Middle East Cooking
the Queen of Sheba:
with Elinor Moore
"She arrived...with a very numerous retinue,
and with camels bearing spices,
a large amount of gold, and precious stones."
The Queen of Sheba
Called Makeda in the Kebra Negast ( Ethiopia's holy book), or Bilqis in the Qur'an, the Queen of
Sheba arrived in Jerusalem seeking the wise Solomon and bearing those
gifts most suited to the enlightened. A rock star might have wept with
envy seeing the Queen of Sheba's "numerous retinue" and her
caravan of camels laden with bling-bling.
Queen Makeda of Sheba possessed both wealth
and beauty. Described as 'black and comely,' she held sway over an empire
known as the Sabean (Sheban) Kingdoms, an area that included Ethiopia,
Eritrea and what is now southern Yemen. The birthplace of humanity may
lie within its borders. In 1974, the female skeleton called Lucy (named
from the Beatles song, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds) was found
in strata that are three million years old. Partial skeletons date back
even earlier, some to the ripe old age of four million.
The name Ethiopia comes from the Greek meaning
"sunburned faces." Within today's Ethiopia are the deserts
of the Danakil which are below sea level, the massive highlands of the
mountains with peaks as high as 4,000 feet. They are divided by the
Great Rift Valley. All of the waters feed the mighty Nile, most notably
the Blue Nile which is the largest river in Ethiopia. This geographical
diversity has led to the evolution of a stunning array of unique species
of animals and plants. Some ingredients that play a major part in the
cooking of Ethiopia are so unique that they are available only within
The earliest written records of this area
would indicate that the Horn of Africa was valued for tropical products.
From Egyptian hieroglyphic records we learn that the Pharaohs got frankincense
and myrrh from the Sabean kingdoms. In addition the area supplied large
amounts of ivory, valuable in trade with India. Trade was the glue between
Yemen and Ethiopia, and the interaction created a cuisine influenced
by the Arabian, but using indigenous ingredients, such as cereals, pulses,
oilseeds, and coffee. Grains are considered most important and one,
tef, is indigenous to Ethiopia. Pulses rank second in importance and
are boiled, roasted or included in a dish known as 'wot,' which is a
Coffee in Ethiopia
Food historians are agreed that coffee originated
in the province of Kaffa in Ethiopia. Possibly from that name or from
the name kawah. The origin of this word is unclear. Some translations
say it meant 'that which excites and cause the spirits to rise,' but
others say it was the ancient word for wine. Coffee was the 'wine of
Arabia' according to some sources.
Ethiopians have many legends concerning the
discovery of coffee. One such legend is that a goatherd noticed his
goats chewing an unfamiliar berry. Shortly thereafter, the goats began
to kick their heels in frenzy and abandonment, an exercise that continued
into the night. Curious, the goatherd sampled the berries and noticed
that his heart beat faster and that he felt unusually lucid. The berries
have been with us ever since, though roasting and brewing didn't begin
in Europe until the 14th century. Hopefully the Ethiopians found a way
to brew coffee that has gone unrecorded. Sampling the berries directly
could prove a strong inducement to goat-like behavior.
Coffee was also found in the coastal
Yemeni town of Mocha which became a coffee port of great importance
under Ottoman rule. The bean was originally worshipped for its medicinal
Tef, the principal grain of Ethiopia, is
in the millet family. The word literally means 'lost,' a reference to
the tiny size of the grain which is the smallest known in the world.
Though used for animal feed, the main use of the grain for human food
is as a flour, though it is also used as a porridge. Packed with nutrition,
tef is low in gluten which results in a flatter bread. Similar to grapes,
it possess a yeast that may be fermented and used as an ingredient of
drinks. It is an excellent source of essential amino acids, fiber and
iron. It contains many times the amount of calcium, potassium and other
essential minerals found in an equal amount of other grains.
Injera - Food, Plate and
eat from the same plate will never betray one another." - Ethiopian
The primary use of tef is to make
the great staple of the Ethiopian diet - injera. Tef flour and water
are mixed into a batter-like dough, then allowed to sit so the natural
yeast ferments. It is then formed into a large pancake-like bread and
fried on round trays or skillets. Once cooked, the injera rounds are
placed on a serving plate and covered with wot or stew.
Before eating, Ethiopians conduct
a hand-washing ritual. Each diner stretches out their right hand. A
selected person pours water over each hand from a decorated jug, then
offers a towel for drying. Once their hands are clean, each person pulls
off a piece of the stew-soaked injera, rolls it to contain the stew,
and eats without the aid of silverware. It is a flat, spongy bread,
with a sourish taste that is not to everyone's liking. In Life in
Abyssinia, Mansfield Parkyns wrote "Fancy yourself chewing
a piece of sour sponge and you will have a good idea of what is considered
the best bread in Abyssinia." This negative report was written
before we became enamored of sourdough bread.
