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Addis Ababa, Ethiopia January 4, 2012

Vegetarian Guide to Ethiopian Food – More than just Shiro

Ethiopia

Coming to Ethiopia as a vegetarian, I knew that eating would not be a problem. I can tolerate injera – crepe like thing of the color and taste of a washcloth – which Ethiopians seem to eat with everything (they even eat injera WITH injera).

Vegetarianism itself is not such a foreign concept to Ethiopians even though they don’t necessarily call it by that name. The majority of Ethiopians are Orthodox Ethiopians and they don’t eat meat on Wednesdays and Fridays. On these days, non-meat fasting food can be found easily in restaurants.

But even on non-fasting days, any restaurant can be asked to prepare Shiro (pureed chickpeas in Berber sauce) at a moment’s notice.

Eating Shiro every day does get old every day though (and after a week of it, it can start to look like… nevermind). This is where Bayenetu comes in.

Bayenetu is a collection of meat-free dishes served over a plate of big round injera. Think of a sampler plate. What those dishes are depend on the restaurant. Each prepares it slightly differently:

Bayenetu

Bayenetu from Habesha Restaurant, Addis Ababa

Bayenetu from Unique Restaurant, Lalibela

Bayenetu from Unique Restaurant, Lalibela

Some dishes regularly found on Bayenetus include:
Aterkik Alitcha – yellow peas in sauce (my favorite!)
Atkilt Wot – cabbage, carrots, potatoes in sauce
Gomen – collard green cooked to perfection with spices
Misir Wot – pureed red lentil in berbere sauce

One thing they do have in common: shiro is always one of the dishes found on a Bayenetu. So yeah, you can’t escape Shiro altogether.

By the way, a fun thing to do in Addis Ababa is to go to Habesha Restaurant for dinner. They make the best Bayenetu I had in Ethiopia which goes so well with the house’s super strong Tej. Tej is Ethiopian wine made of fermented honey. It’s often served in glass beakers that look like they should belong in a Chemistry lab. Watch out. It packs quite a punch.

Habesha Restaurant, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Having Tej at Habesha

But the best part of going to Habesha is that you get to see a performance of Ethiopian dances every evening. Audience participation isn’t only encouraged, it’s practically mandatory. Check out the video to get a taste to Ethiopian music.

As a very last resort, spaghetti with tomato sauce is also very commonly served in Ethiopia. Expecting a sad looking pasta drenched in ketchup like sauce, I was constantly surprised. It might be a culinary skill left by the Italians during occupation decades ago, but I had some of the best spaghetti sauce here in Ethiopia. No kidding.

The sauce is always freshly made, a little spicy, and the pasta is always al dente – the way it’s supposed to be.

Fruit wise, I wasn’t too impressed by the varieties (I guess I’m spoiled). Juice of avocado, mango, strawberry, guava can be found in many restaurants. Try a mixed version of everything. It’s colorful and it’s really good. You don’t even need to tell them not to add sugar. Which I did and got a blank look from the waiter as a result. I know what he’s thinking too – ‘Duh, it’s fruit. Why would you add sugar?’ Thank you. Exactly. Can someone tell that to South Americans?

As a vegetarian traveling in Ethiopia, you won’t starve. But the lack of varieties can get to you after awhile. Thankfully, rumor has it Addis Ababa does have a few international restaurants like Thai (unable to find it), Indian (still an uncorroborated rumor), and I even saw a sign once for a Japanese restaurant (on Haile Gebrselassie Rd towards the airport if you’re so inclined to look for it). Finding them is a different matter.

(They don’t use street numbers, you can have to go by landmarks which makes finding anything feel like a treasure hunt.)

An unexpected side-effect of too much Ethiopian food?

I woke up one day and all I could think about was how to get my hands on a basket of fish and chips. Afterwards, I drooled at the thought of Mc Donald’s Egg McMuffin and hashbrowns. Then I thought of pizzas. I don’t even like pizzas.

See, Ethiopian food seems to be so low in fat and salt that after 2 weeks I craved for something just completely the opposite. The greasier the better. Thankfully, it was easily fixed by a quick stroll to Kaldi’s Coffee (Ethiopian version of Starbucks).

