Moroccan Preserved Lemons

From my modern American perspective, the essence of Moroccan food comes from two factors. The first is a mixture of several cultures. There is Arab influence, Mediterranean influence, French, African, and that of numerous traders who passed through.IMG_0328

 

The 2nd factor arose from the need to preserve ingredients in an arid climate with no refrigeration. When it comes to preserving meat, you simply kept it alive until you were ready to eat it.

Fish, Fruits and vegetables however, require more creativity. Thus, there is drying, salting, pickling, brining and this simple recipe for preserving lemons.

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Here is your list of ingredient, course salt, lemons, and a jar in which to put them.

“Make this recipe now so it will be ready in a few weeks when we make a Moroccan tagine that calls for preserved lemons”

 

Preserved lemons are an essential ingredient in Moroccan tagines.  The tagine is both the dish pictured at the top of this post, and the stew cooked in the dish.  This simple and easy recipe will be ready to use in a couple of weeks.

The acid from the lemon juice and high saline from the salt hampers bacteria, hence the preserved quality.  It is a fermentation however, so don’t be surprised if you find some pressure released when you open the jar.

 

You’ll need double the lemons you plan to preserve for additional lemon juice.

Cut the lemons in quarters, but not all the way through so each quarter is still attached.  Rub the inside of the lemon quarters with course salt, and then stuff them into a jar.

Cover the lemons with lemon juice from the additional lemons and seal the lid.  If you don’t have enough juice to cover them, you can invert the jar each day for a couple weeks.  My experience with this method, however, is that–due to the pressure from fermentation–all containers eventually leak when inverted.  So if you invert, put the jar in a bowl to catch the leakage.  It’s best to simply cover them with juice.

 

 

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Put them in a dry place at room temperature for a couple weeks. If possible have a happy wooden chef watch over them!

You can taste them at any time, but after a couple weeks you will notice a distinct change in flavor.  They will mellow considerable from the tart salty mixture you start with, and they will have a new flavor component that I find hard to describe, beyond saying it is faintly exotic.  They will now last indefinitely.

Make this recipe now so it will be ready in a few weeks when we make a Moroccan tagine that calls for preserved lemons.

Try them out in other recipes too!  Take a quarter lemon, pulp and all and cut it into thin slices and add to any dish near the end of cooking for a distinctive lemony flavor.

TT

One Day in Casablanca

The plan was to go to Portugal.  My friend lives in Ethiopia and we were looking for a halfway point between Addis Ababa and Washington, DC.  Portugal it was, and there will be blog posts about that trip.

When I looked at flights, however, the best fare was on Royal Air Maroc and we would have to change planes in Casablanca!

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Royal Air Maroc offers great fares from Washington, DC to Europe with a stop in Casablanca.  You can stay a few days with no impact on your fare.

There was no way I was going to change planes in Morocco without seeing the place!

When you tell people you’re going to Casablanca you get one of two responses.  The first is, “Holy shit!  Is that really a place??  That’s amazing!!!”  The other response is from people who have been to Morocco.  They look at you with ennui and say, “There’s nothing to see there.”

True enough, much of the online literature supports that statement, but I have learned when to ignore these comments and this was one of those times.  Are there better places in Morocco to visit?  Sure.  Marrakesh, Fez, Tangier, the Saharan Desert Bedouin experience, all arguably bigger and better.  These locations, however, take a half-day or more to get there from Casablanca  and another half-day or more to get back, and we could only add 2 days to our trip (remember, the ultimate destination is Portugal!)

“…the first time in my life, I saw the sun set over the Atlantic Ocean!”

So we settled on a day in Casablanca and a day in the capital city, Rabat, one hour north of Casa.

It did not disappoint, and we had a fabulous time!  If you are flying on Royal Air Maroc, you can add a day or more to your itinerary without changing your fare.  A day in Casablanca is a great way to adjust to the time difference, practice your French (or Arabic), eat fantastic food, and explore the ancient open-air markets known as the Medinas.

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Don’t believe people who tell you there’s nothing to see in Casablanca…it may not be Marrakesh but it’s an amazing place to spend a day or more!

Rick’s Café – The reason people find the name exciting is because of the movie.  Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman’s film Casablanca lit up the screen over 75 years ago (1942).  They made the name of this city immortal.  The setting for the film is an American-style nightclub and gambling casino named Rick’s Café Americain.

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In 2004, a former American diplomat, Kathy Kriger purchased an old mansion in the ancient medina and created the “gin joint” to live up to the film  http://www.rickscafe.ma.  I did not visit Rick’s.  Honestly, I found the idea a little too touristy; but, I did walk to it hoping to find a souvenir for a friend.  Alas, it was also closed for the holiday.  I will say, it gets good reviews. 

Hassan II Mosque – The Hassan II Mosque is the 2nd largest mosque in Africa.  When the hotel employee told us this factoid we thought, OK, great!  When we got up to our room looking out over the city, we were like, that’s a big freaking mosque!!! Built on a promontory jutting into the Atlantic Ocean, it dwarfs everything else in the city.  The walls are hand-carved marble, and the retractable roof allows worshippers to pray in open air.

