In Ethiopia there are two types of ingera (the typical local bread), one white and one dark, and both come out of two different qualities of the same called cereal teff. The darker one is very rich in iron. During meals, a single dish is “made” and eaten with your hands. The ingera being spongy and soft becomes the base on which the different ones are placed here and there wot (sauces) of meat and the various vegetables more or less spiced and seasoned with berberè spicy. Everything is well ordered on the plate but everything is close, everything is distinct but also mixed.
Flavors collide, mix and sometimes get confused. You have to be really good at keeping the flavors distinct within a single dish without getting lost and at the same time keeping them together so that one gives flavor to the other. The ingera eaten with the hands seems made especially for it shiro or maybe it shiro seems made especially for ingera (they say that the Ethiopians win marathons and Olympics by dint of shiro homemade in the mountains of the plateau by grandmothers and mothers). One cannot exist without the other. One without the other makes no sense. He swallows it without shiro it is empty flavor and it shiro without ingera it is lost flavor, it has no one who takes it. Together it is full flavor.
According to the thought of the French anthropologist C. Lévi-Strauss: “The cuisine of a society is the language into which it unconsciously translates its structure”.
We can then ask ourselves: “How is the structure of Ethiopian society translated into your cuisine? And what does the ingera have to tell us about the war and the effort that Ethiopia is experiencing today in keeping socio-cultural diversities together within a unitary political vision for the country?
In fact, even in the Ethiopian language the words are distinct but not distant, they are mixed, stuck and almost confused, they struggle to be together because one cannot stand without the other. For example in the Ethiopian expression Tena Yistellign! ጤና ይስጥልኝ, the word Yistellign (may God give you through me Y ST L GN) is an Amharic word that holds together several people (God, me and you) and several different experiences in a single relationship of meaning: that of the greeting that blesses.
In Ethiopia there are 80 different languages which are the historical and cultural expression of local ethnic groups. Amharic is the national official language and has the difficult task of keeping the different linguistic and social groups together. Today the state of Ethiopia faces the great challenge of uniting ethnic and cultural diversities, the same ones that unfortunately have generated many internal struggles and wars in recent years. The ethnic claim as a cultural “weapon” for the defense of rights, of the territories to be plowed, of natural resources or of political and geographical borders, is the fruit of European colonialism in the Horn of Africa. In particular, the Italian colonial process made ethnic groups fixed and closed, creating rigid and well-marked cultural borders, the same ones that are now invoked for the struggle in the political space. Before colonialism, ethnic categories were more open and softer, more spongy, nuanced and porous.
The challenge today is to keep cultural, spiritual and social boundaries open so that each social group is recognized and made a participant in the democratic construction of the country. A process of choral participation where each regional state can give that piece of democracy that the other does not have, and above all because no ethnic group can exist without the other. One would be empty, while the other would be lost. Only together and in a relationship of mutual recognition and mutual contamination can a life of meaning be generated that has the flavor of peace and coexistence.
Nicola Verde is a Capuchin friar on a mission in Ethiopia.
Illustration: the common meal around the plate of ingera and stews, in TheArtoftheMeal, EthiopianFood
Berberé is a mix of spices based on cumin, garlic, cardamom, black pepper, leek, hot pepper, ginger, turmeric.
￼ Shiro is a homogeneous stew consisting mainly of chickpea powder or broad beans.
￼ Lévi-Strauss C., Mythological III. The origins of good table manners, Milan, Il Saggiatore, 1971.
￼ “may God give you health through me”.
￼ See Calchi Novati GP, L’Africa d ‘Italia, Rome, Carocci editore, 2019.
￼ Puddu L., “Fall of Addis Ababa is not imminent”, November 5, 2021, Adnkronos, www.adnkronos.com.
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