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Ethiopia's culinary magic
We no longer need to travel far to delight our tastebuds as nowadays we have a great variety of international cuisine just around the corner, yet some gastronomic territory remains unexplored – for example the food of Ethiopia. Awraris Grimma takes his guests at Injera in Berne on a culinary journey back to his roots.
Awraris Grimma lifts the lid of the woven basket. Like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat he is fully aware that his guests will be both surprised and delighted as he reveals to them the variety and colour of Ethiopian cuisine. Inside the basket is an enormous flatbread heaped with yellow and red lentils, potatoes, carrots, beans, spinach, cream cheese, tartare and curried lamb, beef and chicken. While our eyes are still trying to work out what each of the vibrant dishes could be, the scent of cardamom, cinnamon, ginger and garlic reaches our nostrils, quashing any remaining doubt that African cooking might be boring. Speaking in broad Bernese dialect with a delightful hint of an accent, Awraris explains how people eat in his home country, for there are no knives and forks in sight.
Instead of using cutlery, the diners tear off bite-sized pieces of the sourdough flatbread on which the food is served and dunk them into the different dishes. After just a few mouthfuls it becomes evident that even as adults we can still enjoy eating with our fingers, as it enriches the culinary experience. Injera is the name of this slightly spongy flatbread made from the Ethiopian grain teff. Making it is a complicated process that takes several days, and it is the country's most important staple food. It also helps men choose their wives, because according to tradition only a woman who can make perfect injera is a worthy bride.
"Ethiopian cuisine is the most diverse in all Africa, which is probably why it is the most popular and successful. You can eat Ethiopian food in all the big cities of this world," says Awraris, his voice tinged with pride in his homeland. Yet things were not always this rosy. As a child Awraris experienced the devastating droughts of the 1980s before fleeing to neighbouring Sierra Leone in his teens to escape the civil war in Ethopia. When war broke out there too, he fled once again and in 1991, aged 23, he eventually ended up in Switzerland, a country he hadn't even known existed until then. Fate took him to Berne, where he met his wife Claudia and started a family. He found work as a waiter and also began to cook the dishes he knew from his childhood at a community centre every Tuesday. Some weeks only a single guest would come to eat and Awraris would load the full pans back onto his bike and ride home. Yet he refused to give up. "It's my Ethiopian spirit, we never lose hope," he explains. And sure enough, his evenings soon became fully booked.
Awraris began to dream of one day owning his own restaurant. Twelve turbulent years were to pass before this dream became reality, during which his optimism was put to the test more than a few times. In 2011, together with his wife Claudia, he finally opened his own restaurant near Berne university, naming it Injera after the famous flatbread, and after only a few weeks it was always full up. His guests love the aromatic Ethiopian food which has flavours influenced by the different people groups living in this multi-ethnic country. What sets Ethiopian cuisine apart from that of other African countries is that it has stayed true to its roots because the country was never colonialized. The dishes are traditionally vegetarian or vegan and sometimes gluten free, which fits well with contemporary tastes.
Meatlovers will be happy here too, however, because at Injera you can even eat tartare, which for many guests is the most surprising dish on the menu. Awraris explains that in his home country they used to eat a lot of raw meat because in Ethiopia war was an ever-present part of life, and if they had lit fires in the evenings to cook their meat the smoke plumes would have been visible far and wide.
Although it is undoubtedly the exotic and heavily seasoned food that attracts people to Injera, the restaurant offers more than just food. It has its own sense of soul. "In Ethiopia we invite both friends and strangers to eat from the same plate, and it is this sense of community that I want to recreate," says Awraris. What better way of bringing people closer than eating together?
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