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It can accommodate 25,000 people inside, and another 80,000 people on the grounds outside!

We walked to the mosque, but this being Eide al-Fitr—and we not being muslims–did not try to enter.

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The Hassan II Mosque is built on a promontory, jutting out over the Atlantic Ocean

Medina Ancienne – The Medina is an open air market place.  Here in the states, that often means a temporary farmers’ market of 10-20 stalls.  In Morocco it is a small ancient city, a warren of alleys and shops.  This part of the city could take up 3 days exploring.  One can find everything here, food, clothing, dry goods, fresh cooked items.  Normally, it is bustling and has the feel of an Indiana Jones movie.  That was certainly what we found in Rabat.  On this day, however, everyone was otherwise occupied.  More on that in a minute.

My French, although rusty, is good enough to have a conversation.  You can get by with English, but it doing so instantly makes you an outsider.  Speaking French made us insiders.  There are so many people roaming the medina and it is not a touristy experience. In fact, we got some puzzled looks.  People were very warm and welcoming, but also looked like they wanted to ask if we were lost.  In fact, we were not, we were right where we wanted to be!

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The ancient medina is a warren of crowded alleys and shops, but on a day that was both holiday and a World Cup game, things were pretty quiet!

When we visited the Medina in Rabat it was bustling and alive.  In Casablanca, however, two big factors left the Medina largely shuttered and empty.  One, it was a holiday, Eide al-Fitr, the last day of Ramadan.  But even more visible to us, Morroco was playing Iran in the World Cup!

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The Sofitel lobby had several large screens set up and this young fan already had her Russia 2018 soccer jersey!

Everywhere we walked shops were closed and people were crowded into cafes and bars.  They weren’t there to eat or drink mind you–it was still Ramadan for 6 more hours–but to watch the World Cup!

We would be walking down a street and hear a roar from a café.  We’d think, oh boy, Morocco must have scored, but no, when we’d look in, the score was still 0-0.  It’s a game Americans don’t seem to appreciate as much as the rest of the world does.  I think a score of 0-0 after 80 minutes of play is one of the reasons.

Everywhere we went people were packing cafes and peeking in from outside.

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On the last day of Ramadan, Eide al-Fitr, Moroccans packed the cafes for one thing only, a the World Cup soccer game Morocco vs. Iran.

We got back to our hotel in time to catch the last 30 minutes.  In the posh international atmosphere of the Sofitel Casablanca, we also were able to enjoy a couple cold beers after walking around all day in the hot sun.  I have to say, I really admire that muslims go an entire month without eating or even drinking water between sunrise and sunset.

The lobby was packed with World Cup fans and equipped with projectors and big screens.  It’s very exciting to enjoy an event like that when national pride is on the line.

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Moroccan Food and Wine – Casablanca - 14We were leaving early the next morning for Portugal, so rather than venture out on the town, we opted for a traditional Moroccan feast in the hotel.  We enjoyed a really nice Moroccan rosé.  Morocco has areas with the perfect climate–and French vines–for very good wines.

Dinner included a classic tagine of chicken, preserved lemons, green olives and a lot of garlic. I am in love with Moroccan cuisine. It is middle-eastern, Mediterranean, French and African all rolled into one.

I am also a sucker for any dish where the pot you cook it in, and the food you make in that pot have the same name.  The tagine tops the list for me.

One thing I knew for sure, a tagine was going home with me!  Stay tuned for that in future blog posts!

The end of the day also gave us an unforgettable sunset looking out over the Hassan II mosque, the ancient medina, and the Atlantic Ocean.  It gave me one (ok, 30) of the finest pictures I’ve ever taken.  For the first time in my life, I saw the sun set over the Atlantic Ocean!

I will cover Rabat in a future post, and to be fair, there was a lot more going on in Rabat.  But for a quick tour, on a holiday, during a World Cup game, Casablanca did not disappoint!  I will absolutely be back to Morocco to see more of this exciting country!

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TT

Remembering Anthony Bourdain

Bourdain

We share a name, Anthony Michael, and he was the embodiment of my aspirations.  He understood that food was a portal to people’s stories, their pride, their memories, and their happiness.  Through food, he could draw someone out of their protective shell.

My greatest moments are when I make connections with the world.  Throughout my travels, it is never the museum or the beach that I remember best, it is the impromptu gathering, the chance encounter with a local–a connection–that I did not anticipate.

Food is often the medium for these connections and Anthony Bourdain understood this better than anyone. He seemed to appreciate the simplest foods, noodles, raw fish, or a fried bit of some lowly creature; and, I think it was because that food led to a deeper world.  It was never just the food on the plate, it was always about where he was, with whom he enjoyed it, and the complete context of the meal.

