Food and music in Jimma (and other Ethiopian) restaurants: some quibbles

A rather disgruntled Giorgio Bulgarelli writes:
I think you should clearly write that when you ask some of the Western dishes written in the menus of most Ethiopian restaurants, the usual answer is የለም (yäläm, or no). Not because they’ve finished the related ingredients, but because they never bought them. Usually, menus —also in some good restaurants— are written only once and left there till the paper is worn and needs to be replaced. I think it is only a way to fill the paper; no matter about the dishes.
Here, in Jimma, I decided to test the restaurants you quoted in your guidebook. Hence, some weeks ago I wished to taste some of the “varied selection of local and exotic dishes” of Central Jimma Hotel. My guest and I sat in the garden and ordered ‘tournedos à la Rossini’ and “filet mignon with mushroom sauce”. Although we were among the first customers of the day, the answer was, inevitably, yellem. Then, I asked for some other food and realised that almost half of the listed “exotic dishes” weren’t available.
The behaviour of the maître of the restaurant of Central Jimma Hotel is really irritant. I checked all the ferenj food there, and I found out that they only have two of them. The most irritant aspect was about continental breakfast. They clearly write that there are toasts, butter and jam and some unspecified “hot drink”. However, I spent a week there and everyday, since the early morning they had “finished” the butter notwithstanding there is a supermarket across the street where they could buy it, if they only wished. No way to have a pot of milk and one of coffee: they only serve cups filled till the edge with foaming liquid! Not to say of the “sirloin steak”, which is around 2 mm thick and tough as the sole of a shoe, or of the sourest fish goulash I ever tasted.
Just few words about goulash because it is commonly mistaken everywhere. In Hungary, where gulyás —this is the correct spelling— is the national food, it is not the dish known elsewhere. The meat stew which we wrongly call goulash is, actually, called pörkölt in Hungary (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P%C3%B6rk%C3%B6lt). In any case, pörkölt in Hungarian, means “sautéed” rather than “roasted”. The gulyás I ate there several times in Hungary is a rather thick soup of meat and vegetables. It used to be the meal of herdsmen living in the Puszta. However, waiters and waitress are so clever and patient, even in the most remote areas of Hungary, to bring you pörkölt when you ask for goulash. Unlike Ethiopia, I never saw fish pörkölt in Hungary. Although I do not know the recipe of Ethiopian fish goulash, it doesn’t seem that the fish has ever been “sautéed”.
At Central Jimma Hotel, the fish was fried in a lot of oil —like chips— and added to some sort of tomato sauce. Probably, the same they use for spaghetti.
In Italy we make fish sauces and various kinds —at least one for each region— of fish stews, however, in no case the fish is added fried to something else. The fish —one or more kinds of it, often also with mussels and crustaceans—is cooked first and then tomatoes and other ingredients are added. Therefore, the taste of the fish mixes with that of the other ingredients to make a real fish meal. Here. the fish adds no flavour to the rest unless you chew just a piece of it.
In some Ethiopian restaurants I found that they fry the fish even to make fish kebab!
My most frustrating experience was a couple of day ago at the restaurant of Nigus Palace Hotel. Probably the most expensive in town. My secretary knew that it was the best restaurant in Jimma and I wanted to test it by inviting one of my colleagues. The environment looked inviting, and really tempted was the menu with pages and pages of “exotic” foods. Unfortunately, only two or three of them were available. The waitress didn’t know which they were and had to go to ask each time. After having ordered six different dishes which weren’t available, I decided to eat two eggs fried on one side only. Some minutes later a waiter came with two hard eggs! I must point out that the fried eggs were ordered by me in English but confirmed in Amharic by my secretary. Fortunately, my guests had ordered two of the available dishes and the waiter took the right ones.
You write that they ‘may’ add ሽንኩርት (šänkurt), ቲማቲም (timatim) and ቃሪያ (qariya)  to the omelettes. Well, only in very few special exceptions I got real “plain” omelette or scrambled eggs. They always add something else; at least qariya. Once, I clearly asked for a “plain” omelet without anything added. As a result, they served me an omelette from which they had taken out the ‘extras’ after having cooked it.
Moreover, apart from the wrong way in which they are written, in 90% of cases the dishes do not comply with the recipes known elsewhere.
Only for “pasta with tomato sauce” you can be —almost— sure. Even though the sauce tastes more “alla arrabbiata” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arrabbiata_sauce) than “col pomodoro”. And, although it can be spelt “macaroni” or something similar, the pasta is only spaghetti while, as you certainly know, there are more than 200 varieties of pasta (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_pasta).
I found out that, except for some few notable exceptions, if you ask for something “roasted” or “grilled”, it is actually fried on a hot plate like hamburgers. The result is that the meat, fish or whatever else, is fried in its own grease, with unpleasant —and, maybe, harmful— effects on the level of cholesterol and triglycerides! I saw few appliances with racks used only for open-air barbecues .
About exotic foods, they are mostly something different from the original ones. I wanted to taste “fish meunière ” at the restaurant of Honeyland Hotel in Jimma. The food was delicious, but it wasn’t at all à la meunière because the fish had not been dredged in seasoned flour as needed (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meuni%C3%A8re_sauce).
Not to say of Italian “carbonara” and “bolognese” sauces that you can read in many menus, but which must be done with pancetta, a sort of unsmoked bacon (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pancetta). I tasted it in true Italian restaurants in Addis —such as Castelli and Circolo Juventus— made with pancetta, and I think it is the same in all resturants run by Italians with an Italian chef. Since in Eritrea they use some awful halal “mortadella” to make “carbonara”, I didn’t even try to taste it non-Italian restaurants.
Just to let you know, good fake mortadella, ham and similar cold cuts can be found in most kosher stores in Rome. The Jewish community in Rome is probably the oldest in the world and certainly in Europe. There were already some Jews in the 2nd century BCE. However, most of them were deported to Rome from emperor Titus after he destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem.
I think you should warn the readers of a further, very important —and for me really disturbing— point: it is very difficult to find a restaurant without some —often very loud— Ethiopian music. I love any kind of music —ancient, mediaeval, renaissance, baroque, classic, romantic, contemporary, symphonic, concert, jazz, religious, folk, choral, pop, indie, rock, opera, etc.— and there is always some background music wherever I work or live. However, unless I want to pay attention to the words of a song or opera, the music has to be in the background and kept at a low volume. Very often, in some Ethiopian restaurants I am even unable to speak with the person sitting beside me because of the noise. In some cases, you even find loud music and television together. I wonder how somebody could be able to listen to anything of them, but this is the way it goes. Although somebody may like Ethiopian music most ferenj will end up with hating it after having spent two months here.Unless they are here just to record the music!

