Friday, November 15, 2013

Abyssinian Dinners, circa 1780 and 1910.

It is probably a fair guess to say that most of us are more aware of the military and political history of Ethiopia than of its traditional ways. The problem, as always, is that what we do hear about the day to day life of other nations and cultures is via the accounts of others who have ‘been there, done that,’ and whose experiences have been filtered and coloured by their own ignorances and prejudices.  

Today I have two accounts of eating in Ethiopia when it was still called Abyssinia. The accounts are over a century apart, and I invite you to try to sift the information through your own prejudice-free authenticity sieves!

The Border Morning Mail and Riverina Times (Albury, NSW) of November 9, 1910 reproduced an article from the Westminster Gazette (London, England.)

The new Negus of Abyssinia, like his predecessors on the throne before him, gives a public inner to all and sundry of his subjects once a week, when they may feast to their heart's content. On the three great annual festivals this 'gheber' becomes a spectacle probaly unequalled in the annals of Court dinners. An Italian traveller who has recently been privileged to be present describes it graphically in a letter to the 'Corriere.' The background of the barn-like structure which serves as dining room is all but filled by the famous throne-bed which the French Republic had presented to the late King Menelik; the present Negus, on the occasion of the State dinner, sat on the edge of it when the Emropean visitors, the first to enter the room, filed past him, each one being received with a smile and a shake of the hand. As soon as they were seated, and began to eat, King Jarsu also began, but his State dignitaries have to wait till their lord, after a while, gives the sign that they also may fall to.
The Abyssinian Royal menu is sprung as a surprise on the European who has expected either the food of primitive man or the concoctions of a French chef. There are six courses but they do not vary, much, the chief ingredient of all being the flesh of fowls. The table service is a curious medley of costly, beautiful gold vessels and broken crockery of the cheapest kind. The Europeans use knives and forks, the Abyssianians are fed by slaves. A strange silence pervades the room during the three hours from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., while the feast is going on and you hear the distant sound of the great crowd waiting impatiently, for admittance, and the beating of the drums in honour of the archangel Gabriel, at the church close by.
The moment the Europeans have ended their meal the curtains are drawn aside, and through every door the stream of natives pours in. There are eight tables, each one in charge of an overseer and four assistants, and from five to six thousand Abyssinians are in an incredibly short time engaged in feeding and talking  at the same time at the top of their voices. Each table is served by eight slaves, who are kept hard at work supplying the diners with great lumps of raw meat, with which they eat the leaves of a native vegetable, the anghera. They eat enormous quantities of both, drinking honey water, the national beverage, out of gigantic horns. As soon as one crowd is satisfied it has to make room for another, and all the time the musicians are doing their utmost on trumpets, flutes, and other instruments, to add to the deafening din. Last of all, a cluster of singers group themselves round the Negus, chanting a hymn in his praise, of which, however, he cannot possibly hear a single word. And so ends this cheerful State dinner in the palace of the King of Kings.

I am puzzled by the “native vegetable, anghera” mentioned in this story. There is a place called Anghera in Ethiopia, and a huge variety of wild and indigenous plants, but I am unable to reconcile the two. Strangely, the story makes no mention of injera – the staple Ethiopian pancake made traditionally from teff, which is present at all meals and is used in the manner of a flat-bread. Surely the writer does not confuse injera with the leaves of a plant?!

James Bruce (1730-1794) was a Scottish traveler extraordinaire. He spent over a decade in North Africa and Abyssinia in the 1770's —1780’s, and left an interesting account of a celebratory meal in the latter country, which includes a rather gruesome description of butchering the meat, and of the use of injera:

