When visiting Ethiopia, it is almost impossible not to eat vast quantities of injera, the slightly sour flatbread whose versatility puts many kitchen tools to shame.
As big as a towel and spongy to boot. injera is the foundation of every Ethiopian meal, the supporting actor that allows stews and vegetables to shine on top. It is a fork and spoon in one, a delivery vehicle used to ferry everything else to your mouth. For messy eaters, it comes in handy as a napkin.
Most Ethiopians eat it at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Families often bake it twice a week. During a month in Ethiopia, I downed enough injera to carpet a house -- it was sometimes the only constant in a whirl of doro wat (chicken stew), kitfo (raw minced beef), shiro (chickpea stew) and tibs (stir-fried meat).
So I was ecstatic when my friend Elisabeth, a German working in the capital of Addis Ababa, invited me over to her company's cafeteria to watch the cooking process.
Well, only half the process. Injera is a three-ingredient food, traditionally comprised only of water, salt and teff, a tiny and iron-rich grain (sometimes other grains like wheat or barley act as replacements). The trio is mixed together and then left alone for several days to ferment. That resting time produces the trademark sour flavor.
By the time I got there, the dough had already sat for three days. Mariam, one of the cooks who kindly allowed me to paparazzi her, said they usually bake the bread on an electric stove with a flat circular surface specifically built for that purpose.
That's if the electricity is on. That day, the power had cut off (It often did that month. The rainy season wreaks havoc on the country's power grid). So Mariam moved next door to the traditional wood-fired stove. She spent a good 10 minutes stoking the flames that flickered out of the stove's clay mouth.
Then she scooped up a pitcher of the thick liquid, bent over and began to smoothly pour it, starting from the outside and swirling it in a circular motion until the heated plate was papered over in a thin layer. She was mesmerizing to watch, a maestro of injera with decades of technique under her belt.
A few minutes later, and it was cooked. She lifted the piece up onto a woven straw mat.
Elisabeth and I both took a turn. Keeping your balance while crouched over, while ensuring a steady speed and consistent drizzle, is no easy feat. Our injera looked like poor also-rans next to the perfection that were Miriam's creations.