Photography by Justin Fox Burks
When someone mentions Ethiopian food, two things spring to my mind: injera, the spongy, slightly sour flatbread made of teff flour; and berberé, the spicy red powder that enlivens lentils and stews. Both aromas, carried on a wave of tomato and onion, hit my nose before I reach the front door of Queen Titilé Keskessa’s Germantown home. Queen and her mother, Belainesh (“Mimi”) Keskessa, invited me to learn and taste their native cuisine one Saturday morning in August.
A Typical Ethiopian Meal (Or, The Best Saturday Brunch Ever)
Mimi had prepared doro wat (chicken stew), homemade cottage cheese, fasolia (green beans), lentils, kinje (cracked wheat) and injera. Injera is a fermented flatbread served underneath and alongside the main dishes. In Ethiopia, the injera pan (mitad) is a piece of kitchen equipment that is used so regularly that it becomes almost an extension of the cook. These circular ceramic pans have been seasoned with crushed mustard seeds in order to create a natural non-stick finish and are used over a wood fire. A single mitad will last for years, and women dread getting a new one if the old one breaks, since they will have to learn all over again the specific techniques to achieve the highest quality injera on the new pan.
In the United States, Mimi uses a large electric skillet, and she allows us to see it for just a few minutes before she whisks it back to its place of honor and safety in one corner of the counter. The repurposed tin can Mimi uses to pour the fermented batter onto the skillet is crushed slightly to fit her hand and to create a lip for even pouring. Queen pantomimes how Mimi pours the injera batter in a spiral shape before lowering the lid. A woven mat serves as spatula and serving dish for the injera, which may in turn serve as the platter for other foods.
Mimi’s fasolia is a revelation. Square-cut carrots the size of crayons interject bright color into the dish. Green beans are cooked until they are meltingly soft, but I get the feeling that the beans met their fate happily, releasing their sugars and starches into a bubbling sea of tomato, parsley and onion.
I’ve been eating green beans since childhood, but I had no idea they could be so sensual.
In a momentary vision, I see family arguments over politics suddenly ceasing over mouthfuls of fasolia.
The Power of Food
Traditional African wisdom says that if you have broken bread with or fed someone, that person cannot be evil toward you. Ethiopian culture takes this one step further with its affectionate tradition of gursha, or feeding another person by hand. Gursha signifies love, respect and sharing.
Once you have fed or been fed by someone, you are family, whether or not you are blood relatives.
As Mimi carefully wraps lentils and homemade cottage cheese in a small triangle of injera, I wait almost nervously. It’s hard to describe the intimacy and humility that this practices invokes. It reminds me of church services where another parishioner washed my feet, and I remember the panicky vulnerability of entrusting my body to the care of others. Not one, but two bites is customary for gursha. After Mimi feeds me, I feel a different connection with the food and with Queen and Mimi. Theirs is genuine hospitality.
“We hold food in very high regard, the next thing after God,” says Queen.
Queen maintains that Ethiopian cuisine is a perfect marriage of healthy and flavorful food. Some of its dishes, like the fasolia and lentils, were developed in conjunction with religious practices. Fasting is a key element of both Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity and Islam. These fasts require a vegan diet for the religiously observant. Vegan dishes are well spiced, and even those who do not observe the fasts enjoy the seasons when vegetables and grains are primary.
A Delicious Childhood
“When I was a child, the most common sound I heard in the kitchen was the knife hitting the wooden cutting board. Every day, as my mother cut onions or crushed tomatoes, those sounds meant ‘lunchtime is close.’ It just made me happy,” says Queen.
Growing up in Addis Ababa in the 1970s and ’80s, Queen ate in the style now referred to as “farm-to-table.”
“Food was fresh and organic not because of a certain fashion; that was just what we had. And it tasted so good!” says Queen.
Few people in Ethiopia owned refrigerators, so food was consumed close to its origin, with local gardens and outdoor markets providing most of a family’s needs. Grocery stores and personal refrigerators have arrived in recent years, but they are still not mainstays for most households. Along with freshness and spice, ingenuity and thrift constitute some of the underlying currents of Ethiopian cuisine.
“If you wanted to purchase a case of soft drinks for a party, you would bring in a case of empty glass bottles to be filled, or you would have to pay extra to purchase the new containers. If you found a container in the trash, it had been used and used and reused and used some more,” remembers Queen.
Bringing the Spices to Memphis
Since moving to Memphis as a teenager, Queen has created a life of old and new cultures, sometimes evidenced in fusion cuisine. The family enjoys Memphis-style barbecue, but they add homemade awaze paste or berberé. Thanksgiving turkey at Mimi’s table includes cracked wheat (kinje) and jalapenos in the stuffing. Queen’s children eat their grandmother’s cooking but also love macaroni and cheese.
When I ask Queen about her experience as an immigrant and now U.S. citizen living in Memphis, Queen does not dodge the question.
“I don’t watch the news because then it colors everything I see. Racism and division are a business; they’ll never go away entirely because lots of people make money from them. I have lived all over—Tupelo, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Memphis—and I have never felt hatred for this country. The worst day in America is still a good day,” says Queen.
Thanks to Queen and Mimi, it’s also a delicious day.
Check out Queen and Mimi’s YouTube channel, Mimi Cooks, to learn how to make Ethiopian dishes at home.
Heidi Rupke spends her days tending chickens and children, and defending her garden against squirrels. Her current food obsession is making the perfect pavlova.
Justin Fox Burks has been a professional photographer for 20 years, but that’s not all. He photographed and co-authored four vegetarian cookbooks with his wife, Amy Lawrence: Vegetarian Cooking for Two, Low-Carb Vegetarian Cookbook, The Southern Vegetarian, and The Chubby Vegetarian. He feels fortunate to be able to make interesting images for a living. @justinfoxburks