A long table is set in the middle of a large room, and benches beside it for a number of guests who are invited. Tables, and benches the Portuguese introduced amongst them; but bull hides, spread upon the ground, served them before, as they do in the camp and country now. A cow or bull, one or more, as the company is numerous, is brought close to the door, and his feet strongly tied. The skin that hangs down under his chin and throat, which I think we call the dew-lap in England, is cut only so deep as to arrive at the fat, of which it totally consists, and, by the separation of a few small blood vessels, six or seven drops of blood only fall upon the ground. They have no stone, bench, nor altar, upon which these cruel assassins lay the animal’s head in this operation. I should beg his pardon indeed for calling him an assassin, as he is not so merciful as to aim at the life, but, on the contrary, to keep the beast alive till he be totally eat up. Having satisfied the Mosaical law, according to his conception, by pouring these six or seven drops upon the ground, two or more of them fall to work; on the back of the beast, and on each side of the spine they cut skin deep; then putting their fingers between the flesh and the skin, they begin to strip the hide off the animal half way down his ribs, and so on to the buttock, cutting the skin wherever it hinders them commodiously to strip the poor animal bare. All the flesh on the buttocks is cut off then, and in solid, square pieces, without bones,or much effusion of blood; and the prodigious noise the animal makes is a signal for the company to sit down to table. There are then laid before every guest, instead of plates, round cakes, if I may so call them, about twice as big as a pancake, and something thicker and tougher. It is unleavened bread of a sourish taste, far from being disagreeable, and very easily digested, made of a grain called teff. It is of different colours, from black to the colour of the finest wheat bread. Three or four of these cakes are generally put uppermost, for the food of the person opposite to whose seat they are placed. Beneath these are four or five of ordinary bread, and of a blackish kind. These serve the master to wipe his fingers upon: and afterward the servant,‘for bread to his dinner.
Two or three servants then come, each with a square piece of beef in their bare hands, laying it upon the cakes of teff, placed like dishes round the table, without cloth or any thing else beneath them. By this time all the guests have knives in their hands, and the men have the large crooked ones, which they put to all sorts of uses during the time of war. The women have small clasped knives, such as the worst of the kind made at Birmingham, sold for a penny each. The company are so ranged that one man sits between two women; the man with his long knife cuts a thin piece, which would be thought a good beef-steak in England, while you see the motion of the fibres yet perfectly distinct, and alive in the flesh. No man in Abyssinia, of any fashion whatever, feeds himself, or touches his own meat. The women take the steak and cut it lengthways like strings, about the thickness of your little finger, then crossways into square pieces, something smaller than dice. This they lay upon a piece of the teff bread, strongly powdered with black pepper, or Cayenne pepper, and fossil salt, they then wrap it up in the teff bread like a cartridge. In the mean time, the man having put up his knife, with each hand resting upon his neighbour’s knee, his body stooping, his head low and forward, and mouth open very like an idiot, turns to the one whose cartridge is first ready, who stuffs the whole of it into his month, which is so full, that he is in constant danger of being choked. This is a mark of grandeur. The greater the man would seem to be, the larger piece he takes in his mouth; and the more noise he makes in chewing it, the more polite he is thought to be. They have, indeed, a proverb that says, “Beggars and thieves only eat small pieces, or without making a noise.” Having dispatched his morsel, which he does very expeditiously, his next female neighbour holds forth another cartridge, which goes the same way, and so on till he is satisfied. He never drinks till he has finished eating; and, before he begins, in gratitude to the fair ones that fed him, he makes up two small rolls of the same kind and form; each of his neighbours opens her mouth at the same time, while with each hand he puts their portion into their mouths. He then falls to drinking out of a large handsome horn; the ladies eat till they are satisfied, and then all drink together, “Viva la Joye et la Jeunesse !” A great deal of mirth and joke goes round, very seldom with any mixture of acrimony or ill humour.

Alas, I am unable to supply an authentic Abyssinian recipe for you today, but as you all know, the coffee plant is native to that country, for which we are eternally grateful, so a coffee recipe it must be. 

Coffee was not commonly used as an ingredient in past times, due to its expense and the difficulty of preparing it at home in the days before the development of domestic machines or the instant coffee powder. Nevertheless, a there are a few coffee recipes from the time of James Bruce, and I previously gave you one for a coffee cream from1777. This required the use of several gizzards however, which you are unlikely to have at hand, so here is a slightly easier version from the era – and as a bonus it is from a Scottish cookery book.

Crème de Caffé. Coffee-cream.
Mix four cups of good coffee, with three half-pints of cream, and sugar according to teaste; boil it together, and reduce it about one third; then add the yolks of eight eggs beat up, mix it very well, and bake as the preceding*.
N.B. Observe, that the coffee must be done as if it was for drinking alone, and settled very clear.
The practice of modern cookery; adapted to families of distinction, as well as to those of the middling ranks of life. …(Edinburgh in 1781) by George Dalrymple.


Puddleg said...

Bruce also said that, in his exploration of Abyssinia, he lived for years on a diet of "raw meat and honey" without coming to harm.
The Blue Nile by Alan Moorshead is a n excellent account of the exploration of this region.

korenni said...

It wouldn't surprise me if a European unfamiliar with Abyssinian culture were to mistake injera for a plant. After all, it doesn't remotely resemble Western bread, and it does look a little like part of an enormous morel.

An American government official who went to China with, I think, Nixon's people, said that at one of the state banquets there was a bowl of smooth white objects on the table. He took them for dumplings, but when he bit into one, he was surprised at the very thin, crunchy crust. He was wondering how the Chinese managed to create such a crust when he noticed a few guests looking at him very oddly. About then he realized he was eating a boiled egg...with the shell still on.