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Trip 11 -- Ethiopia and Dubai
Message 1: The long Hayk between Addis Ababa and Lalibela
Why Ethiopia? people asked me as I was planning this trip. Well, there's the sheer variety of scenery and climates - a giant lake dotted with monasteries; rock-hewn churches; brilliant highlands and deserts and tropical lowlands. And there are the country's inhabitants - tribespeople in the villages, friendly city dwellers, and quite a few indigenous mammal and bird species. There's its interesting history, rooted in Biblical Christianity and Judiasm; it's the only African country never to be fully colonized (though it was occupied by the Italians for brief periods in the 1890s and the 1930s). It just seemed like a good place to spend a while.
But let's face it. I travel largely to eat. And Ethiopian is among my favorites - I have it about twice a month when I'm home. So I was particularly eager to try it in its native land and see if I tired of it after a month. (And for those of you who still think there is no food in Ethiopia, the famine was in 1985. They've quite recovered by now.)
My favorite Ethiopian dish, and one of my five favorite dishes of all, is kitfo - raw ground beef marinated in clarified butter and served with a kind of cottage cheese and a spicy powder. This is served - like almost all Ethiopian dishes - over a large sourdough-like pancake called injera, made from an indigenous (and very nutritious) tiny grain called tef. Kitfo is as comforting as it is exotic, as rich in flavor as it is simple. It contains all the food groups in very basic forms, all coming together to create something that is smooth and complex.
So my goal in the capital was to find the best kitfo place. I arrived in Addis Ababa last Tuesday morning and was very lucky to have booked my flights with Emirates: Dubai has an Emirates transit lounge with free food, drinks, and Internet, and Emirates' in-flight entertainment is top-notch. There are hundreds of movies and CDs to choose from. I caught up on stuff I should have seen before - "The Darjeeling Limited," "The Nanny Diaries," and "Hairspray" - and listened to Tom Lehrer and Mozart.
All of this stimulation was very bad, of course, because what I was supposed to do on the flight to Dubai was sleep and figure out what the heck I was going to do when I arrived in Ethiopia. Well, what I did was book into the Itegue Taitu Hotel. It's the city's first hotel, built for Empress Taitu in 1907, and the period rooms are less than $20 a night. Then I had a walk around the city and settled in to Teshomech Kitfo for dinner.
The kitfo was virtually identical to what I routinely have in New York, with an added side dish: kocho, or rubber-like stem of the false-banana plant. The tej (honey wine) is much different, however. In the USA they open a bottle of it and it's fairly sweet and clear. In Ethiopia it's very murky and mango-colored, and it tastes more like an uncarbonated cider. It also seems a bit stronger. I gather the honey is brought to each tej house and processed on the premises.
Addis Ababa is a large, dusty, hilly, frenetic city that has a few welcome oases of peace. One is in the gardens of Addis Ababa University, which houses the Museum and Library of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies - a wonderful museum detailing the country's tribes and birth-to-death rituals. Here's a famous childhood tale:
The selfish baboon and the clever monkey - friends - were walking together when they came upon some food. The selfish baboon said, "Let me eat until I'm full, and then you can have the rest." The clever monkey replied, "OK, but let me pierce your tail while you are eating." The baboon agreed.
While the baboon ate, the monkey found a dead leopard and stitched it to the baboon's tail. When the baboon was full, he wandered home, and the sight of the attached leopard caused friends on the way to cower in fear - as well as the baboon's family upon his return. So, selfishness will alienate friends and family alike.