” and my class erupted in laughter. I wondered if I’d mispronounced the word and said something obscene by accident. But no, their laughter was a delighted laughter that I, a foreigner, would eat a dish that is both beloved and ubiquitous. Shiro is the closest thing to a national dish that exists in Eritrea and Ethiopia. Every house almost always has a pot of shiro ready to serve to family or guests. When staying with Ermias’ family in Asmara, we often ate shiro four or five days out of the week. It is incredibly healthy and utterly delicious. My picky five year old at least picks well. (In all honesty, he is also very fond of lentils—another common dish and healthy choice.)
Watching Sami eat shiro is a beautiful and comical sight. On one of our first nights here, we ordered a platter that combined meat and vegetable dishes for five of us. A small dollop of shiro was placed in front of each of us, spread across the platter, interspersed with other dishes. Sami devoured all of his own shiro and then systematically reached across the platter and proceeded to eat all the shiro. With surgical precision, he excised every piece of meat or cabbage or greens that had accidentally fallen into “his” shiro. Now he insists that all the shiro be placed in front of him. Sometimes he is willing to share. Despite the fact that his stubborn sense of propriety over all the shiro on the table is a huge etiquette breach in a culture where sharing food and making sure everyone has enough is an almost sacred value, I love his passion for shiro. We’ll work on the sharing next.
For many people, Eritrean/ Ethiopian food’s combination of flavors and textures—sour, spicy and savory, spongy, chewy and porridge-like—is an acquired taste. Some people, including people who have lived in Eritrea or Ethiopia for years never fully acquire the taste for the food. We know of many parents from this part of the world who have raised their children in Europe, America or elsewhere who can’t get their children to eat injera. For other people, eating Ethiopian/ Eritrean food is love at first bite. One bite and they are hooked. They can’t imagine how they lived without it. I know people who will drive for hours to buy injera or eat at an Ethiopian restaurant. I know people who have ordered it by fedex.
So I’m thrilled that my children have such a passion for Ethiopian/ Eritrean food and have since birth. Shiro may have been one of their first foods. And I remember Yona eating spicy meat dishes before he could walk. Food is deeply connected to their sense of identity. We failed miserably at teaching our children to speak either Amharic or Tigrinya, which I deeply regret. We can’t travel to Eritrea, as many of you know. So in some ways, this makes their love of the food—its unique flavors, eating with their hands and the ritual of sharing– even more important.
They have both requested that we send them with fit fit for lunch. Fit fit is mushed up injera mixed with shiro or sauce or whatever other food is leftover. Yona has specified the kind of flat container he wants us to put it in (not a thermos) so that he can eat it with his hands, not a spoon. Sami has specified that we send it with extra injera so that he doesn’t get his hands dirty. (He is not only picky but meticulous.) And they’ve both started to make plans to take injera for lunch when they get back home next year.