I read Kitchen Confidential almost as soon as it came out in 2000.  What captured me from the start was what a gifted writer he was.  He was in one of the first classes at Vassar, to allow men, and went on to become a badass chef in a New York City restaurant.  He was also a rare example of someone who had beaten a heroin addiction.   He had wanderlust, and a worldview that contained an exquisite blend of reverence and irreverence.  But most of all, the guy could tell a story.  It was his writing skills that catapulted him into stardom.

I have never forgotten one great example of this, when he spoke of how rude he found vegetarians, speaking mostly tongue in cheek about how hard chefs work to create a dish  and for someone to simply exclude an entire category of the menu from their diet!  He then continued with this unforgettable line, “the only group ruder than the vegetarians is their Hezbollah-like splinter group, the vegans.”  He could turn a phrase and he did not mince words!

I watched him use food as a stepping stone to get to the real story, someone’s upbringing that made this food a fond memory, their struggles with oppressive governments, he had a way of penetrating their barriers, and he used food as his port of entry.

We are fortunate that he left a sizable body of work, available constantly and for free on Youtube, the internet, etc.  I will return often for inspiration.  He has already inspired me to explore “parts unknown” such as Viet Nam, Morocco, and the less touristy sides of Los Angeles, and Detroit.

Much will be said of his suicide, and the pain that follows for those left behind.  There will be speculation on his state of mind, missed warning signs etc.  I am not qualified to comment on any of that.

What I am qualified to comment on is the impact he had on my life.  I did not consciously set out to emulate Anthony Bourdain, but my blog developed initially as a food blog, and evolved into more of a travel blog.  If you explore the pages of tonemanblog you will find that increasingly I sought that connection with the places I visited rather than just a survey of the best hotels and restaurants.

I am not the writer that he was, but he gave me such validation that I was following a worthy path in using food to gain entry to people’s lands, their history, and their souls.  I am so very grateful for all that Anthony Bourdain produced, and I will continue down the path he blazed.

It has been a couple years since my blog was active, and recently I enjoyed some fabulous travel to Morocco and Portugal, all in the same spirit that AB would have pursued. I will use his departure from this world as a milestone to resume blogging, and I hope whoever follows tonemanblog finds some hint of “the Bourdain” in my work.

TT

ToneManBlog is Returning!

After a 2 year hiatus, the ToneManBlog is returning.  I’ve been traveling and enjoying lots of great food and drink and realized I could be sharing all this!  Stay tuned, I’m updating my website and will have some new posts out this summer!

Rambling, Listening, Celebrating and Reflecting in Louisiana (part one of the LA and MS road trip)

A re-post from my friend MIchael who has embarked on a rare adult gap year. Man are you off to a great start!

50 States of Rambling, Listening, Celebrating and Reflecting

Rambling – Louisiana was the perfect state to launch my gap year.  We had already planned a family gathering to attend VoodooFest, a three-day long music and art festival held the weekend before Halloween.  When we left New Orleans a week later sated and exhausted, Linda and I ventured through Cajun country and then on to Mississippi.  1,000 miles later we were back at the Louis Armstrong airport heading home for Thanksgiving and a countdown to my first cross country trip that will start the week after and likely last three months.

There is no way to convey the profusion of experiences from this first trek but I’ve highlighted what I wouldn’t want to miss below, included books I read in the sidebar, and detailed the route on this planning site (see the map on the righthand side).

A great joy of rambling is simply staring out of car…

View original post 1,360 more words

Ethiopia’s Simien Mountain National Park

On our trip to Ethiopia we spent 2 days in the Simien Mountain National Park.  This vast jagged wilderness covers 85 square miles connected by narrow dirt roads with switchbacks and no guard rails.  The trip was planned by an organization called Witness Ethiopia, and every detail was perfect.  I would strongly recommend using an advance team like this one to get the most out of your trip.  One of the best parts was the very high quality of the guides and drivers.  Like a waiter in a restaurant, these are the folks who make your experience memorable or miserable and ours were all dedicated and superb.IMG_5016

It was beautiful country and everywhere we went there were people farming, shepherding, and trekking.  We would drive up to the highest roads and see people walking their donkeys and goats along the road.  There would be nothing around for miles!  Often it would be a young child who had apparently climbed the steep mountainsides with the family’s herd.

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We traveled for almost 3 days along edges of cliffs, overlooking endless volcanic crags, and occasional green oases.  Countless scenes looked like the animated African landscapes of the Lion King!

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We flew from Addis Ababa into a city called Gondar where our driver picked us up and drove us 3 hours north.  This road was paved, wide, and clearly a conduit of commerce connecting villages all along the way.  It was not unusual to have to stop briefly to allow a herd of goats to cross.

We arrived at the park and checked into a brand new lodge, the Lima Limo Lodge.  Formerly an encampment of the Italian army during their brief occupation of Ethiopia, this sight has been rebuilt using native materials, environmentally friendly methods, and local employees.  I would describe it as luxuriously rustic.  Our cabin was essentially a hotel room and bathroom but in a stand-alone building adjacent to only one other room.  The roof contained a solar panel for enough electricity to power lighting, but there was no heat or air conditioning.

