Cappuccino Soul

Cappuccino Soul

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

A Taste of Ethiopia in Charlotte

Ethiopian cuisine is probably my favorite kind of food and I'm lucky enough to have found a restaurant here in Charlotte called Red Sea on Charlottetown Avenue that has never let me down. The food is always satisfying and delicious, and the owners are very welcoming. They always make me and my daughter feel like part of the family.

One of my students told me about another place called Meskerem Ethiopian Restaurant on South Kings Drive, but I haven't had the chance to stop by there yet. (If you've ever eaten there, please give me your opinion of the food.)

Ethiopian dishes are strongly spiced (though not always spicy-hot), and served in a communal style where all eaters take from the same plate. Everyone usually shares a spongy piece of 'injera,' the Ethiopian flat bread made from teff, an African grain. Into the middle of the injera your server pours your meal -- stews, curries, ragouts or meats that you can eat with torn-off chunks of bread. My favorite is the vegeterian combination plate, which includes dishes made with corn, greens, beats, potatoes, tomatoes, lettuce, yellow split peas -- all made with various spices.

The traditional way of eating is with the fingers, which is in itself a delicate art. I must admit -- eating with my fingers comes quite naturally for me. Some people don't take to the practice so easily. Also traditionally, when eating with a group, sometimes the meal does not start until the head of the family or guest of honor tears off a piece of injera (bread) for each person at the table.

Maybe one day I'll get to travel to the great Abyssinia, as Ethiopia was formerly known. In the meantime, I've been enjoying this poem, written by a great Ethiopian playwright and poet, Mengistu Lemma. In celebration of National Poetry Month, here it is:

Tizita (Longing)
by Mengistu Lemma
translated from Amharic by Martin Orwin

The train hauled me out of London —
out of the smoke, the smog, the grime,
the filthy mix of soot and dust —
while the train spun fog from the fabric of steam,
clothing the land with its garment
of blessings and punishment,
Yizze kataf, yizze kataf, goes the powerful weaver.
Isn’t it amazing? Life’s a miracle:
coal smoke set free through the power of coal!

The carriage was big enough for ten,
but no one was brave enough to open the door
I’d shut fast to keep in the warmth.
Instead, they huddled in the corridor,
unwilling to share the warmth with a black man —
even though coal is black, even though
the wealth of England was forged by black coal.

The train whistled like a washint flute;
haystacks dotted the distant fields,
just like the straw roofs of houses in a village at home. And, in the blink of an eye, I turned into
‘a traveller of God’ in the meadows of England….

‘Greetings to your household’, I cried,
I am your “black”, your unexpected, guest:
your kindness to me will bring you God’s blessings’. ‘Welcome, come in!’, the head of the household replied. Then his wife brought a bowl of warm water,
and kneeling down happily to wash my feet,
‘Don’t be shy, my friend’, she said.

First my mouth blessed that tulla beer of Gojjam,
then a bowl arrived, and my empty stomach began to fill
as I licked the linseed oil of Gondar from my fingers;
next, chicken stew rich with curds. Contented,
I yawned. Sleep overcame me as I lay down
on fine cotton and was covered with wool….

Dimly, I heard the door slide open — but was fully awake
by the time it slammed shut. I jumped,
but then calmed myself down,
glowering at the reckless young man,
the brave one who’d dared to enter my den as I slept.
But his spotless shirt and neat matching tie made me laugh: he was so amazingly clean!

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