What does constitute one culture? Language, tradition, history -- and food.


From Entotto to the River Baro (1897) 
With the Armies of Menelik II (1900) 
Translated by Richard Seltzer, seltzer@samizdat.com, www.samizdat.com 
Copyright 1993 by Richard Seltzer 

Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim electronic copies of this translation for non-commercial purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.


From "With the Armies of Menelik II" by Alexander Bulatovich

The General came to meet me and invited me to his home where dinner was already prepared for us. We sat on spread carpets and in front of us servants stretched a wide curtain that hid us from outside eyes. One of the ashkers brought a copper wash-stand of intricate form (with the brand of a Moscow factory), and we, in accordance with Abyssinian custom, washed our hands before the meal. One of the cooks, a beautiful young Galla girl, having washed her hands and having rolled the sleeves of her shirt to the elbow, kneeled in front of our basket and from little pots began to take out on slices of injera (a flat cake) all kinds of foods and to put them on the bread which was spread out on the basket. What an array of foods: hard-boiled eggs cooked in some unusually sharp sauce, and ragout of mutton with red pepper, and chicken gravy with ginger, and tongue, and ground or scraped meat -- all abundantly seasoned with butter and powdered with pepper and spices -- and cold sour milk and sour cream... In the corners of the fire in front of us, cut into little pieces, tebs meat was roasting. And the chief of the slaughter-house held over our basket a huge piece of beef. We ate with our hands, tearing off little petals of injera and collecting with them large amounts of all sorts of foods. My mouth burned from the quantity of pepper. Tears came to my eyes. My sense of taste was dulled. And we devoured everything indiscriminately, cooling our mouths, from time to time, with sour cream or by drinking a wonderful mead -- tej -- from little decanters wrapped in little silk handkerchiefs.

When we were full, they called the officers of the Fitaurari and my ashkers. They sat in close circles around ten baskets with injera, over which servants held large pieces of raw meat. Wine bearers served mead to the diners in large horn glasses. All ate decorously and silently.

Servants brought a large earthenware pot of coffee and sat down near us on the grass to pour it. From a wicker straw basket in the form of a column embroidered with beads, they took out about ten small cups without handles, wrapped in red calico, and spread them out on a wooden tray. They offered coffee to us first; and then, in order, the whole suite and my ashkers were served.

They had brought us as a gift from Aba Jefar abundant durgo (honorary gifts), consisting of 130 pieces of injera (bread), six buckets of tej (mead), four rams, butter, hens, honey, milk, salt, and firewood, as well as hay and barley for our mules.

In former times, the food of the Kaffa consisted of meat, milk, and porridge made of the seeds of various bread-grain plants. Nowadays, they eat almost exclusively bread made from the roots of a banana-like tree (that same musa enset), since that is the only food stuff they can obtain after the general destruction.

This bread is prepared in the following manner: once a tree has attained four years of growth, they dig it up and strip off the leaves; then they bury the thick lower part of the trunk in the ground and leave it there for several months. After this time, it begins to rot and turn sour. Then they extract the buried tree from the ground, clean off the spoiled outer layer, and scrape and grind the part which has turned sour and soft. Then they bake it in large earthenware pans. This bread is not very nutritious. It is unsavory and has an unpleasant sour smell. If you add flour to it, then the bread is somewhat improved.

As a supplement to this food, they serve various roots, cooked in water, and also coffee, which they drink several times a day, up until and after eating. They boil coffee in earthenware vessels and pour it out into little cups made of ox horn.

The favorite drinks of the Kaffa are beer and mead. The beer is very thick and strong, but prepared without the stupefying leaves of the gesho, in only one malt. The beer is also very thick and sour.

Household utensils are the same as those of the Abyssinians -- except for earthenware jogs, which are oblong and similar to ancient Greek vessels, and are of a more beautiful form than those of the Abyssinians.

A file of cooks, dressed in shirts clasped at the waist, carried in a great number of earthenware pots of various sizes, with foods. The chief cook, a rather beautiful woman, dressed more neatly than the others, with silver ear-rings and a silver necklace on the neck, removed the cloth from our baskets. The Asalafi of the Ras (a special post which in translation means "he who serves the food") dropped down on his knees in front of the basket and, having tasted each dish brought to him by the cook, began to take them out on chunks of injera and place them before the Ras. The Asalafi, a strikingly handsome young man of the pure Semitic type, is a descendant of a Tigrean family: he was raised at the court of the Ras and, probably, will receive some more important appointment, i.e., a company or a regiment.

For me, the Ras prepared a special dinner, which, in his opinion, should satisfy the taste of a European. Here is the menu: 1) fried chicken, 2) thin slices of meat fried in a pan, 3) beef ribs grilled on hot coals, 4) afilye51 -- an Abyssinian national dish, 5) meat that was scraped and boiled in butter, and 6) soft-boiled eggs.

With an air of great importance, Gomtes, page of the Ras, carried these dishes in small enamelled cups, hiding them under his skirt, in order that some evil eye not spot them. He placed them before me on a basket. I was hungry and, to the great satisfaction of the Ras, I ate everything with great appetite: both the boiled and the fried meat, and the soft-boiled eggs, and the rest.