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The sight was at 10,000 feet altitude so it took a bit of getting used to walking around there. When we checked in they told us the place was brand new and their dining room was not built yet.  Dinner would be a fireside meal.  We didn’t know what to expect but the sight was so charming it didn’t really  matter.

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When we arrived at the site of the fireside dinner we sat on a patio overlooking a breathtaking view and enjoyed a cold Ethiopian beer while the staff got the fire going and began preparing the meal.  They essentially set up an outdoor dining room.  The meal was a delicious fusion of Ethiopian and western flavors, served with Ethiopian wine, which was quite good.

We sat and chatted with other guests and learned what brought everyone so far from home.  It was getting pretty chilly but the fire provided both warmth and a stovetop.  As we were about to make our way back to our unit, our hosts handed us two hot water bottles.

I’ve never seen or used a hot water bottle, it seems like a comedy prop from the days of Abbott & Costello, but this little old-school gem was a wonderful new discovery at 10,000 feet with no heat!  They went into velvet bags and when placed under the covers with you they kept us warm all night!

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The next day we awoke to Gelada monkeys playing outside the cabin, and yet another day of perfect weather.  We made the trek up the short hill to the dining area for breakfast and there was a mist shrouding the view.  Through the mist was layer after layer of mountains in an endless horizon.

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It happened to be Valentine’s Day and as the mist burned off, there, on the distant cliffs was a natural coloring in the mountainside the shape of a heart!  The view was on par with the Grand Canyon as we sipped fresh squeezed juice and local fried eggs.

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Our driver came to pick us up and take us deep into the National Park.  We passed through a bustling small town called De Bark.  It was more of an intersection than a town, but it was a vibrant marketplace and there were tons of people buying, selling, herding, and socializing.

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We drove first to the Simien Mountain Lodge where we would be staying that night.  We checked into the “highest lodge in Africa”. This one was at 10,600 feet!  The rooms here were also separate buildings from the main lodge and built to resemble traditional Ethiopian houses called Tewkels.  This was a legendary establishment built to serve large groups and still preserve the quiet charm of this remote part of Ethiopia.

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We left our bags, had a quick coffee and set out for the town of Chennek.  This would be a long harrowing drive of steep dirt roads, switch-backs.  By this time we had an entourage of a driver, a guide, and a park-required armed scout.  The scout carried an old Kalashnikov rifle as required, even though there is no dangerous wildlife, and no crime.

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We traveled in a van and thanks to our skilled driver, navigated the 60 kilometers of mountainous tracks.  At times you could look out the window and see over the edge of the road straight down hundreds of feet.  Massive trucks that serve as city buses would speed by leaving clouds of dust that looked like a storm was approaching.

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The scenery was breathtaking.  In every direction was beauty and overwhelming vastness.  It was the dry season so there was a lot of dry brown landscapes but the mountains are also made of rock and would channel water to certain green lush paths down to fertile valleys.

Here and there we would see Gelada monkeys.  At times I heard them called monkeys and other times baboons.  These friendly and very social animals live in large communities so we never saw just one.  We would see hundreds at a time!  The video in this post captures them scurrying across the road as a massive truck-load of people steams by.  As they run across the road into the field you can see hundreds of them across the hillside.

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When we arrived at Chennek we were at 12,000 feet and looking anywhere we could for a little oxygen.  Now it was time for hiking!  Our guide took us down a short trail that was thankfully not a steep climb.  There were cliffs and peaks in every direction and we could see wildlife, and surreal scenery.

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The harrowing trip had been well worth it.  We stayed a while and ate the box lunches the hotel had packed for us.  The weather was pleasant, the views magnificent, and never before had I been anywhere so incredibly remote!

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We would occasionally see water, a small spring, a stream, etc.  You could see it from way off because there would be a strip of green along each side of it, and lots of people and their animals making the most of it.

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On the long ride back to the lodge we laughed and joked with our guide and driver, even playing word games.  This is pretty impressive given that English is their second language.  They were fantastic guides and clearly proud of their beautiful country.

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Our guide Yeshi on the left, driver Effrem center and National Park Scout Werko with the rifle.

The next day we drove back along the main highway to Gondar with the memory of this amazing wilderness.  Gondar is a small city and the day after that it would be back to the chaotic metropolis of Addis Ababa.

As I mentioned, our guides and drivers were the difference between a fantastic experience and a horrible one.  Our guide Yeshi, and our driver Effrem were outstanding in every way.  Our Scout, Werko was a requirement of the national park.  He’s required to carry a rifle and uses it only for fun pictures but Werko too was wonderful, and like the others, made our enjoyment of the visit his  highest priority.

π

 

The Food of Ethiopia

The food of Ethiopia is unlike any western cuisine.  Served on a communal platter and eaten with pieces of bread instead of fork and spoon, it has an exotic flavor and uses exotic ingredients.  Ethiopians eat things we don’t normally eat in the US like sheep and goat.  At the same time, things we consider common everyday foods in the US, like chicken, are special treats for the Ethiopians.