Addis Eats Tour

Olivia writes:

I am really enjoying the guidebook in the run up to my trip to Ethiopia in October!

I was wondering if you were aware of the Addis Eats Food Tour (http://addiseats.com/)? Addis does not seem to have many (or maybe any) options for tours in english that are not incredibly touristy and this seems like a really cool option! The tours take you to restaurants that are away from the tourist traps and are led by a young U.S. citizen who has lived in Ethiopia for what seems like a while now. The website itself is also incredibly informative about Ethiopian food and traditions–really useful!

Tipping in Ethiopia

 

Most waiters and waitresses are entirely dependent on tips. My girlfriend works as a waitress so has a good idea of customs, and she says that only Oromo and older Somalis don’t tip, but all other ethnicities and young Somalis do. Some tend to give a low note, for example 5 or 10 Birr, some just give whatever their change is, particularly Arabs, who will pay a 120 Birr bill or a 195 Birr bill with two 100 Birr notes and leave the change.
The focus on whether to tip should be based on the fact that waiters and waitresses get around 250-450 Birr a month for six 9-hour shifts a week. This is less than 14 Birr, 50p or 70 cents for a 9-hour shift, a third of which goes on their transport if they work evenings. So clearly they are utterly dependent on tips. In one of the main Piassa hotels waitresses start on 250 Birr a month, which after a year goes up to 300. One prestigious restaurant charging 80 Birr for a pizza offers 700 Birr a month, for four double-shifts a week, ie, 64 hours a week.
I notice too many tourists not tipping and I think they’d be just as happy leaving a tip if they felt it was appropriate, and it would make an enormous difference to the staff, many of whom are single mothers.

Chris

Vegetarian food

I have just returned from Ethiopia, where I used your 2009 guide, and thought it was worth making a comment on vegetarian food. You do refer to this on page 101 (para 2) but we felt this implied we might have trouble getting vegetarian food on days other than Wednesday & Fridays. As it turned out, Ethiopians fast on nearly 200 days a year and their ‘fasting food’ is always vegetarian. We found that asking for ‘fasting food’ always produced a vegetarian meal regardless of the day of the week. The concept of vegetarianism was not always fully grasped but the concept of fasting food was always recognised. Great guide by the way, keep up the good work. Regards Hugh

Restaurant menus

Very often faranjis get presented with a faranji menu with the inflated prices. These menus are in English, of course, and they often lack any Ethiopian food. If you want to eat Ethiopian food, then you must know what you want. Or ask to have exactly the same as the Ethiopian person who’s sitting at the table next to yours. We were never overcharged when eating Ethiopian food… Or just change the restaurant if the waiters pretend they don’t know what you’re talking about.

Goran Jovetic, London, UK

Addis Ababa Restaurants

There are 2 restaurants in Addis around Bole Road that might deserve being mentioned in a next edition. “Fasika – national restaurant” is a tukul style traditional restaurant that offers live music every night. For me it was the only place where I could find tripes on the menu, and they have a great list of tedj and araki with different flavours. The service is execellent, and the place seems very popular with expats, judging by the car park. I was there on a Thursday evening and almost every table had been reserved. The place is in a small street parallel with Bole, just below the Addis museum. It is clearly signposted on Bole Road. Also interesting if you want a change from local food is the “Mendi Corner” serving Arabian cuisine. It is a very clean and cosy place, in a side street from Congo Road – a bit lower than the Wanza hotel, opposite the MJ pension. It is worth going there if only for some of the tacky decoration like the metal sportscars hanging from the roof or the flying saucers that serve as water tap in the toilet. Both restaurants serve mains for about 50 birr.

 

Tim W