When European exploration of Ethiopia began in earnest, the high-minded men taking those first footsteps in Africa didn't always appreciate Ethiopian cuisine and the customary method of eating it. They wrote with a mixture of amazement, humor, disdain and disgust at the sight and taste of spongy injera, spicy wots, and the piquant inebriant, t'ej.
In his mid-16th Century book, the priest Francisco Alvares, part of a group of Portuguese explorers who visited Ethiopia, reported what he saw on the Ethiopian table. But he also commented on it, and none if it really appealed to him.
"Their food is raw meat," he wrote "and we could not bear to look at it, let alone eat; nor of the bread unless it was of wheat, or at least chick-peas." The travelers instead had their servants prepare their meals - thoroughly cooked - although at times, to be polite, they were obliged to eat something of what their hosts provided.
Job Ludolphus, a German scholar, wrote about every aspect of Ethiopian life in his classic 1682, although he never visited the country, instead basing his comprehensive work on the published journals of Alvares, Telles and other explorers and missionaries, among them an aged Ethiopian monk named Gregory, who lived in Rome. Some of Gregory's source material has long been out of print, so Ludolphus' amalgam is a valuable document. He talks about food here and there throughout his vivid book, and his notes will resonate with 21st Century diners.
"Their diet is not only very homely," Ludolphus wrote, "but also far different from ours, for they feed either upon raw flesh, or half boiled. They covet as a daintie the half-concocted grass and green herbs they find in the maws of the beasts which they kill, and greedily devour those morsels, having first seasoned them with pepper and salt, as if the beasts better understood what herbs were most wholesome than themselves, a sort of diet which none of our Europeans will envy."
Urban Ethiopians no longer practice such customs. But what Ludolphus writes next, they do: "Their bread they bake upon the embers, made in the fashion of thin pancakes. Their tablecloths served them for bread, which there was no need for the servants to take away, fold up or wash."
As for the manner of eating, it's hard to tell whether Ludolphus approves. Observing the habits of a nobleman, he wrote, "The children belonging to court take the meat and put it in their mouths, and if the gobbets be too big, they thrust them in, as they do that cram capons." To a European reader of the time, it surely sounded barbaric.
ęCopyright 2010 by Harry Kloman