The chicken gets cooked into a stew called Doro Wot.  It is rich and copper brown and something worthy of a big occasion like a birthday or  special guest.

We had to be careful about things like not eating uncooked food.  No fresh salad, no fresh fruit and water only if bottled.  This put a small cloud of doubt over each meal, wondering if we missed something.  Every rumble in the tummy tends to make you think, “uh oh, is this the day I spend in the bathroom?”

I am pleased to report, however, that neither of us experienced any illness or digestive distress the entire trip.  This is particularly fortunate because  we ate “local food” pretty much everyday, and were pretty adventurous.

We loved the food and the experience of dining Ethiopian style; but, I will admit to having days when I really just wanted a plain bowl of pasta and a fresh salad.

The Bread

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Each of these rolls of injera bread is a 2-ft diameter circle. This basket would feed a whole village!

The essence of Ethiopian food is all about the Injera.  Injera (sometimes spelled enjera) is a spongy pancake-like bread that is eaten with everything.  It is plate, silverware, and meal, made with a grain called teff, a nutritious high fiber, high protein staple.  The Ethiopians start with a dough that rises from natural yeasts, similar to sourdough.  From this they make a batter the consistency of pancake batter.  and pour it on a hot round griddle.  They start on the outside of the circle moving toward the center and flip it once.

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The injera batter is poured onto a hot griddle from the outside in. It is flipped once and pulled off to a warm basket.

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The full “loaf” is about 2 feet in diameter and they either roll them and put the rolls in a basket or they fold them like dinner napkins.  To eat a full one of these, along with the food you pick up with the bread is a full day’s calorie intake!

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A basket of injera that will feed the night’s feast…and an army…and an air force…

 

Part of the secret is the highly porous nature of the bread.  Those little holes in the bread pick up sauce and food as you use it to eat.  Then, it seems to expand significantly in your stomach.  As a result, it’s very easy to overeat because the food is so delicious and every bite includes a piece of bread, and then it all expands to triple the size inside your stomach.

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Those “nooks and crannies” soak up sauce and food and help the injera to expand to three times its size when it gets to your stomach.

I decided when I returned that I would go on the all-enjera diet because one meal of this bread and we literally would not be hungry again all day!

Every meal is served with Injera, and preparation for a party involves making a giant basket of them.

Flavoring

The food is exotic–delicious, but very different.  There is a spice mix called berbere that is common to almost all of the food.  It has some familiar ingredients like chili peppers, garlic, and ginger;  but, it has a lot of elements that I have never heard of, things that are not familiar to the western pantry and give the food its exotic flavor.

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This spice shop in the marketplace sold berbere, mitmita, and many individual spices to be used by home cooks to make their own mixtures. When I bought my berbere here it came by the kilo!

While not mild, heat is not the dominant flavor.  For real heat you add a spice mix called mitmita.  This dry powder is serious heat and really delicious!  It is often served on the side for dipping pieces of meat.

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I now have both berbere and green coffee beans (see posting on the Ethiopian coffee ceremony) on my shelf in Virginia.

The Fantastic Cooks and Their Hard Work

I was able to buy a kilo of spice mix at the market, but most people make their own and it is a LOT of work!  Painstakingly picking by hand, through lentils, grains, and chili peppers, women, for the most part spend their days drying and grinding spices and sifting through grains.

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Chili’s drying on the sidewalk in Gondar.

 

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A woman picks through barley to clean it and prepare it for drying. The barley will be used in numerous dishes.

In fact, one of the more pleasant sights everywhere we went was tarps out on the sidewalk with chili’s, grains, and spices drying in the sun.  It didn’t matter where we were, the city, the country, a high-rise apartment building, someone’s spice mixture would be out getting sun-dried.

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This woman set wheat out on the precipice of a mountain to dry to a golden straw color in the sun.

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Whether outside a goat pen or outside a high-rise apartment building, everyone is drying grain and spices!

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The people who make this food are almost always hired cooks.  When I remarked that in the US having a cook is considered a luxury, my friend Messi said, it’s just a cultural thing in Ethiopia.  If you’re poor she said, you find someone poorer to be your cook.

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Apparently “supermarket” does not really translate.

One reason for this is that food is more difficult to get.  There are no Safeway’s or large supermarkets where you can get everything you need.  Getting the groceries often involves live animals.  It’s hard work to put together a daily meal in this country.

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The lovely cooks at Four Sisters restaurant in Gondar

That said, it still is unusual for a middle class American to see a family like mine with a cook!  Everytime we went to someone’s house for dinner I made a point to speak with the cook and ask her how she made the dish and take selfie’s, and compliment her cooking.  My hosts often looked at me like I had gone downstairs at Downton Abbey!  I couldn’t stop myself.  These beautiful women never stopped smiling and fed me everywhere I went!

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Our friends’ cook in Addis, teaching me to make Kategna.

