22 January, 2017


Posted in : Ethiopia on by : Grace Rice

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Before college, Ethiopia was one of those African countries that I felt immensely proud for recognizing but didn’t know jack shit about. Sure, I appreciated the culinary accomplishments of Marcus Samuelsson and the stunning jawline of Liya Kebede, but as far as I was concerned, Ethiopia was simply another African country producing your trifecta of stereotypes: Olympic sprinters, famished toddlers with engorged bellies, and HIV victims.  But two years ago, upon collapsing in celestial wonder after my first bite of injera at Abyssinia Restaurant, I vowed to learn more about Ethiopian culture. Unfortunately, my only attempts since then have involved making teff pancakes and buying a colorful mesob, so I’m picking up where I left off: right from the very beginning.

I first reached out to Aklilu Adeye, Program Director at The Ethiopian Community Association of Chicago (ECAC), a “non-for-profit, non-political, tax-exempt organization committed to serving the educational, cultural, psychological, and socio-economic needs of Ethiopians [and other “similarly situated groups”] in Chicago land and the surrounding areas.” The organization provides a multitude of different programs, including refugee placement, ESL classes, health education, and youth development. ECAC occupies a small little white building in Rogers Park, nestled between the multitude of Hispanic restaurants and markets in the area. Aklilu invites me over and introduces me to Almaz Seyoume, his fellow colleague and a member of the Board of Directors. Almaz exudes a type of maternal pleasantness that fills my heart with warm fuzzies, and I immediately feel welcome as we settle down for a chat.

She provides a detailed explanation of ECAC’s mission and functionalities, as well as several interesting tidbits about the organization and Ethiopian culture:

  • Ethiopians have their own calendar with 13 months
  • Almost 50% of all Ethiopians are Orthodox Christian
  • Although the official language is Amharic, there are 80 unique ethnic groups with their own language!

Interested in my quest to explore Chicago through food, she invites me for a Saturday social with the Ethiopian community. Eager to network and chat with the locals, I leave early but arrive late after spending 15 minutes trying to parallel park into a space meant for a mini Fiat. Fortunately, Ethiopians seem to abide by Rule #2 of all ethnic social gatherings: being late is too early.

I chat with the volunteers preparing the meal, including the main chef who cooked all the dishes. As she slices through a foot-high mound of airy injera, she warns me about the lack of meat and animal products—strict Orthodox Christians fast 165 days every year, including every Wednesday and Friday and the two months that encompass Lent and Easter.

People soon start trickling in, people greeting one another with enormous side hugs and three alternating cheek kisses. I quickly discover and adopt the proper greeting etiquette: bow, smile, and say “Selam.” The crowd includes mostly older folks, a few kids and teenagers, and a White volunteer (who, I found out, is on a year-long service mission with ECAC). Before the feast commences, I visit a mini, in-house museum filled with paintings, portraits, and artistic artifacts from the Ethiopian community.

The art museum was phenomenal, but enticing food aromas soon lured me back out into the main room. The cornucopia of vegan deliciousness would have sent Ron Swanson into cardiac arrest, but the food tasted remarkably savory and rich. Dabo bread and injera accompanied a variety of the vegan dishes, including red lentils in berbere (misir wot), yellow split peas (alicha), collard greens and cabbage (gomen), traditional salad (salata), carrots and green beans (fasolia), and crumbled injera tossed with ground sesame paste (fitfit). There were also jalapenos stuffed with a sweet filling, as well as chickpea and flax seed cream that tasted almost minty.

I loaded my plate with heavenly morsels and scurried to my seat where I promptly began to gorge my face. No forks, spoons, or cutlery—and in my opinion, the best form of eating. However, I soon made four crucial realizations:

  1. I had foolishly loaded my sides apart from my injera, meaning I could not properly perform the scoop-n-roll technique
  2. You eat with your right hand, even if you’re a lefty.
  3. Wiping one’s fingers after every bite was flawed technique.
  4. Ethiopians love to drink. No really. They love their alcohol.

In fact, I realized #4 after being offered an alcoholic beverage at least ten times within the first half hour–a sign of generosity and invitation in Ethiopian culture. Though I politely declined these highly enthusiastic offers, the volunteer sitting next to me had his cup refilled as soon as he took a sip. He’s a friendly guy and entertains me with interesting facts, including the fact that Ethiopians eat raw meat (like beef carpaccio) and avoid pork and seafood. He tells me that Ethiopians love goat, lamb, and chicken, especially fresh from Halal butchers on Devon Street. (Another guest later told me about a great farm near Milwaukee if I ever wanted a whole slaughtered sheep.) I ask him about the professional diversity of the community, and he replies that Chicago Ethiopians hold a wide variety of jobs, including IT support and taxi driving. I ask him about common misconceptions of the Ethiopian community, and shrugging inquisitively, he replies that people don’t know enough about the Ethiopian community to even form misconceptions.

No Ethiopian-specific stereotypes? Well, isn’t that a great thing? Not necessarily, a later conversation with Fasika Alem (former president of ECAC’s board of director) revealed. She tells me that because Ethiopians lack a strong cultural presence in America, they are often lumped with other African stereotypes: starving, HIV-ridden, and impoverished. But did you know that Ethiopia has 3000 year old cultural traditions? Did you know that its religion and literature has strong roots in Judaism? Did you know that northern Ethiopians are shorter and lighter in color because of the mountainous terrain and climate? In fact, Yemi (daughter of ECAC’s executive director) says that preserving Ethiopian culture within the younger population while increasing community outreach have been two of ECAC’s major goals.

As I finish my third plate of food (slowly sinking into a fantastic, turmeric-laced food coma), I realize it’s already been two hours and the party hasn’t even begun. Bored teenagers furiously text away, the women congregate into gossip circles, and older gentlemen amble about the room in post-meal contentedness. There’s trivia and dancing, but I can’t stay. I’ve learned a lot about Ethiopians at the social, yet it seems I’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg.

In fact, I think I’ll continue on this quest…perhaps in another adventure.