Injera looks and tastes like a wet carpet. That’s what Ana, our fellow overlanding friend, said of the pancake-like Ethiopian staple food that is injera.
I was shocked. I’d had injera several times before – in Chicago with Muna, in Cape Town with Rory, in Dakar with Sahnah, in Ottawa with my mom and brother, in Nairobi with Jo – and I’d rather liked it. Sure, the injera itself was slightly sour and had a spongy texture, but the vegetables and lentil curries that topped the injera perfectly complemented its strange texture and taste.
Plus, you got to eat the meal with your hands. I was a fan of Ethiopian food.
“Maybe injera is good in the West,” continued Ana. “But in Ethiopia, the batter is fermented for days in dirty corners of dirty huts. Just seeing how they prepare the stuff will turn you off of injera forever.”
That got me worried. I’d been looking forward to eating my way through Ethiopia. Now I wasn’t so sure.
When we crossed the Moyale border from Kenya into Ethiopia, I watched a woman performing a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony. Leaves and flowers were strewn about the ground, a clay stove with hot coals sat waiting, and a tray with several tiny cups had been placed on a tiny table. The woman soaked and washed green coffee beans in water, then dry-roasted them over the coals. It smelled of roasted maize mixed with the incense stick she had lit to accompany the ritual. When the beans were dark brown, she pounded them into a powder with a mortar and pestle. Finally, she brewed the coffee.
The lengthy ritual is performed throughout the country, every day, by hundreds of thousands of people. The patience and love put into this ritual suffused me with renewed confidence in Ethiopian cuisine, and I decided to face my injera fear head-on. I would eat it that very night.
We chose the cleanest restaurant in Moyale – the one that had the disgusting toilets I wrote about, ironic isn’t it? – and ordered – with difficulty – injera with vegetables. I didn’t yet know how to order the typical wats (stews) whose names I’d soon master.
When the meal came, I breathed a sigh of relief. I’d read that the lighter the injera, the higher the quality (thus less sour). This injera was pale yellow. We were good to go.
When I’d eaten Ethiopian food in other countries, the injera had always been laid out flat on a large common platter with several dishes slopped on top. Often, the platter was placed on a small hour-glass table made of bamboo. Sometimes, African art hung on the walls and traditional Ethiopian music played overhead.
I’d imagined this type of culinary experience in Ethiopia. I thought this is how we would eat every day.
And so began my search for the full injera experience. Ethiopia, for me, became about finding the perfect injera.
But first I needed to learn the lingo. First up, yalleh sega yalleh dorro. Without meat and without chicken. This was an important one, since Ethiopians love – I mean L.O.V.E. – meat. Ethiopian wats almost always contain meat – lamb, goat, and chicken, sure, but also tripe and liver, beef tongue, and raw meat. Yes, Ethiopians love tere sega, and there are restaurants entirely devoted to preparing this luxury dish. They brandish carcasses at the doorways to advertise the freshness of their ingredients and to lure you in. Naturally, I steered clear.
Instead, I learned the vocabulary for the vegetarian dishes – shiro,a delicious wat made from chickpea powder and berbere spice (the main spice in all Ethiopian stews); misr, or lentil wat; tegabino, similar to shiro but thicker, often served on a hot pan; enkulal tibs, scrambled eggs; and fir fir, spicy sauced injira.
The best phrase I learned, though, was baiyaina tu, a platter of all the vegetarian dishes spooned onto injera. This was what I had always eaten outside of Ethiopia. Inside the country, however, it wasn’t easy to find. But when we did, boy did we feast!
I already knew that Wednesday and Friday are fasting days in Ethiopia. Followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church are commanded to eat a single meal on these days, and it must be entirely free of meat products. This was good news for me – as a vegetarian, I’d imagined that on Wednesdays and Fridays, I would simply sit down at a local restaurant and be automatically handed a full platter of varied vegetarian foods.
Another assumption that turned out to be wrong.
In most local restaurants, the only dish served on fasting days is shiro. It is delicious, and is in fact most Ethiopian people’s favourite dish. But because it’s the center of an Ethiopian meal, you can actually get it seven days a week and don’t have to wait for a fasting day at all.
It turns out you don’t have to wait for a fasting day to get a vegetarian meal in a tourist restaurant, either. If the place is nice and busy enough, it will serve baiyaina tu almost every day of the week.
Suddenly, I didn’t need to search for the perfect injera only on Wednesdays and Fridays – I was in business seven days a week.