 

Particular Dishes

One of my favorite flavorings was a chili sauce called awazi.  This was essentially berbere mixed with oil or clarified butter.  Awaze was the key ingredient in a dish called kategnawhich was one of our favorite things we ate there.  A fresh injera is made and spread with awaze, and then another enjera is put on top of it and browned.

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If you go to an Ethiopian restaurant and they have Kategna on the menu…order it!

There were countless little pastes and sauces that would be frequently served on the side as a sort of condiment.  Sometimes green, sometimes red, it always packed a lively heat, and tons of flavor!

I have already mentioned Doro Wot, but another of my favorite dishes was Shiro Tegabeno.  Shiro is a lentil powder that is cooked to the consistency of hummus.  It is flavored with vegetables and berbere and when served tagabeno style it is sautéed and browned with veggies in a skillet.  It had a fresh lively taste and was very filling!

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The shiro tegabino

One day in the city of Gondar, we stopped for coffee at a little restaurant in Gondar in the middle of the afternoon.  The woman who owned it was so pleased that Americans were in her restaurant she said she was going to make food for us.  As I mentioned, we had been pretty careful about what and where we ate as the risk of getting sick was always present.

When this woman said she was making us food, my wife and I exchanged a concerned look.  We were with some newly made friends and one of them leaned over to me and said, “This woman is very poor and works very hard and she’s making a dish for free because she is so proud to have you sample it.  You have to eat it, it would be extremely rude not to!”

That was all he needed to say, and when the sheep tibs came out with a green chili  paste on the side, we devoured it.  It was delicious and there were no unpleasant results.  It was, in fact, one of those experiences that was very poignant and frankly would have been worth an evening with the Immodium!

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The storied tibs, offered up as a proud gesture of kindness from a restaurant owner. That green chili paste on the side was amazingly good, as were the tibs and her injera.

Restaurants

When we arrived, our friends took us on day 1 to Kategna.  I noticed that Anthony Bourdain, on his show Parts Unknown, also went straight to this restaurant.  Right in the heart of bustling Addis Ababa, this was a superb introduction to the cuisine, the culture, and the crowd!

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We ate at some interesting restaurants, Ben Abeba in Lalibela was absolutely one of them.  Perched on the edge of a mountain overlooking an awe-inspiring view, this funky piece of modern architecture is run by a Scottish woman and her Ethiopian business partner and was gorgeous!  We ate there twice and one stand-out dish was the  Ethiopian style shepherd’s pie!

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The fabulous view from Lalibela’s Ben Abeba

 

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The architectural masterpiece of Ben Abeba, Lalibela Ethiopia

 

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This little snack before our meal came out at Ben Abeba was an unusual sample of traditional risen bread with a spicy sauce.

We also ate at Finfine Adarash a low-key local restaurant in Addis that we just happened upon.  Set in open air, and very friendly, this was yet one more reason to feel comfortable in this amazing country.

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Addis Ababa’s Finfine Adarash

The Goat

The goat is a longer story that I will save for another post (and link back to here) but here is the short version.  On one of our final days there was to be a bit of a going away feast and we went to purchase a live goat.  We haggled, purchased and then transported that goat and a nearby butcher (in the back of the SUV)  to the house where the goat was promptly butchered, cut up in tiny pieces and cooked outdoors on a giant iron plate.

While many of you reading this now are feeling queasy, I can tell you that this was one of our best and most memorable meals and in a later posting I will relate my perspective on witnessing the slaughter of an animal.

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Stay tuned for the full story on the goat…

There’s no question I have a fonder taste for Ethiopian food now that I have spent a little time there.  But if you have the chance to visit an Ethiopian restaurant here in the states, GO DO IT!  You might not like it, and you might feel uncomfortable, but it is an exotic event that will linger in your memory as well as your tastebuds.  It’s a wonderfully social event and unique to eastern Africa.

When they bring the communal platter to your table and set it on the wicker table with its large woven lid called a mesob, trust me when I tell you, delicious adventure can be found under that lid!

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The Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony

One of my favorite parts of my trip to Ethiopia was the coffee ceremony.  The coffee ceremony is ubiquitous, found within restaurants, airport waiting areas, and on the street.

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This woman is setting up her coffee ceremony station on the floor of a restaurant in Gondar called Four Sisters. You will note the brazier with charcoal, the incense, the small cups, and the roasting coffee beans on the coals.. You will also see that the bar behind her is called “Tony’s Bar”!

To be sure, drinking the coffee is part of it; but, less than half of the experience.  The setup is easily recognizable, there is a seating area with some stools, and often some straw or grass (at times even plastic grass) put down like a rug.  A small table–a coffee table if you will–is set up with little cups.

To the side is a small charcoal brazier, just big enough to accommodate one pot.  The attendant–nearly always a young woman in the traditional dress of the region–roasts green coffee beans, burns incense, grinds and brews the coffee and sells you a cup for anywhere between 25 and 40 cents.

