A Tribune reporter discovers the cuisine of Ethiopia – Salt Lake Tribune

Because it is Timkat, the Jan. 20 celebration of the baptism of Jesus Christ, some villagers participated in a symbolic ceremony transporting the Ark of the Covenant (that encapsulates the Ten Commandments) to the river and back. Others rejoiced with a tasty honey wine called tej. A lot of tej. Everyone was quite happy and welcoming of a strange white person.

Down the mountain at Arba Minch, the biggest town in the southwest region of the country, pilgrims dressed in white gathered along the banks of the Kulfo River to bathe themselves and splash friends with the holy water. Timkat is a joyous occasion of togetherness.

This country of 90 million has a majority Orthodox Christian population and is home to seven ethnic groups who speak a host of dialects. The cuisine is as varied and delightful as its residents. On a recent visit there, I was taken by the friendly people and their fresh and delicious food.

Ethiopia’s topography varies from forested mountains to scrubby lowlands, where even goats struggle to survive in a dry year. Between them is fertile land where farmers grow coffee, bananas, cotton, avocado, tobacco, corn, tomatoes and almost anything, it seems — even watermelon.

Some of the tastiest dishes are spicy stews: shiro, made with chickpeas; and a lentil dish, masir wat. Other specialties include raw beef, grilled goat and doro wat — a chicken stew.

A key ingredient in many Ethiopian dishes is berbere, a mixture of spices and herbs that includes chile peppers, cumin, garlic, ginger — and up to a dozen more, depending on the cook.

When Americans think of Ethiopian food, we most often picture injera, a spongy flat bread that is commonly used to scoop up aromatic vegetarian and meaty stews. It is used in place of utensils and is ubiquitous in many Ethiopian locales. Injera is made with teff, a grain from the highlands that is practically gluten-free.

Salt Lake City plays host to at least three restaurants with Ethiopian cuisine — African Restaurant, 1878 S. Redwood Road; the Blue Nile, 755 S. State; and Mahider Ethiopian Restaurant and Market, 1465 S. State — where your taste buds can experience something unlike anything you’ll find elsewhere.

Only in Africa • Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, sits at about 7,000 feet and boasts a Southern California-like climate, with 12-hour days and nights year round. Unfortunately, the sprawling city of 5 million suffers from traffic jams and accompanying air pollution.

The countryside, however, smells sweet and clean and is filled with marvelous sights and the comings and goings of Africans who walk and walk and walk. Everyone uses the highway — donkey carts, women carrying huge loads, as well as goat and cattle herds that are sometimes guided by kids with switches.

A day’s drive south and west of the capital lie Lake Chamo and its sister, Lake Abaya, at about 3,000 feet. They are among seven lakes within Africa’s Great Rift Valley.

Around Lake Chamo, tilapia is popular. Fishermen standing on little boats that look like wood slats throw nets, apparently unafraid of the crocodiles and hippos that swim nearby. The locals grill the tilapia whole and eat it, skin and all — simply delicious.

From there, my fun-loving guide, Chapy, and easygoing interpreter, Gino, and I headed into the rugged and dry Lower Omo Valley near Kenya to the south and South Sudan to the east. This fascinating region is home to a number of indigenous tribes, mainly herders who live like they have for perhaps a thousand years.

But the massive Gibe III hydroelectric dam and two others planned for the area could upset the fragile ecosystem and threaten their livelihoods. Beyond that, the Ethiopian government is leasing out large tracts for plantations on historic tribal grazing lands.

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