French fries and tiramisu never tasted sooo good. I even went for seconds. I guess there’s such a thing as too much of a good thing after all.

(Mis)adventure, Merzouga, Morocco December 5, 2011

Camel Trekking – Welcome to the Desert!

Merzouga, Morocco

We emerged from the night bus bleary eyed in the early dawn – rubbing our eyes from what little sleep we had and trying to fight off the desert cold. The bus soon left us in a deserted road of what we think is Merzouga.

Jack making a makeshift thermal using my scarf on the freezing night bus to Merzouga

Jack making a makeshift thermal using my scarf on the freezing night bus to Merzouga - one of these days he'll forgive me for showing his leg to the world.

What we could see in the dawn light was mud buildings on a dusty street. ‘Cafe’ was crudely painted on one of them. Everything was closed. I can’t believe I’m actually saying this, but after the cramped alleys of Fez, the open desert horizon was disconcerting.

The touts started making their way towards us,

– Excuse me? Where’s your hotel?
– Excuse me, sir? Mam? English?

The camel guide who’s supposed to pick us up wasn’t there. We tried to call him only to find out that the only public phone there takes a special phone card and not coins (what’s up with that?)

In the meantime

– Excuse me? I help?
– Mam? What’s your hotel? You need camels?
– Sir? Mam? Let me help? Hotels? Camel trekking?

was buzzing non-stop around us: to our left, to our right, on our face. Jack was kind of enough to take the brunt of this, chatting all of them up, which gave me time to think of what to do next.

The only other tourists that morning – 2 German girls – were getting into the only car on the street. They asked, ‘We’re going to our hotel, do you guys want to come?’

The only other option was to wait for our guy, Mohammed, to come. Assuming he was coming.

But that would mean being alone with these touts, in a strange deserted city, with no transports to take us away if we want to. So we hurriedly got in the car with them. As we were driving away, I asked the girls how much the fare was. ‘We didn’t ask.’ ‘Seriously?’ They shrugged. ‘It’s not that we have other option.’

Good point.

The driver ended up wanting 15 Dirhams from each of us. 60 Dirham for what should’ve been a 10-15 Dirham ride km ride was a rip off, even for the desert. Thinking ‘Well, it could’ve been worse,’ and too sleepy and tired to argue we decided to pay without making a fuss.

Turned out he wanted 50 Dirham. Each. Which would make the 10 min ride a $25 fare. We balked, ‘No way!’

At one time I believe I actually said, ‘200 Dirham?! Right. Just take us back then!’ – which goes to show how little sleep can addle one’s brain.

He ran in into the hotel to grab the owner – I’m guessing to demand his commission as well as to talk some sense into us. Fortunately, the front door was left open and all four of us ran in with our bags. Securely ensconced inside we felt braver. The German girls delegated the task of bargaining to us – they themselves became spectators of the ensuing back and forth.

We offered him 60 Dirham. Jack was waving our money in front of his face. He refused to take it. Some shouting back and forth ensued in a medley of English, Berber, and Spanish. He seemed to realize that now that we’re at the hotel, there wasn’t much he could do. The hotel owner translated ‘Ok, ok. He said he’d take 100 for all of you.’

‘60 Dirham or none at all’ – the hotel owner barked something in Berber waving our money that the driver finally and reluctantly took. Not without some grumbling and spitting on the ground.

Now Jack and I with the German girls are in the common room with the owner, we told him we don’t have a reservation and would like to see a room.

‘Wait!’ He walked to the kitchen. ‘We should have tea first.’

15 minutes later all four of us were falling asleep with tea cups in our hand – the adrenaline from the altercation with the taxi driver was ebbing away – sipping the tea bit by bit in silence. We were antsy to see the room, bargain for it, and go to bed, but he kept pouring more and more tea!

How much tea can that little pot hold?

Moroccan tea pot - holds more tea than you'd imagine

Moroccan tea pot - holds more tea than you'd imagine

We thought of the sleepless night bus from Fes. It was an experience we don’t wish to repeat anytime soon. Buses in South America seem like a luxury in comparison. Yup, that even includes the buses in Colombia.