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This was the coffee ceremony seating area in the Gondar airport.

Back home I am pretty careful not to drink coffee after lunch or I lay awake in bed that night from the caffeine.  Here, we were on vacation, my body clock was completely screwed up and the coffee is so damn good I just said screw it and drank coffee throughout the day.  What I couldn’t counter with beer just kept me up thinking about what an amazing vacation it was.

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First she selects some green coffee beans. Prior to being roasted they smell peppery and fresh but nothing like coffee.

The beans are roasted in a little skillet with holes in it to let smoke come through.  I was so enchanted with this process I bought one of these little skillets and some coffee beans to do this at home!

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I bought coffee beans, the traditional coffee pot and the skillet to roast the beans. Since being home I have had pretty good success with roasting my own beans!

 

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Roasting the beans is a really beautiful–if a bit smokey–process. They go from green to brown to black and then the oils emerge from the beans. The aroma is so rich and the beans glisten!

The thing about the ceremony is that you’re not just there for a cup of coffee.  There are plenty of cafe’s where you can do that.  You can walk into any number of places and just order a coffee or a cappuccino, etc.  The ceremony, however, is about the experience.  It forces you to stop and relax and take it all in with your senses.

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Incense–Frankincense to be exact–is always part of it. I’m not exactly sure why because the coffee itself smells really good but there is always incense.

Sometimes we would smell the coffee ceremony before we saw it.  The incense, for me reminiscent of funerals, often stretches around the corner.  Whether you like incense or not, this just became an integral part of the experience.

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After the beans are roasted with their glistening oils oozing out of them, the young woman pours them into a wooden bowl and walks through the crowd with it, stopping at each person so that everyone gets to take in the aroma of freshly roasted coffee beans.  And it is a fragrant field trip to heaven!

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The beans are then ground by hand in a mortar and pestle, and boiled in a traditional clay coffee pot called a jebena.  The charcoal used to roast the beans now boils the water.  When it boils up through the spout, it’s ready.  She pours you a small 4oz cup piping hot.  Many take sugar with it, and Alice got used to that style.

I, on the other hand, took it black.  This is strong, darkly roasted, robust coffee and I wanted it in its purest form.  I delighted in every cup and never got sick of it.  I also found that just a small cup of amazingly strong coffee was enough to satisfy me.

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At one stop we were given fresh springs of coffee beans to flavor the coffee

 

We stopped everywhere (sometimes to the frustration of our guides) for coffee.  Perhaps the most memorable one was on a hike up a mountain.  We hiked up before sunrise to visit an ancient monastery and were now on the way down.  A family had a traditional house made from mud with a thatched roof.  The husband was selling some souvenirs on the side of the trail and I stopped to look.  He invited us to stay for coffee and we sat down on goat skins outside his home while his wife roasted the beans.
IMG_6444This poor family made us feel so comfortable, feeding us a little snack of traditional bread and chatting with us through our guide who was now our translator.  We sat and rested, told them where we were from, and eventually enjoyed coffee flavored with fresh springs of coffee beans.

We were high in the mountains, around 10,000 feet and it was quiet and beautiful and I asked our guide to try and explain that when I returned to my daily life in Washington, DC, I would remember this moment very fondly.  He seemed to get it, but he’s also never seen someone pull up at a Starbuck’s drive-thru window for a “vente decaf Americano”.

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Recognizing the fears of the 1st world, the woman making our coffee showed us she was using bottled water!

 

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Souvenirs and coffee were enough to bring my new friend and me together. Our 15-20 minutes at his home was one of the most memorable experience of the whole two weeks.

Finally it was my turn.  At a friend’s house for dinner, their cook was fixing the coffee but stopped to help with the meal preparation.  I quickly took her seat and began fanning the charcoal.  This turned out to make everyone laugh because the man of the house would never conduct a coffee ceremony!  Not the first cultural taboo I’ve ever breached, and boy are they in for a surprise when they come to Virginia!

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We did bring home some amazing pre-roasted Ethiopian coffee, but after the ceremony, it’s just not the same!

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So if you ever go to an Ethiopian restaurant and you see the setup, be sure and take a few minutes and soak it in.  And I’ll warn the attendants who leave their station empty when I’m around…I just might take over for you!

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Ethiopia – Introduction

I’ve been back for two weeks from my epic adventure to Ethiopia and have been thinking of how best to present it on my blog.  There was so much!  We saw so much, met so many people, experienced so many foods, it’s a little overwhelming to know where to begin.

IMG_0089Each night on this two week adventure I would go to bed thinking, nothing could possibly outdo today; and then the next day would outdo it.  I was told by people that the trip would be life-changing and I have to admit I was skeptical.  “Life-changing” is a term that gets thrown around a lot and I had no idea what I was about to experience and thus how my life would be changed.

When I returned, however, I had a starkly different perspective on life.  This was the most different, exotic place and culture I have ever seen.  There were lessons to be learned here and shame on me if it wasn’t life-changing!