When we had eaten half our dinner, other honored guests began to be admitted behind the curtain -- commanders of regiments and senior officers. Finally, they gave us coffee in miniature china cups without handles and then opened the doors, through which an endless file of other guests began to enter. They appeared decorously, not hurrying, having wrapped their clothes around their waist and legs. Holding the free end in their left hand, they gracefully dropped to the floor, distributing themselves in tight circles around baskets, on which were laid in piles breadless lat-cakes of injera (some slices of it were soaked in a pepper sauce). Soon the dining hall was filled with a motley crowd of banqueters. Above each circle of diners, one of the servants, leaning over from the weight, held a large piece of beef. They passed to everyone a long knife mounted in ivory. Having selected a piece of meat, each, in order, sliced it and ate, very adroitly slicing pieces at their very teeth by a motion of the knife from below upward that was so fast that I positively did not understand how their lips and teeth remained in tact.

A line of wine servers adroitly gave the banqueters huge horn goblets of mead through the whole room. A traveling singer appeared, and standing in the middle of the room, sang heroic songs and improvisations in honor of the Ras, with the accompaniment of an instrument similar to a violin52.

As soon as the first set of diners had satisfied themselves, they got up on at signal from the agafari and left. In their place, their immediately appeared another set, and after it a third, and, finally, a fourth. The Ras himself and his honored guests continued sitting in their places the whole time, carrying on pleasant conversation among themselves and draining small decanters of tej (mead) one after another. They also served red wine -- "Bordeaux" -- as the Ras called it -- and a local vodka distilled from mead.

Only at two o'clock in the afternoon did we leave the dinner which we had sat down to at 9 o'clock in the morning.

Today, they held another large dinner, one of those which Abyssinian military leaders hold to entertain their troops before setting out on a campaign. These dinners bear a special military imprint and are very lively. Veterans, with some embellishment, reminisce about by-gone battles, tell about outstanding feats and so forth. Tej (mead) flows in rivers. At the end of the dinner, the lifting of spirits attains its highest level. One after the other, the banqueters jump up and, hoarsely crying out, enumerate the feats they have performed and vow fidelity to their leader.58 "I am a killer!" cries out some soldier with foam in his mouth. He seizes a saber by the hilt. His eyes wander wildly; he shakes all over nervously and seems positively insane. "I repelled a spear in battle! I repelled two spears in battle! I repelled three spears in battle! I killed in the Aussi campaign, and in Tigre and among the Negroes. I killed everywhere where I waged war! I am your slave, your dog! With you I will conquer! With you I will die! I am Kaytimir! (His personal name)." And in conclusion, he bows to the ground to the Ras.

Here too is the wot-byet -- the kitchen crew of the Ras. Several mules carry various utensils and the cook tent, which is made of black woolen material. The head of the kitchen and the chief cooks ride on mules, silently, with dignity. The female cooks act like the greatest dandies. They adorn themselves with silver necklaces, rings, and bracelets. Close by them walks a file of women of the injera-byet -- the bakery. They carry on their backs dough, fermenting in large gourds. They are just as merry as their friends in the tej-byet. Here is the baggage transport of the Ras -- a whole herd of mules loaded with all kinds of provisions, surrounded by teamsters, under the supervision of the head of the transport -- chincha-shuma. Having reached the edge of the heights, the road narrows and goes down along a very steep rocky slope, winding along ledges, which only allow passage by one person at a time. A whole sea of people and animals is backed up before the descent. And behind them more and more masses arrive. The growing crowd becomes an impetuous, deep river, which has suddenly been dammed. It seemed that calamity could not be avoided. In other words, it would only take for those behind to press on those in front to clear a place, and those waiting on the edge of the precipice would fall headlong into the abyss. But to my great astonishment, this didn't happend, and the crowd seemed to discipline itself. They made a lot of noise, but order stayed exemplary and each tried to support the other. If someone tried to push ahead, cries and incantations immediately poured on him from all sides: "Ba Wolda Giyorgis Amlak! Ba gora!" (In the name of the God of Wolda Giyorgis! In the name of the ravine!"). And the guilty party stopped, because otherwise his comrades would use force against him. The difficult descent was traversed safely, without any misfortune. I, for exmaple, was not even once pressed. This was the first time I had ever seen such intelligence and judgement in a crowd, which struck me and forced me to more deeply consider the seeming disorder of the Abyssinian army.

Waka -- A Benign rain-god of the Galla of Ethiopia.

Ekera -- In the religion of the Gallas of Ethiopia, the afterworld. Life after death is lived theree as a shadowlike existence.

Cassiopeia -- In Greek myth, Cassiopeia is the wife of Cepheus, king of Ethiopia, and mother of Andromeda. She boasted of being more beautiful than the Nereids, and in retaliation Poseidon first sent a flood and then a sea-monster to ravage the country. Andromeda was chained to a rock to serve as sacrifice for the sea-monster, but was rescued by Perseus.

http://www2.h-net.msu.edu/~etoc/index2.html Ethiopia: Tradition of Creativity

Where is the story of solomon & Sheba?