It is almost impossible to describe what a truly traditional Ethiopian meal is like because it is so unlike anything else most Americans have experienced.

By John Rex (The Buffalo News) |

Shortly after an Ethiopian restaurant opened here in Buffalo, a friend suggested we try it. His suggestion sparked many memories. I first encountered traditional Ethiopian food in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Sept. 11, 1962, when I was a member of the first group of Peace Corps volunteers who had arrived in the country days earlier.

As the guest of an Ethiopian family, then celebrating New Year’s Day, 1955, on their calendar, I was taken to a restaurant that was a larger version of a traditional round house, where we sat on three-legged stools and the food was delivered on a single large round tray, placed on a round woven basket-like table with no flatware.

It is almost impossible to describe what a truly traditional Ethiopian meal is like because it is so unlike anything else most Americans have experienced. The main components are injera and wat.

Injera has been described as a kind of a sourdough flatbread or a spongy pancake on which any number of spicy stew items, called wat, are deposited in separate mounds. The trick, I learned, was to tear off a piece of injera with my right hand, and then to use that injera to grasp a load of chosen wat to plop into my mouth.

Part of the challenge was that a major ingredient of some wat was the spice berbere, which was awesomely hot and spicy, enough to burn the mouth of the uninitiated. We volunteers had been told that the berbere was a preservative, so important where there was no refrigeration.

I left Ethiopia in 1964, and didn’t return until 2010, when I was a part of a group from Habitat for Humanity building houses in the same village where I had taught school years ago. Along with other Habitat volunteers, I visited the same round restaurant in Addis Ababa.

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