The most striking thing about this trip was the people.  Ethiopians are the friendliest, warmest and most IMG_0022welcoming people I have ever met.  They often lead a hard, poor life and yet they are generally happy and smiling.  It didn’t take long to realize that what we call “middle class” in the states would be wealthy in Ethiopia.  I watched people who have to walk a mile each day to get water–water for cooking, drinking, and washing.  I saw a lot of these folks and always they had a broad smile on their face and would have given you some of the water if you needed it.

Contrast that with the familiar sight of a rich business man in Washington, DC walking with his head down, scanning his smartphone and displaying all of his problems on his face.

IMG_0083 I even asked a few people about this.  I said, “This seems like a hard life and yet everyone seems so happy.  Why is that?”  More than one person told me their philosophy of worrying only about today and leaving the rest to providence.

I have a ton of pictures and there’s a story behind every one of them.  I met scores of people and visited many amazing sites in the northern part of the country.

 

 

In the following weeks, I will publish several posts about the things I saw.

Topics will include:

  • the cities we visited,
  • the coffee
  • the food we ate,
  • the people we met,
  • travel information like lodging, and
  • a lot of the spectacular scenery from this profoundly beautiful country.

I have to thank my wife Alice for being willing to spend two weeks of vacation outside her comfort zone and IMG_0112enjoying it thoroughly.  I have to also thank my wonderful friend Jim Warner and his lovely wife Meserat (Messi).  They convinced us to visit them, gave us a place to stay, showed us the capital city of Addis Ababa, planned our trips outside of Addis, and shared their warm and loving friends with us.

Making this journey was one of the best decisions I have ever made, and I feel extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity.

Stay tuned for some great stories!

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Preparation for Ethiopia: Who Wants to Do Some Shots?

I have a good friend from college who now lives in Ethiopia.  He works for an economic development organization that is based in DC so we see him  in the states 2 or 3 times each year.  Over the past few years he has slowly convinced us that we need to visit.

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Not what I had in mind when they said, “Let’s do some shots!” Now my passport shows updates for Yellow Fever, Hepatitis, and Typhoid, among others.

He makes a good argument.  When else will we have a local tour guide, a place to stay, and an instant network of friends?  So last summer my wife and I bought two round trip tickets to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

It seemed so far in the future that it wasn’t real, but now it is just a week away!  The preparation has been serious.  We had to get visas from the Ethiopian embassy, and shots…lots of shots!

These weren’t the shots I’m used to like Irish whiskey, vodka and Fireball.  These were Yellow Fever, Hepatitis, and Typhoid.  I also had to get boosters of shots I hadn’t had since I was a kid like Tetinis, Diptheria, and Pertussis.  In all, it was 5 shots, an oral vaccine, and additional anti-malerial medicine.

I now have a long multi-page supplement to my passport with updates for all my vaccinations.

As we read about Ethiopia, the travel guides give the standard warnings about safety but they naturally zero in on the most terrifying things.  Watch out, for instance, for a scam where someone bumps into you and turns and grabs your arm and apologizes while an accomplice behind you reaches into your pocket and takes your wallet.  OK, that could happen in New York, but one guide also warned of occasional armed robberies of buses!

The travel doctor who administered the shots warned us not to eat any fresh produce, no fruit, vegetables, or anything raw.  She also warned not to touch any animals, no petting dogs, cats, etc.  Don’t drink the water, don’t even brush your teeth with it!

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Shiro and Doro Wot (center) served over a piece of enjera bread.

On the verge of freaking out, wondering what I had gotten myself into, and what I had dragged Alice into, I instinctively began the vacation early.  We went to a local Ethiopian restaurant.  It was packed, mostly with Ethiopians.  There was even a wedding reception going on in the next room.

We told the owner, a really lovely woman, that we were going to Addis in a week and she lit up with a warm smile.  “Oh I am so jealous!” she said.  She assured and reassured us that we would love it.  ‘The people are the most friendly in the world and they will love you and make you feel welcome!” she said.  She also pointed out that having a friend with local knowledge would go very far in steering us clear of any trouble.

We had a fantastic meal of Shiro, a chickpea puree, and the very classic, Doro Wot, a chicken stew.  Ethiopian food is typically served on a communal platter and instead of fork and knife, one uses a pancake-like bread called Enjera.

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I went to the rest room and came back to find this enjera bread folded in my place. I almost unfolded it an put it on my lap!

The bread is very porous and at first looks like a large cloth napkin!  It is soft and pliant and a great way to enjoy the exotically spiced food.  You have to be careful however, because it seems to expand in your stomach.  It’s hard to walk away from the table because it’s so good but over-eating induces a Thanksgiving-like food baby!

By the time we left, we were so excited and had re-focused on the many positives of this epic journey.

Next Monday we leave Washington, DC at 11:30pm, and fly to Istanbul, Turkey.  From there we fly all day to Addis Ababa.  It will be 1 am on Wednesday when we arrive!

I look forward to posting of many great adventures and sites from this trip!

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