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Little Addis

I spent part of Sunday at a flatwarming party at the Maboneng precinct in the Joburg CBD. Maboneng – which means ‘place of light’ – is a development funded and directed by the entrepreneur Jonathan Liebmann who, in 2008, began buying up disused factory space in the eastern part of central Johannesburg. The area now comprises boutiques, restaurants, art galleries, a cinema, flats and offices, and a market every Sunday morning.

Maboneng, with its hipsters and street art, has been accused – and justifiably, to some extent – of being an island of cool, gentrified prosperity in the middle of a sea of incredible poverty. Some of the buildings bought up by Liebmann were populated by squatters, and there has been some concern over how they were removed from their homes. It is, in the view of some, a middle-class take-over of part of the inner city.

That said, it is a place that I enjoy visiting: the cinema is wonderful, and the market is one of the most fun places in Joburg on a Sunday morning. The area is one of the most socially diverse I’ve been to, and it has an energy which is infectious. In truth, I don’t really know what to think of it.

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But I am pleased that it has given a space to one of the best restaurants in the city: Little Addis Café on Fox Street. It began life as a stall at the Sunday market, and proved so popular that it soon became a permanent fixture at Maboneng. Consisting of four tables, a fridge full of soft drinks, and a tiny kitchen, Little Addis serves delicious platters of Ethiopian food. (I recommend the vegan special in particular – it’s truly spectacular.)

I’ve no idea, though, if what it serves bears any resemblance to food eaten in Ethiopia. It’s certainly similar to – and better than – Ethiopian food I’ve had in Cape Town and London. In fact, Ethiopian cooking is unique among African cuisines for the way that it’s spread around the world: as pizza is practically ubiquitous (although adapted to local tastes), increasingly it’s possible to find plates of injera bread with a selection of meat and vegetable stews, in most major cities.

As in the case of Italy, the idea of a single Ethiopian style of cooking – one which is held up as somehow representative of the Ethiopian nation – is the product of social and political change. For many centuries, the basic Ethiopian diet reflected what was available to eat: endemic crops (teff, and some kinds of wheat, barley, and millet), and ingredients acquired through trade: lentils, pulses, and spices. James C. McCann explains:

From a culinary point of view, the diet of Ethiopia’s ‘people of the plough’ consisted of particular core elements: fermented teff bread (injera) and stews (wet) made with a base of shallots (shinkurt), dry-fried or sautéed in oil or spiced butter, added late; and some combination of legumes (split or powdered), meat, or vegetables, usually collard greens.

This cuisine changed over time. From around the fifteenth century, peppers, potatoes, maize and other foods arrived from the New World, supplementing spices traded across the Indian Ocean. There were also regional, and class differences, and dishes for fasting and feasting.

However, by the end of the nineteenth century, the Ethiopian court served a cuisine which it described as representing the nation – at a time when a national identity, and the idea of an Ethiopian state, were being forged. It was a cuisine that largely excluded food from the country’s mainly Muslim areas – with the exception of coffee – and tended to reflect those dishes usually prepared in elite households. The meals served at banquets took on the status as properly ‘Ethiopian’, and many of these were adopted by the cafes and restaurants which began to emerge around the country, particularly in Addis Ababa, during the early twentieth century. The first self-consciously ‘Ethiopian’ restaurants serving ‘national’ food – effectively the food of the country’s upper classes – opened in the 1960s.

Ethiopian cuisine was globalised as a result of the 1974 revolution. Immigrants fleeing the country established Ethiopian restaurants cooking the kind of ‘national’ dishes that foreign diners are familiar with today, wherever they settled. However, they adjusted their menus to overseas tastes, as McCann notes:

Pressures for market conformity have, however, brought changes to the menus of Ethiopian restaurants. Some of these, like fasting food from the Orthodox Christian fast renamed as ‘vegetarian’ are market-savvy innovations. Others suggest transgression against the basic rules of the historical cuisine in the structures of taste, meaning, and processing of food.

Most menus now include pudding (sweet foods are usually understood as snacks and not as being part of the meal), raw vegetables in salads, and boneless meat.

Ethiopian tea and coffee for sale at the Arts on Main market.

Ethiopian tea and coffee for sale at the Arts on Main market.

What we think of as being a single, unified cuisine is, then, one that has been constructed at various times and places as being uniquely Ethiopian – whether in the household of Empress Taytu in the 1870s or in a hole-in-the-wall joint in Washington DC in 2014 – and which has changed over time.

In a sense, it’s particularly fitting, then, that Maboneng should have an Ethiopian restaurant. This site of Johannesburg’s reinvention includes a cuisine which has been constantly remade to reflect shifting ideas of what it means to be Ethiopian.

Sources

James C. McCann, Stirring the Pot: A History of African Cuisine (Athens, OH.: Ohio University Press, 2009).

Shannon Walsh, ‘“We won’t move”: The Suburbs Take Back the Centre in Urban Johannesburg,’ City, vol. 17, no. 3 (2013), pp. 400-408.

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