Why Are Some Chefs Trying to Modernize Ethiopian Cuisines?
You might wonder why anyone would feel the need to refine, Ethiopian cuisine, one of the world’s most singular cuisines, a spicy and essentially sweet-free set of dishes
Two summers ago, as part of owner Sileshi Alifom’s ongoing campaign to refine his food at the white-tablecloth Das Ethiopian Cuisine in Georgetown, he attempted to create an East African lasagna. Semi-frozen sections of injera, the fermented Ethiopian flatbread, served as his noodles, which Alifom layered with a yellow split-pea puree, collard greens, red-lentil stew and a mild cheese, all flavors native to his mother country.
While unorthodox, the Ethiopian lasagna does have a foundation in East African cooking. Neighboring Eritrea was an Italian colony for decades in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the Italians, under Benito Mussolini, occupied Ethiopia from 1936 to 1941. Italian food and drink left a permanent mark on both countries, one of the very few outside influences on cooking in the region.
Yet, regardless of its legitimacy, Alifom’s lasagna did not set firmly, nor was it particularly pleasing to the eye. “It was delicious, but was it something that was usable and sellable?” says Alifom, who has a food and beverage background with Marriott Hotels. “When you started digging into it, the thing was moving left and right.”
You might wonder why anyone would feel the need to refine one of the world’s most singular cuisines, a spicy and essentially sweet-free set of dishes that are consumed with your hands, the tactile experience as important as the gustatory one. Chefs and owners have their motivations: They might be threatened by creeping gentrification. They may feel the need to raise the price of what some consider “cheap” immigrant food to cover expenses. Or they may just want to see the food evolve, as part of the creative process that pushes all cuisines forward, whether Spanish, Chinese or Japanese.