I started to venture to the tourist restaurants. This is something I generally avoid when traveling, since I’m looking for authentic experiences (and cheap food). But in Ethiopia, I wanted the perfect injera – indeed, I had built up the entire experience in my head – and in this rare instance, perfect didn’t equate with authentic.
In Addis Ababa, I dragged Bruno halfway across the city to eat at a “traditional” Ethiopian restaurant (read: touristy). I even called ahead to make sure the live traditional music was going to be playing. We were greeted to perfect traditional décor – the low hour-glass table and local art on the walls that I’d imagined were all there. Surely tonight I would eat my way to Ethiopian injera heaven.
Then, the “live,” “traditional” music began. A guy stepped up to a synthesizer, pressed a few buttons, and a tinny melody began a twenty minute loop. We ordered a drink. I asked for tej, local honey wine, in honor of our perfect evening. But the waiter refused to serve it to us. “Too strong for you,” he declared.
Instead he gave us beer. There are several varieties of Ethiopian beer, none very good, but it’s important to drink something fizzy with injera. The fermentation process makes injera difficult to digest, but bubbles from a drink – be it soda, beer, or Ambo, a delicious natural mineral water that I became more than slightly addicted to – make the digestion process less, well, noisy and uncomfortable.
As we sipped our beers, the “musician” returned to his synth to play a few half-hearted solos over the lopped melody. Our food came – it had the variety I was looking for, but all but the shiro were served cold. A man came up to a microphone and began to sing in a high-pitched whine. He sort of sounded like he was dying. I’d heard Ethiopian music was unique and good. This was certainly unique, but it was definitely not good.
It looked as though we’d have to keep looking for our perfect injera after our mini-holiday to Djibouti.
Injera is unique to Ethiopia (and Eritrea). That’s because its key ingredient, teff, grows naturally nowhere else in the world but on the highlands of the Horn of Africa.
We were driving through Ethiopia’s highlands now. Everywhere we turned, field of golden teff blew gently in the cool high-altitude breeze. It was beautiful. And it made me hungry.
There might be a reason I was becoming so obsessed with injera – my body knew a healthy meal when it got one. Gram for gram, teff has more fiber, calcium, iron, and protein than any other grain. It contains natural yeast, which is why it’s so easy to make injera – you only need to add water to teff, let it ferment and rise (naturally) over the course of a few days, then spoon it like crêpe batter onto an injera stove or a clay plate placed over fire.
The process might be easy, but getting the texture just right – in other words, soft and spongy – is no easy feat. Fermenting it just the right amount of time, so that it’s sour but not too sour, is even harder. Tearing a piece off with your right hand only, using your “injera-spoon“ to grab the desired wat from the common platter (making sure to politely leave some for the other eaters), and placing it in your mouth without getting red berbere spice all over your top, is the most challenging of all.
But it’s a feat I’m proud to say I accomplished. Over and over again. Obsessively. Like a true Ethiopian. (Ok, not quite like an Ethiopian – they eat injera three times a day!)
Eating injera obsessively proved to be a good tactic for finding the perfect injera – after twenty-odd injera meals, I finally found it. All over Lalibela.
Lalibela is the most touristy place in Ethiopia that we visited. Tourists mean tourist restaurants. And tourist restaurants mean baiyaina tu. During the week we spent in Lalibela, we ate baiyaina tu six times. The seventh time, we ate at home because all the vegetables I’d bought at the market were going bad. But believe me, I thought about injera the entire time.
Ok, so the injera meals we ate in Lalibela weren’t the perfect experience I’d pictured before coming into the country. Sometimes there was local art on the walls, and only once was there traditional Ethiopian music. But the surroundings of the restaurant had come to mean less and less to me during my search for the perfect injera. (I was in Ethiopia after all, so the environment in which I was eating my food couldn’t be better, really.) What came to matter more was that I was connecting with the food I was eating – I had driven through the fields where teff first grew, I had learned how it was prepared, I had bought my very own berbere spice, I had experienced firsthand what injera meant to the local people, and I’d learned to order vegetarian food in any restaurant, in any town, in the local language.
And best of all, I’d eaten injera with my hands (food just tastes better with your fingers!), from the same bowl as my beloved. Together, we’d chowed down (fast, so the other wouldn’t get all the yummy wat), burped our delight, and listened to one another’s stomachs growl late into the night.
That, I learned, is the perfect injera experience.