My love affair with Ethiopia goes back to the 1970s in Jerusalem, where I visited the Ethiopian priests who lived on the rooftop of the Holy Sepulchre and visited their church on Haneviim Street. Although Ethiopia turned Christian in the fourth century and today has many Muslims living there, it has always remained true to what Ethiopians call the “Mosaic tradition,” drawing on the story of how Moses, while wandering in the desert, married an Ethiopian woman. To this day, even most Christians in Ethiopia eat no pork.
When I visited Lalibela, Ethiopia, in 2018 I saw a young child carefully cradling a live small chicken under his arm as he walked 2 miles to sell it at the local market. Because meat is so scarce, the saying goes that a woman must know how to cut up a chicken into 12 parts (representing the 12 Apostles) before she marries—just as in the Middle East, she must know how to make 100 eggplant dishes.
When an Ethiopian Jewish friend of my son David lived with us for a while several years ago, what really humbled me was the careful way he prepared a chicken for doro wat—a dish that Ethiopian Jews make for the Sabbath. Making sure that he used every single part of the chicken, Prince Sirak—we only knew his first name—painstakingly removed the skin but used that, too, filling it with rice and sewing it up in little pouches, so similar to t’beet, the overnight Sabbath chicken of the Iraqi Jews. I was struck by these simple yet intricate preparations that showed how precious food was—and how wasteful we are.
Joan Nathan is Tablet Magazine’s food columnist and the author of 10 cookbooks including King Solomon’s Table: a Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World.