Sometimes I can just close my eyes and I’m back in Ethiopia. It has been nearly two years since I stepped foot in a land that is not only thousands of miles away, but in some respects, thousands of years away.
On my way from DC to Ethiopia, I made a brief stop in Israel where I got off the plane, took a taxi to Tel Aviv and dined with friends at Herbert Samuel, one of the city’s trendiest restaurants. We enjoyed a 2007 Bordeaux from Chile, tasted deviled eggs and pickled beets, and savored a chocolate truffle mousse. Then, back to the airport. It would be a long journey ahead.
Along with other forty volunteers from North America, I boarded the flight to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital city, with Cliff bars and Vitamin Water in hand. After arriving in Ethiopia, a “puddle jumper” flight took us to the mountains of Gondar on a mission called Completing the Journey, an effort to bring some 8,700 Jewish Ethiopians to Israel to reunite with family and fulfill their dream of reaching the Holy Land.
Following a long and bumpy bus ride from the airstrip in Gondar through remote villages, we moved to jeeps to make it the last stretch up the mountain. Finally, we reached a Jewish village. It felt like we were in another world, and we were. There was no electricity, plumbing or running water. Women carried jugs of water for miles back to their mud huts. Barefoot children played in the dirt with rocks and sticks. The men smoked, drank coffee and traded goods. This was the life we saw in rural Ethiopia.
As I explored the village, I discovered a group of women surrounding an outdoor oven with a large black clay plate on top. Not wanting to intrude, I kept my distance until one of the women smiled and welcomed me to move in closer and join the group.
This was my first introduction to authentic injera, a crepe-thin bread made of teff flour that is a staple in Ethiopian cuisine. A woman poured batter on the huge flat griddle that sat on three bricks with a fire underneath. When the injera was ready, it was peeled off, folded several times and stored in a braided basket.
Delicious doesn’t even begin to describe the taste of this fresh injera. As noted in The Kitchn, a daily blog publication devoted to home cooking and kitchen design, “There’s nothing quite like injera. Sour and spongy from the typical 5-day fermentation process, it also carries a distinct taste from Ethiopia’s native teff flour (which is actually gluten-free, too)…The sourness of the bread pairs well with the spiciness of the African spices (such as Berbere), both flavors working to harmonize each other. Honey-wine and beer are also enjoyed as the injera…and is eventually entirely consumed – signifying the end of the meal.”
My 2011 trip was extraordinary, life-changing in fact. I was part of a true miracle, bringing a small Jewish community to a place they’ve dreamed about for thousands of years. Despite the challenges the Ethiopian Jews face in Israel, they will have their traditions to keep them close to their roots.
Ethiopia remains a place close to my heart. And every time I stop into one of my favorite DC-area Ethiopian eateries, I order my favorite vegetarian injera combination platter, complete with lentils and rice, potatoes and kale. I’m reminded of a beautiful place and a deeply-rooted cultural tradition.
Here are some of my favorite Ethiopian restaurants in the Washington, DC area:
1114-1118 U Street NW
Washington, DC 20009
1415 14th Street NW
Washington, DC 20005
Abyssinia Ethiopian Restaurant
8221 Georgia Ave
Silver Spring, MD 20910