Food and Culture

About Eritrea - History & Culture

When it comes to eating, Eritreans are known for their frugality. In our tradition, a gourmand or glutton is likened to a hyena. And a glutton who is never satiated is likened unto a donkey which keeps eating until its belly bursts open since, according to local sayings, it has no navel to act as a safety valve.

When I was young and we ate from the same plate with my brothers and sisters, my mother would first communicate her wish that everyone eat from the side which was closest to them. There were unmarked boundaries on the big plate that only unchaste eyes failed to notice.

Taking morsels of food from beyond one’s designated boundaries was considered a serious transgression and punishable by a slap on the face administered by an older sibling. Since it is difficult to cry with your mouth full, the only thing you did was scowl in pain.

“When I was in Italy, I remember eating in a cafeteria beside a Somali. He stopped eating after two or three morsels which he shoved down his gullet rather quickly,” my uncle would state as he narrated one of his many comical stories.

“Are you going to leave all this food on the plate?” Those at the table with him would question.

“You can take it if you want,” the Somali replied, somewhat amused.

It was then that my uncle learned that there were people more frugal than Eritreans and he began to consider himself a glutton.

Upon hearing the whole story, I don’t know if it were the anxiety that a university life in a foreign country produced in them at the time or maybe a result of some sort of cultural disorientation, but my uncle and his Eritrean colleagues ate like hyenas. They would have asked for more had the University’s administration not provided a solution by placing a wooden barrel filled with mashed potatoes close to the exit door.

“What’s that?” My uncle would ask his friend as they left the hall.

“Do you remember what our mothers used to tell us we used to complain that dinner could not fill our stomach?” He asked.

“No, can you tell me?” My uncle replied.

“Well, they used to tell us that if you fail to fill your stomach with the food in front of you, you can fill it with cow’s dung, for all we care!” He said.

Therefore, the mashed potatoes in the barrel were like a modern version of cow’s dung. And, according to my uncle, at times they tasted like it.

In Eritrea, the proper way to eat injera and tsebhi (a spicy sauce) is to use the minimum number of fingers possible. The ability to use only one’s thumb, index, and middle finger to eat is a sign of dexterity and good breed, while the use of four fingers is reflective of proper upbringing. Using five fingers is okay, as long as you don’t scoop up your food from the communal plate. Scooping the food up like a bulldozer and then “fork-lifting” it to your mouth is frowned upon by the elders. And if you commit the cardinal sin of chewing with your mouth open or, even worse, using the right and left side of your mouth for chewing, you are identified as a public nuisance. In fact, during the old days in the villages, you would rarely be invited to wedding feasts or if you were invited, you would be seated with the ruffians and scoundrels.

Now all these good habits have become a thing of the past. Today it is not uncommon for people to do these things with impunity.

One day, a lady, a bit deficient in civility, happened to be eating with eight people (which constitute a full table in our culture). Go to any wedding feast or other celebration, and if there are less than eight people at the table, they will have to wait for the eighth person to arrive before the table can be served.

This lady had intentionally brought her little child with her and put him on the floor beside her so that he could fill his belly with the crumbs that fell from the table. The magic number of eight having been achieved, the food arrived and everybody began to eat. This lady, not giving a damn to culture or social propriety, stretched out her hand to eat, scooping a generous heap of food from the tray. She was about to bring it to her mouth when the people around her gasped in bewilderment. They stopped eating and began to stare at her, wondering how on earth she could fit that amount of food down her throat.

The woman was a glutton alright, but she was not stupid. She made a reverse movement with her hand and placed the food onto the open palms of her child saying, “Be a good boy and eat your food quietly.”

The colossal mound of injera topped with tsebhi, which those at the table expected the women to eat, kept the little child occupied for a good ten minutes.

Eritrean mothers, in particular, are said to be very frugal. If they can have their morning coffee accompanied by a small piece of kitcha (unleavened bread), they can work for ten or more hours on end without food. In order to stifle any pangs of hunger or thirst that may arise during the day they simply gird their loins with a cummerbund, very tight.

Historically, men were expected to eat more than women (probably because, as per patriarchal tradition, they are the ones who protected the family from all kinds of predictable and unpredictable dangers). But the glutton is always despised by rural society. Children who overly indulge in eating are told to change their manners, while the shepherd who turns down a lunch because it is not nutritious enough is given the same dinner.

Traditionally in Eritrea, the family menu frequently contained two items: the main entry (which invariably included shiro and hamli) and a tin can full of water.

But all this seems to have changed with the process of urbanization. Just go to any wedding reception to see what I am talking about. In the past, the wedding feast was an opportunity to display one’s refinement and good manners. The lower or baser human appetites were suppressed in favour of nobler and more dignified social manners. However, the modern wedding reception is worth studying for anthropologists and sociologists.

A week ago, I was invited to a wedding reception at a popular hotel. I could see men turning into wolves right before my very own eyes! I have heard about men turning into werewolves at midnight in the past, but this was occurring in the middle of the day. I saw a frail old man carrying a plate upon which he had heaped all types of meat, bones, and fish from the banquet table. I had a strong feeling he would leave more than half of it on his plate to be discarded by the waiters later on. What a waste!

Not to be outdone, the rest of the guests carried their overloaded plates to their tables, slowly staggering as if they had killed a lion and were displaying their trophies. When it was my turn to help myself to a plate of food, I had to scrap together some pieces of bones and half-burned potato chips.

Eritreans seem at present to have cast injera to the winds in favour of bani (bread rolls). Manual labourers, especially, have shifted to silsi (tomato-based sauce), frittata (scrambled eggs), and fata (silsi poured over breadcrumbs) – all meals that are eaten with bani. Goodbye injera, we will miss you!

In restaurants, most Eritreans seem to go for meat and fish. There is a tendency among those the wealthy to leave their vegetables on the plate. A rich man is expected to eat meat, leaving vegetables to the poor. Little do they know that what they have left on their plates could be their salvation as they grow old.

“On the other hand the Ferengis (white men) prefer vegetables to meat,” stated an old man, who also happened to be a restaurant owner.

I told him that it is a pity that our people are destroying the diet that could save their lives.

“Alas, they only begin to eat vegetables after visiting a doctor,” another friend added. “But most of the time it is too late.”

Add to this the appearance of bakeries that sell all types of pastry, and it is little surprise that diabetes and blood pressure are increasing across the country.

Unless Eritreans switch back to the healthy foods which were more traditionally common, such as kitcha, vegetables, and other types of foods and drinks that are sugar and cholesterol free, things will surely turn ugly.