Donna Fortunata. Lucky woman. That is what I am. Not only was I raised with authentic Northern Italian cuisine, but my grandmother was also brought up as an Italian woman in Asmara, Ethiopia. Because of this dual continent upbringing, my nonna was able to ingratiate us into various cultures through, what else, food. Before I could walk or remember, I was introduced to flavors and languages from around the world. Donna Fortunata. The places my taste buds have traveled would both intrigue and perplex others. I’ve had tongue, brain, frog legs, liver, gizzards, and various body parts from any number of animals. Largely, I’ve experienced the flavor absorbing breads like ingera, a flat, un-leavened, soft, even spongy, type bread used to gather meat, veggies, cheese and sauces in one delicious hand-full, making pita, baguettes, tortillas and other foreign carbohydrates seem flavorless and dull. Spices like bebere, hearty lentils, unique greens, and cubed beef and chicken were a staple at our family dinners. The African influences were right up there with other favorites, spaghetti a la vongole (clams), brosciolo (involtini, thin meat with herbs rolled in sauce) over polenta, scallopini, bolognese (meat sauce) and any other delicious, genuine Italian dish you can conjure up. My mouth traveled before my body did. Sounds dirty. Sometimes it was.
This week I’ve had the pleasure and honor of housing many visitors, including my mom and grandma, in one of the best food cities in the world. We’ve traveled to Thailand, Mexico, middle America, Italy, and now to Africa, in just a few days. We’ve enjoyed some of Chicago’s most beautiful summer days eating outside, watching the Cubs lose ( a quintessential Chicago activity), observing the talent of Chicago’s theatre and improv scene, and mainly, killing time in between meals. One of those meals brought us to East Africa, to Abyssinia.
Located at the juncture of Andersonville and Edgewater, Abyssinia, the former country name of Ethiopia, is situated in a neighborhood of African cuisine, on North Broadway. The restaurant of choice that evening provided a soulful environment, with even better food. Walking in, we were slightly disappointed to see very few patrons for a Saturday night. Not sure if the demand for African cuisine is low in this neighborhood, or simply for that night, but I’ll say it now, it is a sacrilege that place is not packed to the brim every single night. It should be.
We sat, glanced at the many beautiful masks, photographs, artifacts, and food huts, the smell was familiar, like Grandma’s kitchen. The anticipation and hunger built exponentially once that sense of smell kicked in. I didn’t question whether the food would be good. I knew in my bones it would be. I wanted it in my mouth immediately. As always, I’m not allowed to walk into the kitchen and take a quick bite of whatever’s stirring, so I relaxed, faked patience, and looked over their brilliant menu. A beautiful, kind woman approached, greeted us, filled our water glasses and my grandma immediately began recollecting her Eritrea dialect. As the night progressed, she recalled more and more phrases, light filled her eyes, and I could see the child she once was. She’s held that youthful vibrancy since I’ve known her and I’m so grateful to become a sliver of the woman she is.
The gentleman who owned Abyssinia approached with the most gorgeous child I’ve ever seen. Both of their eyes were full of such love and passion and we felt their sincerity, their sheer appreciation for our presence. We each ordered like Americans, too much. Similar to my Grammy’s famous ziggini, I ordered Doro Wat, a chicken dish served in a traditional sauce, with hard-boiled eggs, over ingera. We had a veggie combo, consisting of lentils, yellow split peas, potatoes, beets, cabbage, and salad. Add to that a meat combo, beef cubes, chicken legs, and lamb in a separate bowl. Rounding out these entrees was Siga Wat, which is so fun to say, try it! What a concoction. A unique blend of flavors was about to dance across our tongues and shoot us straight into pure food bliss.
Food is primal. Like sex, shelter and water, food is survival, but like the others, there is also the most intense, extraordinary pleasure. Like nothing else, food brings people together, extracts the best out of the most difficult people and can even mend broken hearts. In moderation, food saves. Our food was brought in a traditional African straw baskets, each of our meals resting together, symbolizing community, inspiring collaboration. We broke off pieces of ingera, laughed, chewed and explored each of the flavors in front of us. Everything burst with flavor, simmered with culture, and injected us with nourishment and love.
Your religion or culture may predicate the type of food you’re drawn to or “allowed” to eat, but please remember, food has no religion, no political affiliation, no race, no age, no sexual orientation. It truly unites, never divides. The next time you find yourself complaining about another person, grab a meal with them. If it’s a culture you don’t understand and traveling to that place is not an option, find a way to eat their traditional fare. Exploring via your taste buds is enough to broaden your mind and connect you deeply to those around you. Be open to food and you’ll gain more than a delicious meal.
Smell the aroma. Hear the sizzle. Feel the textures of each bite. See yourself in a different country while you consume. Taste the possibilities and the love. Enjoy.