Ethiopian Food as Divine Blessing
Some people self-care with a massage or a spa day. Me? I find the nearest Ethiopian restaurant, even if it means traveling hours by car, bus, train, airplane, or all of the above. It may seem like extreme lengths to go for a family serving plate of injera, doro wot, lamb tibs, and shiro, but some of my most effective healing experiences have been through an Ethiopian meal.
After witnessing and surviving the gun crime that took the life of one of my best friends in 2000, the only food I could eat in a restaurant without getting hives was Ethiopian.
After witnessing and surviving the gun crime that took the life of one of my best friends in 2000, the only food I could eat in a restaurant without getting hives was Ethiopian. Their tej, or honey wine, was also the only alcohol I could imbibe without breaking out in a full-body rash. When my body seemed to be at war with itself thanks to the continuous overload of adrenaline from acute post-traumatic stress, the only thing that calmed it down was that unique Ethiopian concoction of spice blends and teff flour bread.
Needing to find meaning in my intense survivor’s guilt and turning to any gods or spirituality that would have me, I attributed the power of Ethiopian food to the blessing of the Ark of the Covenant, rumored to be secreted away somewhere in the country. A Rastafarianism course I took in college spoke of the legend of the Ark having bestowed upon Ethiopia the power to fend off colonization longer than other African nations until one day the invading Italian forces were too much for this preternaturally blessed nation. I extrapolated that the power of the Ark had seeped its way into the soil of Ethiopia, imbuing the teff and berbere spices with magical powers to heal anyone who tastes of it. When the only food I could safely eat at a restaurant from 2001 to 2002 ended up being Ethiopian, it felt like divine intervention of the culinary kind.
Thanks to those many meals at Berkeley’s Ethiopia Restaurant, my gut healed and some of my PTSD symptoms abated, in particular the sick feeling in my stomach; I had internalized the violence I had survived right in my gut. After I finished testifying against the couple who murdered my friend, I left California and began seeking out Ethiopian food around the world. Most especially when I was in any kind of emotional, psychological, or even run-of-the-mill IBS tummy trouble crisis as a full-body reset. After Berkeley, my next regular Ethiopian spot was Addis Abeba in Geneva, which became a regular meeting spot for me and the many people I introduced to Ethiopian cuisine. They loved the bowl of warm water and lemon served before the meal, an Ethiopian practice to wash your fingers before eating.
And when I lived in Prague, I traveled 1,235 miles to Athens’ Lalibela Restaurant, since that was the closest and cheapest flight option at that time. The owner of Lalibela was so moved by my pilgrimage she performed the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony for me and my husband for free, a mark of great honor in Ethiopian culture. I’m extremely sensitive to caffeine, but I slept like a log that night, my mind calm and tummy sated. Every Sunday evening during my four-month stay in Cologne, Germany I spent at Restaurant Fasika, making my way through their huge menu and enjoying the original and folk Ethiopian artwork adorning the walls. The two mile walk home was a welcome exercise after gorging myself on the incredible food. After relocating to Florida in 2011 meant that those first years I’d take the three and a half hour drive up to Orlando to the Nile Restaurant for my Ethiopian fix, where I would buy spices from the chef so I could at least have the rich aroma of berbere and spicy mitmita in my house even though my dishes don’t hold the smallest candle to the originals.
In the meantime as I’ve healed from PTSD, I discovered that it wasn’t the Ark of the Covenant that makes Ethiopian food feel like an enchanted meal. Instead, that quality comes from the rather unique fermentation process used to create the injera flatbread, which is similar to high-count probiotics and prebiotics but without the dairy or additives. The supergrain teff is the other healing ingredient, a grain that is gluten-free and hypoallergenic in a similar way to goat’s milk. Teff also offers huge amounts of easily digestible protein and fiber to smooth out digestion. In fact, the chef-owner of my new local Ethiopian restaurant The Queen of Sheeba in West Palm Beach, Lojo Washington, spent years perfecting her injera recipe. The result is the best injera I have had in the world, one that gives me a full body reset from the inside out.
Ethiopian food has become as much a meditative experience as it is a savory one. As I contemplated what draws me back to Ethiopian food no matter where in the world I find myself, I realized the singular nature of the food reminds me of my own Sri Lankan heritage. Sri Lankan restaurants are even harder to come by than Ethiopian, and while the foods are nothing alike, they are similar in their absolute uniqueness. Instead of injera, Sri Lankan cuisine offers idiyappam, or string hoppers, a rice noodle cake that can serve as a base for curry or chutney, or a dipping agent also eaten by hand. Ethiopia’s national dish, chicken doro wot, is often compared to an Indian curry, just as Sri Lankan chicken curry is, even though neither dish remotely compares other than the long stewing time. Sri Lankan seeni sambol, an onion chutney with dried fish, and pol sambol, grated coconut with lime and chili, are also distinct only to Sri Lanka just as kitfo and gomen are unique to Ethiopia.
Making the spiritual connection between Ethiopian food and the cuisine of my fatherland explains why every time I step into an Ethiopian restaurant I feel like I’m home. By now at Queen of Sheeba I call the chef-owner Aunty Lojo, and she greets me as family too. In my nomadic life, Ethiopian food has become not just a site of healing and spiritual connection but also a surrogate for a homeland that is out of reach otherwise in so many ways. The multilayered nourishment I get from an Ethiopian meal is the very definition of soul food, a holy blessing from the kitchen goddesses, a prayer on a plate answered with resounding joy.
Sezin (rhymes-with-Celine) Koehler is the author of upcoming Much Ado About Keanu: Toward a Critical Reeves Theory, arriving summer 2024 from Chicago Review Press. From the Publisher’s Weekly announcement the Much Ado About Keanu is: “A deep-dive examination of Keanu Reeves’ filmography and other creative outputs that highlights the importance of the actor as a multi-talented artist and trailblazer in the realm of Hollywood and beyond.”