One of the joys of moving to a new city is exploring restaurants. In Africa, this is not always a pastime for the faint of heart. The best way to get started in exploring local cuisine is with a knowledgeable local guide, in our case Eyoel Berhan, Vice-Dean of the College of Health Sciences, trusted friend, companion, and raconteur.
He took us for lunch to the Segem Bar and Restaurant in downtown Mekelle. As seen from the street, the exterior of this place is not welcoming.
To the uninitiated it might almost seem forbidding—not the place a tourist fresh off the plane would look for a hearty meal. At first glance you wonder if you are about to wander into the back of a warehouse or into an alley behind a garage. Go ahead and step through the gate.
Once inside, you are in a little alley with a very nice restaurant off to the left. The place is clean, pleasant, with a gravel floor and numerous tables and chairs, decorated in traditional Ethiopian style.
Ethiopian meals are served communally, each guest eating from a common platter. Today’s featured meal is thilo, a dish indigenous to Tigray made from barley flour. The flour is moistened by adding water at room temperature and then kneaded until it has a consistency like bread dough. In our case, our server brought the thilo out in a large lump, which she then broke off in pieces and rolled into small balls of dough, which were spread out on a platter.
In the center of the platter (which is covered with a large oval pancake of injera—about which more later) is a bowl of hot, spicy meat stew, into which is added some vegetable paste to cool down the spiciness of the stew. The meal is eaten somewhat like a fondue.
Each participant has a two-pronged wooden fork, with which the balls of barley paste are speared and then dipped into the sauce before being popped into your mouth. Amazingly good! Eyoel declares that this was the original feasting food of the nobles of Tigray. Good choice.
Traditionally tihlo is served with tej, Ethiopian honey-wine. Honey-wine has a long and distinguished history of many cultures. Americans probably know it best as mead, an ancient British drink. Mead tends to be sweeter than tej. Tej is served in a round-bottom flask called a berele, which looks like it migrated out of a high school chemistry laboratory. You tip the berele up to your lips and sip from the long neck of the flask. I have been told that this is to prevent you from drinking too much, too fast. Tej looks innocuous enough, but it has a pretty high alcohol content and you could certainly regret your enthusiasm for this beverage if you were not careful.
In 1913, a British military officer, Major J.I. Eadie, collected a recipe for tej which he published a few years later in an Amharic Reader. He wrote: “When tej is made, a horn or cup of honey is put in a large jar with 6 or 7 cups of water (that is to say the proportion is 1 to 6 or 7), and stirred. The next day all the impurities and wax float on the top. The maker having taken out the impurities and having slightly heated some gesho [Rhamnus prinoides, a native African plant similar to hops], it goes into the birz [the brewing mixture] whilst hot, and ferments all night. If it be in the highlands it is ready in 8 or 9 days, and if in the plains in 4 or 5 days. Tej, which is filtered and which has been mixed again with honey, will remain good for 20 years. This mixing again with honey is not just only once. It must be done when needed, when the tej is becoming sour.” This is clearly a beverage with some staying-power!
The tihlo finished and washed down with tej, the final course was the Ethiopian staple, injera. Injera is a slightly spongey flatbread, rather like a pancake, made from teff flour (Eragrostis tef). Teff is a nutritionally attractive grain, being high in fiber, iron, protein and calcium. (My research tells me teff is now being grown experimentally in Kansas!). To make injera, teff flour is mixed with water and is allowed to ferment for several days, rather like a sourdough starter. This gives it a slightly sour—but definitely not unpleasant—taste. The batter thus produced is poured out onto either an electric griddle or a more traditional clay plate over hot coals, where it cooks to form a thin, giant pancake.
After it is cooked, the flatbread is placed on a large plate and various sauces, meats, and vegetables are piled onto the platter in small mounds.
Pieces of injera are then torn from the larger pancake and used to scoop up the various sauces with your fingers and popped into your mouth.
Inejra is also served rolled up into “scrolls” as a side dish alongside the main platter. Guests unroll a scroll of injera, tearing off however much is desired, and this piece is then used to scoop up another serving of sauce until the appetite is sated and the meal is over.