Friday, April 13, 2012

In Ethiopia, Coffee, Crepes and Antipasto

My wife, Gelila, grew up in Addis Ababa, moving to the U.S. when she was 16. She still has family living there, but I always told her, "You go to Ethiopia—and I'll go skiing." That is, until last January, when I made my first trip there, with Gelila and our two young sons, Alexander and Oliver.
I did not cook in Ethiopia—I just looked! And ate, of course, learning a great deal about the country's culture through its food.

Family was a big reason for our visit. Gelila's mother visits us often in California, but her grandmother had never met the children and was very excited to see them. We also went for a graduation. My wife has supported a school for orphans in a small village called Aleltu for the past 15 years, wanting to give back to the country where she grew up. When the school started, it was taking care of 21 kids. Now it looks after more than 600, who get three meals a day and a good education. Last year, the first high school class was graduating.

Aleltu is sort of in the middle of nowhere, and the residents live in round huts grouped together in threes and fours. They are very small—basically one-room houses—and families mostly cook outside over an open fire. The school looks like you might imagine, with cinder-block walls and a corrugated roof. There is a garden where the children learn about agriculture and farming.

I was especially interested in the kitchen where they make food for the kids. They cook on flat-top stoves that look like what you use to make crepes, set over wood fires. The cooks spread the batter—it's a fermented dough—over the surface, to make a spongy flatbread called injera. When they're done, the children eat the bread with their hands.

We spent some time in Addis Ababa, which probably looks like many other big cities in Africa. You have the mercato where you can buy almost anything live and have it butchered on the spot. The locals eat a lot of raw beef in kitfo, which is like steak tartare but with melted butter on it. There is a traditional Ethiopian spice mixture that gives the beef a very distinctive, peppery flavor—I always added it to my tartare. One thing that amazed me was that you would often see the sides of beef sitting outside. Why not? When you go to go to Madrid and Barcelona you see hams hanging outside. They are cured, but still.

We ate the best at Gelila's family house in Addis. Her grandmother is some 90 years old, and has two housekeepers who cook for her. We also experienced a coffee ceremony, which is a lot like the Japanese tea ceremony—full of ritual and beauty. Coffee is thought to have originated in Ethiopia, so it is a national drink and a source of pride. They slowly roast raw beans over a small charcoal stove in the living room. Then they coarsely grind the beans by hand and add them to boiling water in a special pot that looks like a carafe made from clay. The coffee sits over the fire for a while; when it is done, it is poured from high up into small espresso-style cups, and a little sugar is added. It's a very fragrant coffee with a complex flavor. When you finish this tiny little cup, you get a second brew that is slightly less strong. And all the time, there is a lot of bowing and ceremony involved, as in Japan.

We ate surprisingly excellent Italian food in Addis Ababa. Italy occupied Ethiopia for five years leading up to World War II, and today there are still a few Italian bakeries and restaurants. We went to an eatery called Ristorante Castelli, where an old guy was sitting behind the counter, speaking Amharic and Italian.

It was a treat for the kids because it was like being in a great old-style restaurant in Italy, with a whole table of antipasti. Good for me, too, because the food in Ethiopia is very similar everywhere you go—braised lentils, braised cabbage, lamb and raw beef. It all has an intense flavor, not hot-spicy, but with similarities to Indian and Moroccan food. They are very proud people, so you can't tell them their food tastes like Indian food. They say, "Indian food tastes like our food!"
—As told to Sara Clemence
Mr. Puck is a chef and head of the Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group, Wolfgang Puck Catering and Wolfgang Puck Worldwide.