Finally after what seemed like ages, the owner got up,
‘Let me show you to your room!’

Our bed in Merzouga, Morocco

Sweet, sweet bed

We tried to get him to talk about prices of a camel trek. The thing is, it would be considered inconceivable that we’d stay there without booking the camel trek from them. It’s how they make money, see? But all he kept saying was, ‘You rest first. Later after you wake up, we talk!’

I hate not knowing what I got myself into. But the bed looks mighty inviting. All we wanted to do was lie down – dusty clothes and all.

Well, I guess the desert will wait. The camels will still be there. The negotiation can wait, doubtlessly accompanied by copious amount of sweet tea.

But first, sleep.

‘Welcome to the desert!’ he shook our hands seconds before we crash into bed.

To be continued…


Traveling to Merzouga to do some camel trekking? Here are some tips for you:
– If you’re coming from Fes by CTM bus, they’ll drop you off at Rissani – a 20 min drive away. Do NOT get into any 4×4 car. Take a grand taxi, which is usually an old Mercedes Benz, and pay the 12 Dirham fee.
– If you’re coming from Fes by Supratours, you can go directly to Merzouga. Be warned that you’ll arrive at 6:30 in the morning. Do not expect any petit-taxis around.
– A better bet is to make a reservation and have your hotel/auberge to pick you up. All of them offer this service.
Chefchaouen, Morocco November 29, 2011

Photogenic Chefchaouen in Colors

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Seriously, Chefchaouen is the most photogenic city we’ve ever been in. And I’m not saying that only because the houses in Chefchaouen happens to be painted in shades of powder blue which happens to be our favorite color.

Well, maybe I am.

(Random fact: Do you know that blue is the most universally liked color?)

I don’t think there’s a better way to show this city other than in pictures.

Sometimes walking around the medina feels like walking inside an iceberg.

Chefchaouen blue

Most of the people in the medina are shy about being photographed. Considering the amount of tourists that come through here taking pictures of their city and its inhabitants, that’s quite understandable. Even the kids would go, ‘La, la’ (‘No, no’) when asked for a pictures.

This girl, however, was not shy about having her picture taken. She was posing for me when her friend came running by to talk to her and here she seemed to be saying, ‘Wait a second, she’s taking my picture!’ Most of the girls are dressed in pink – making a nice contrast with the blue of the surrounding.

Girls in Chefchaouen, Morocco

A basket of bread and a bowl of olives are commonly served as free appetizers in Morocco. We tried soo hard to like olives, but they’re just not our thing.
Olives, Morocco

The best thing to do in Chefchaouen is to wander around and get lost in its winding blue alleys, passing women gossiping on the doorways, kids playing soccer in the narrow alley, and wondering why there are so many young (and not-so-yong) Moroccan males hanging around and doing nothing on the street.

Every new turn seems to bring yet another photo op. Of course, ‘blue’ is always the theme.

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Chefchaouen, Morocco

There are some aspects of this country that have begun to rub us the wrong way, but one thing we can’t deny:

Morocco might be one of the most photogenic countries out there – as long as you ignore the litter on the ground that is.

For more pics from Chefchaouen:

11-24 Chefchaouen


Chefchaouen Info

Where to stay in Chefchaouen: Hotel Guernika – a little hard to find, but it has wifi and really hot showers. Double room w/ showers: 250 Dirham
Where to eat: any of the restaurants in the main plaza (Uta El-Hammam)

Morocco, Rabat November 27, 2011

Ruins of Chellah – Where Cats and Storks Roam Free

The first thing we noticed about the ruins of Chellah in Rabat is not the ruins itself, but the friendly community of resident cats who greeted us on the path towards the ruins.

To greet and cuddle every single one of these cats, as one can imagine, makes for a very slow going. But as animal lovers (who miss having cats terribly), how could we not do it? Unless some of the cats in the medina, these ones look like they’re well taken care of. That fact alone makes us feel like our 10 Dirham entrance fee is worth it.