In Ethiopia, many meals are shared from a communal dish in which everyone eats with their right hand. In contrast, growing up in the United States, I had been accustomed to eating with a fork and knife, and from my own plate. As a celiac, I am often cautious about sharing food with others, due to fear of cross contamination from gluten, which could get me very sick. As a vegan, I frequently plan in advance before going out to dinner to make sure that a restaurant has menu options for me. Being a celiac-vegan in Ethiopia has turned out to be very easy and I have been able to enjoy and celebrate sharing food with others.
The communal dish often used to share meals is layered with injera bread, which is made from a powerhouse, gluten-free grain called teff. I love iInjera’s spongy texture and happily eat it at least twice per day. At Yaya Girls, we eat a darker, iron-rich injera, since it has more nutrients than the standard white variety. During lunch and dinner, we often have variations of lentils, beans, and cooked veggies on injera. One of my favorite rituals before sharing a meal is when one person gets up from the table, and walks around with a water pitcher and basin helping the others clean their right hands before eating.
Dairy products and meat are very expensive in Ethiopia, which means that they are offered at Yaya Girls only a few times per week. In addition, Orthodox Christianity is widely practiced and their tradition dictates fasting two days per week. Thus, many people “fast” from all dairy products (milk /eggs /yogurt) on Wednesdays and Fridays, when restaurants serve beyaynetu plates, featuring a delicious rainbow variety of vegetable and legume sauces on injera bread (see the beautiful beyaynetu plate above). As a result, it has been possible for me to be a vegan in Ethiopia in an almost seamless manner.
At Yaya Girls, the communal dish is a sacred, yet prosaic part of our lives— I feel so grateful to experience sharing food in a whole new way!