If you don’t like the sour Ethiopian bread injera, steer clear of “Tibs Firfir”! It’s number 50 on the menu at the National Cafe in downtown Addis, next to the National Theater and the big lion statue. In Amharic it looks like this: ጥብስ ፍርፍር. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. I made a bit of a mistake ordering dinner tonight with a friend in Addis Ababa. We decided we both liked tibs, an Ethiopian dish with roasted meat and, sometimes, tasty sauteed vegetables. What we didn’t know is that the “firfir” changes the game completely! Your itty bitty pieces of meat come mixed with shredded injera wrapped in a huge, pancake-like injera!
Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee and I can assure you they make a damn good cup of joe in Addis Ababa. The Ethiopians were never colonized, save a few years in the 1930s by the Italians, so the culture of drinking coffee is truly their own. Coffee has been drank ceremoniously in the region for hundreds of years, spreading eventually to the Arabian peninsula, Europe and finally the Americas. Thanks to Starbucks and their “gourmet” blends, many Americans have an association between Ethiopia and coffee, but very few people know that it actually originated here.
You can drink good coffee in Nairobi but, compared to Addis Ababa, you really have to go out of your way to get it. Until very recently there wasn’t really a culture of drinking coffee in Kenya, Kenyans instead preferring to drink tea (a habit brought by the British in the early 1900s). Now there are several European-style coffee shops in Nairobi (Java House and Dorman’s, for example) and it’s becoming more popular to go hang out over a cup of coffee. That being said, Kenyans are very frugal and coffee’s still a bit expensive in Nairobi, so you really have to LOVE coffee to do it often — I always end up offering to pay just so I can get MY fix.
There’s some Ethiopian Orthodox holiday going on right now. Nobody’s explained it to me, but most of my Ethiopian colleagues have sworn off milk and meat until April, and there’s a man chanting over a loudspeaker in some church next to the ILRI campus for hours at a time. I asked someone at lunch today what the man was saying but he said nobody knows. I laughed for a second but realized he wasn’t kidding — the man is chanting in Ge’ez, a dead language from Ethiopia’s past.
Add it to the list of things that make Ethiopia completely different than any other country I’ve ever been to (especially its neighbors in East Africa). I’ll be in Addis Ababa for another week; plenty of time to buy a bunch of gourmet coffee beans and postcards. Stay tuned and wish me luck!