Leaving the box
I love injera! For me, going a day without injera is like going a day without food. Honestly, I do not feel like I have eaten anything of substance if I did not have at least one ‘gursha’ of injera during the day. Ethiopian food is addictive I have to say. I am sure that many of you would agree with that. Maybe it is the fact that we Ethiopians have been eating injera since the day we were introduced to solid food as a six-month old baby! Since then, we have been having it day in day out, at least twice a day during the day. So, no wonder we get addicted to it! Those Ethiopians who live abroad would do anything to have in their kitchen some stock of dried injera or ‘Dirkosh’ to be able to have a taste of it at least in a week! Maybe I am exaggerating a bit, but I will tell you for sure that the one thing that Ethiopians abroad yearned for and miss about their country is the taste of pure teff ‘injera be wot’.
There is one thing about ‘injera be wot’ or injera with sauce in English that tells a lot about us Ethiopians. And that is the fact that we dread the idea of living or even peeking outside the box. We love and feel comfortable in the box that is well known and familiar to us. There are different kinds of sauces in the Ethiopian dish. The one thing that is common across all is that the ingredients nor the cooking formula have not, do not, and most likely will not change the tiniest bit across generations and generations. Take missir wot or Lentil sauce for instance. You only have two versions of it. One is the red one prepared with red pepper, and the other is the one prepared without it. In both versions, only few ingredients will go in. And that is lentils, red onions, cooking oil, salt, garlic, and water. Maybe some may add some spices and Ethiopian butter. That is it! I bet that there is nowhere that you will see lentil sauce prepared together with vegetables for instance. And if you ask why not, there is no one who will answer it. The best answer you can hope to get is ‘that is just how it is done’. Who fixed how ‘missir wot’ should be done is a mystery. I have seen my mother cooking lentil sauce with the above mentioned ingredients, and that is how I will make sure it is cooked in my own household. Because I am trapped in my own box, I am unable to think of what else should be cooked at home when I am running out of the short list of common Ethiopian sauces that I or the housekeeper can cook. I myself do not dare to experiment with good old fashioned Ethiopian sauces, although I know that doing so will not kill me.
Our difficulty to leave the box is reflected in many aspects of our lives. I believe the weak levels of technology adoption among our farmers, the rigid bureaucracies in our institutions, our weak culture of self-expression, you name it, are a reflection of our difficulty to leave the traditional and out-fashioned. Although there is definitely a desirable side to maintaining our traditions, sometimes I feel that sticking too much to the old ways is doing us more harms than good. Our tiniest moves away from the tested and traditional is mostly not well received in our society. Of fear criticism, we prefer to stay locked in our boxes. As of today, let’s try moving out of the box by cooking Ethiopian sauce in a way that our mothers never did it before!