Sunday, February 5, 2012

Cooking in Ethiopia

I’m doing all the cooking in our house right now. Eneye has made it clear that she’d rather watch the children than learn to cook American cuisine so I’ve been navigating the kitchen in Ethiopia all by myself.
I love to cook and find it soothing and relaxing so I hardly mind spending my afternoons preparing a meal for my family. I like shopping for the ingredients, planning a meal, or just throwing things together to make something entirely new. I’ve been doing a lot of the later lately.
I have to admit that I am pleasantly surprised at the produce I’ve been able to find here in the markets. The “farm to table” concept that is so hot right now in the U.S. is just the way of life in Ethiopia. If it’s grown locally and in season I will find it in the market. A few months from now will be a new assortment of crops. Growing season is 12 months every year so that means there should be some fresh vegetables and fruit to choose from all the time. Currently I have access to fresh green beans, carrots, onions, garlic, lettuce, strawberries (Hooray!), squash, potatoes, tomatoes, small bitter sweat plums called prim, beets, zucchini, cucumbers, limes, oranges, and bananas. I even found fresh basil, rosemary, and parsley at the store. Everything is grown organically and is very cheap. It’s amazing really. A kilo of bananas is 7 birr. One U.S. dollar is about 17 birr right now. All the produce has to be washed with bleach and rinsed several times in order for it to be safe for us to eat. Here I was, scarfing down salads in the U.S. thinking I wouldn’t have a good salad for a few years. I’ve made several Greek salads at home with olives, fresh mozzarella and homemade balsamic dressing. What I should have been scarfing down in the States was Chipotle burritos and Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. I won’t be finding those in Ethiopia.
I was also given the impression that you couldn’t get cheese here. Surprisingly, there are plenty of choices of cheese. The issue is just the price. I picked up a block of fresh parmesan a few weeks ago and did a double take because the conversion told me it was about $30. I put the cheese back. I found good locally made provolone, mozzarella, ricotta, and feta cheeses. Edam varieties are imported along with cheddar, blue cheese, camembert, and goat cheese. It’s painful to spend close to $10 on 200 grams of cheddar cheese but sometimes you just have to bite the bullet.
I’m so excited that Ethiopia has a good dairy industry. The locally made butter, yogurt, cream, and sour cream is very good and inexpensive. You can find milk but I haven’t tried it yet. Some say you have to boil it again even though they advertise that it’s been pasteurized and homogenized. So far we are sticking with the boxed UHT and powdered milk.
With a smaller selection of produce and food to choose from I have been more creative with my cooking. In the U.S. I was overwhelmed with the selection and ended up in a rut with dinners. Here in Ethiopia having less to choose from makes my meal planning simpler. My Mother would be proud of some of the things I’ve taken a risk to make. I’m immensely thankful that she taught me how to really cook with real ingredients. For the very first time I’ve made the following meals from scratch and without a recipe: tomato sauce (much more challenging to perfect the taste that I first thought), chicken soup with homemade chicken broth from the carcass and giblets, stuffed red peppers, Shepard’s pie, banana bread pudding, and a lentil soup. Everything has turned out pretty decent. Good in fact.
There is no processed food in Ethiopia. I bought eggplant yesterday for eggplant parmesan and realized that not only would I have to make another batch of tomato sauce for the meal but that I’d need to make my own bread crumbs as well. It’s all about preplanning and substituting what I can’t find or don’t have. Clearly there will not be any parmesan in this meal so I think I’ll use mozzarella instead.
The entire family is eating healthier. Everything is real and fresh. The girls are choosing bananas and carrots for snacks over crackers. We are stressing the idea of not wasting our food since some things are hard to find and more expensive. Everything that gets made gets eaten for leftovers. I am back in my third-world saving mode where bits of things that are unused go in the freezer not in the trash. Heals of bread are made into croutons, leftover yogurt gets thrown in pancake batter, a spoonful of tomato paste seasons ground pork, fresh herbs get dried for later, black bananas get mashed for banana bread. It’s a more healthful way of eating. Certainly less wasteful.
For some reason when we are in the U.S., even for the short 6 months we were, slipping back into the wasteful American mentality was easy to do. Plastic bags were used once and thrown away, the last hunk of a block of cheese got tossed, leftovers were thrown out often. For me, the knowledge that down the street at the supermarket is an unlimited supply of absolutely everything I could ever need is the culprit of my wastefulness. Why save the cheese when I can simply get in my car and go buy more, right now, as much as I want, for cheap? It’s why all of America is wasteful. Americans have too much of everything. It’s funny how quickly we start saving things when the only way we can get another box of Ziploc bags is to order them on Amazon. You’d start washing them and reusing them too!
Anyway, I’m cooking...a lot right now. It feels good to create things from real ingredients that haven’t been salted or sugared prior to cooking with them. I like seeing the look of admiration on my husband’s face as he tastes a new meal I’ve created. “I knew you were a good cook, but man, you’ve stepped up your game!”, is the best compliment I could get. Seeing the girls try something new and not immediately hate it is encouraging too. All in all we are going to eat just fine in Ethiopia, as long as I don’t get burnt out by all the cooking and as long as I can keep the creativity flowing.
And when our consumables shipment arrives, you better believe I am ripping into a box of Trader Joe’s chocolate Joe Joes cookies. But instead of eating an entire box in a week, we’ll be saving them...and savoring them.
Everything else in that shipment is gravy!
Unrelated to food, here is a sweet photo of Ashlynn Olivia for the grandparents and aunties.


Terry said...

You never cease to amaze me. You go girl!!!

meredith said...

WOW!! you are a domestic goddess :)
Tackling and conquering my kitchen fears in on my list for El Salvador!

Heather P. said...

I am hungry after reading your post. Sounds like your family is adjusting very well to Ethiopia. Love the latest Ashlynn picture!