Over the years I’ve learned to distinguish between Tuscan and Sicilian influences in cooking, and between northern French and Provençal. But after platter after platter of injera and wot, I can’t for the life of me tell the difference between Ethiopian and Eritrean food. So I decided to ask the experts.
To summarize a long conflict in a perilously brief paragraph, the two countries, which are occupied by a patchwork of different ethnicities, were divided by colonialism 150 years ago. Italy took control of the Eritrean coast in the mid-1800s, and after its excursions inward were rebuffed by the Ethiopian army, established formal boundaries between the two states in 1902. During World War II, the Fascists expanded into Ethiopia. After the Italians were removed from both Ethiopia and Eritrea by the Allies, Emperor Haile Selassie, supported by the United States and Western Europe, annexed Eritrea in the 1960s. Then in 1993, after Selassie’s overthrow, the two countries “amicably” separated; by then, the predominant ethnic group in Eritrea had established Tigrinya as its national language, while Amharic is the national language of Ethiopia. Five years later, a fierce conflict erupted over the boundary between the nations, a fight that by now has claimed more than eighty thousand lives. Despite a recent decision handed down by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, the border continues to be disputed.
But as anyone knows who has eaten her way up and down Telegraph Avenue, the two countries and their dozens of ethnic groups share a similar cuisine. Both Eritrean and Ethiopian restaurants serve highly spiced stews ladled onto injera, a flat, spongy dough primarily made from teff, a tiny grain indigenous to the region.
Does that mean the difference between Eritrean and Ethiopian food is merely political (whoever happens to own the restaurant) or linguistic?
When I asked the person who answered the phone at Addis (Ethiopian) what the differences were between Ethiopian and Eritrean food, she replied, “They’re not different.” The woman who worked at Cafe Colucci (Ethiopian) told me, “I’m from Africa, and I don’t know the difference,” and shooed me away.
The woman who answered the phone at Red Sea — which proclaims itself an Eritrean restaurant — also told me the two cuisines are the same. This time I pressed. “So are the names of dishes different because of differences in the languages?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied.
“Does Red Sea serve special Eritrean dishes?”
“Yes. Chicken, lamb, vegetables. All the same.”
“Do you serve mostly Eritreans at the Red Sea?”
“Yes. From Eritrea and Ethiopia.”
The experts have spoken. In the East Bay at least, the border is both peaceful and permeable.