Having spent more than half our lives in foreign countries, many of them African, we’ve crossed a few borders. In West Africa, we loved to hop in the car and travel to a neighboring country for 3-4 days. Border crossing wasn’t so bad. Polite patience got you checked in and out faster than flashing a diplomatic passport. The borders were usually midpoint between the two countries, isolated, with no electricity, no telephones and little in the way of food supplies and entertainment. We always thought that border crossings were punishment posts and that that accounted for the mostly irate and armed soldiers on duty who entertained themselves by playing cat and mouse with the travelers. We always carried a surplus of cold soft drinks, beers and huge chunks of ice to sooth their “fevered brows.” After several crossings we were well known and usually cruised through the borders like royalty :)
No, crossing the borders was not a problem. It was the police checkpoints within the countries, one located at the beginning and one at the end, of every town, village, hamlet and wide spot in the road. We must have stopped 20 times before reaching the border each way! As was explained to us, these checkpoints were established for internal security, which was just a joke because if they had guns, which was seldom, they had no bullets. They had no radios or telephones, nor did they have any transportation, not even bicycles. Their partial uniforms and scowling faces were intimidating enough for most of us! Still, during this one trip, after about the 10th checkpoint stop, my husband cracked. He swore he wasn’t stopping anymore until the border! I tried to tell him that it could be dangerous, to which he replied with a crazed laugh, “What are they going to do, radio ahead?” And you know, he had a point. As a compromise, I told him that he could run the checkpoints and that I would look behind to see if anyone was in the road waving a gun and if so, we would immediately brake and back up.
This worked like a charm until the last checkpoint before the border. The policeman was not just waving the rifle, he was taking aim! Screech went the tires and back we went in reverse. The man was absolutely furious! He jerked open the driver’s door and told us all to get out of the car immediately, including the nanny and our toddler, and fast marched us to the checkpoint building. Sweat streaming from his face, he began to verbally abuse my husband while waving his rifle around.
Me: Excuse me, do you have any bread in this town?
Me: Bread. We bought some meat down the road but couldn’t find any bread. We don’t want to eat the meat plain.
Policeman: Just a second.
He goes over to a teenager, with a withered leg, lying on the floor asleep and kicks him a couple of times.
Policeman: Get up and get Madame some bread!
Me: I’m really sorry about the checkpoint. We were talking and didn’t see it.
Policeman: That’s okay, but you should be careful.
Me: Okay. Want a cold beer?
One of things that surprised and pleased me was that Ethiopia has a cuisine as varied and interesting as any European or Asian cuisine. This is not often true in African countries; I think it has a lot to do with poverty.
I have collected cookbooks in every country we have visited and/or lived in, but unfortunately the only cookbooks I could find in Addis Ababa were horrible, made for tourists, caricatures of Ethiopia’s rich and fine cuisine. One day I was reading an Ethiopian culture column in the newspaper and the writer mentioned a cookbook that had been compiled and printed by the government’s Ethiopian Nutrition Institute in 1980. It was 1998 and I had not seen this book in any of the stores I visited. Jade’s godfather worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and I asked him about it. He said he would look into it.
After about 3 months, he found the book along with thousands of copies, stored in a government warehouse, having been printed and then abandoned. Such a pity! It is a compilation of authentic Ethiopian cuisine with unique measures and ingredients. He just got a copy and gave it to me. The money they could have made from these books! Oh la la!
Anyway, the wot or stew recipe that I made today is from this book. Not quite authentic but it tasted about right. I didn’t have any injera, so we ate it with boiled potatoes.
Ethiopian Alicha Wot with Veal and Cabbage
1 tbsp dried basil
1 tbsp cumin seeds
6 green cardamom pods, cracked
1 tbsp garlic powder
1 tbsp ginger powder
1 tbsp turmeric
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
2 lbs veal, cut into cubes
3 tbsp ghee
1 large onion, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 inch fresh ginger, finely chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
3 cups of water
1 small head of cabbage, chopped
Mix the first 8 ingredients in a bowl and set aside. Brown the veal in 2 tbsp of the ghee, then remove from the pan and set aside. Add the remaining 1 tbsp of ghee to the pan along with the onion, garlic, ginger and bell pepper, cooking until the onion is soft. Add the reserved spices and cook slowly for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Put the meat back into the pan, pour in the water, bring to a boil, then simmer for 1 1/2 hours or until the meat is very tender. Add the cabbage and continue to cook for 20-30 minutes. Serve with injera, rice or boiled potatoes.