Ethiopian Food Beyond Injera
Other foods that may be piled onto
injera include pureed spiced vegetables, chicken drumsticks, hard-boiled
eggs, and/or fried meats. Ethiopians like to eat snack foods, among
them Kolo, a snack food of roasted barley, often served in a paper cone.
It tastes a bit like popcorn which is another popular Ethiopian snack.
Much of the flavor in Ethiopian
cooking comes from berbere, a hot mix of chilies and spices, as well
as from spiced ghee, a clarified butter, that has been infused with
One of the ingredients unavailable
outside Ethiopia is ensete which the locals call 'false banana.' Though
it looks like banana, the fruit itself is inedible but the stem and
the underground rhizomes produce large quantities of starch similar
to yam and taro.
Yemen grew up around trade (those caravans
of camels again), frankincense and myrrh being among their principal
exports. Yemen was called Arabia Felix or 'happy Arabia,' a refection
on early prominence and success. Yemeni cooking is simple cooking, made
lively -very lively- with a combination of cumin and turmeric, often
in a mixture called chawaage, a melange of cardamom, black pepper, garlic,
white onion and coriander. The dishes are high in spices, though not
fiery, and low in fats and sugars. The cooking reflects the influences
of both India and their Arabic neighbors.
Meals begin with bread accompanied by a fenugreek
relish. Fenugreek is a popular spice. A hard seed similar to a bean,
fenugreek is slightly bitter. When the seeds are soaked, they release
a gel that gives texture to a condiment. Tahini is popular. Yemeni food
is a health-oriented cuisine with meat generally served at lunch, but
rarely for dinner which is not considered healthy. Meat is generally
cooked in stews and soups. Pigeon and squab are more common than chicken.
Yemenites are not sweet eaters. When they do serve desserts, they are
made with honey.
Qat and Saltah
Qat, a plant indigenous to Yemen,
Ethiopia, and East Africa, has stimulant properties, inducing a euphoric
effect in the user. Qat is not smoked or inhaled, it is chewed and is
one of the prevalent customs in the country. Even the Yemenite home
is built around qat, the choice room being designated as the qat-chewing
room. This is a male-only adventure, and women are not permitted, though
some women have their own qat-chewing sessions.
One of the main dishes in Yemen
is Saltah which means soup. Associated with qat chewing, saltah stimulates
the taste buds, and qat chewers say they savor qat more intensely after
eating saltah. The Yemen Times provides more information and a rough
Kubaneh - Yemeni Bread
Bread to a Yemenite is like pasta
to an Italian. One of the most delicious is kubaneh. Author of a definitive
work on Middle Eastern cooking, (Feast from the Mideast - click for our review) Faye Levy,
talks about kubaneh:
"Few pleasures compare to
waking up ... to the aroma of kubaneh baking in the oven. This unique
Yemenite bread bakes overnight to a golden goodness, filling the air
with its sweet smell. Kubaneh is composed of balls of dough that come
together as they bake, forming a brown-crusted cake. To eat it, you
pull off a steaming-hot piece and savor it slowly. It bakes in a tightly
covered pot, so that it steams as it bakes. Many people serve kubaneh
with fresh tomato dip, made of grated tomatoes with a touch of s'hug
(Yemenite hot pepper-garlic chutney). My husband and his siblings liked
theirs sprinkled with sugar instead. I prefer kubaneh plain to enjoy
the delicate flavor of the bread."
Legends of the Queen of Sheba are common
throughout Arabia, Persia, Ethiopia, Israel and, are prized in Hollywood,
USA. The Qur'an and the Bible hold a similar account in
which Sheba traveled to Jerusalem with her camels bearing gifts to meet
and test the wise Solomon. In the biblical story, the queen was so dazzled
by Solomon that she pronounced a blessing on his God. He gave her gifts
and she returned to Sabea.
The Kedra Negast continues the story, saying
that Solomon seduced Sheba who returned home pregnant. The offspring
of Solomon and Sheba was Menelik I the founder of the Aksumite civilization.
Haile Selassie, the last emperor of Ethiopia traced his heritage back
to Menelik I.
Legend holds that the Ark of the Covenant,
the sacred chest constructed by Moses to hold the Ten Commandments was
stolen by Menelik I and brought to Ethiopia.
The legend of Solomon and Sheba has been
further amplified by the unfettered imaginations of the Hollywood film
industry. The first movie to relate the story of the loving pair starred
Yul Brynner as the epitome of Jewish wisdom and Gina Lollobrigda as
the 'black and comely' Sheba. History does not end, especially not in
Hollywood, and a second movie was made starring Jimmy Smits as the Jewish
Solomon and the more appropriate Halle Berrie, whose dazzling beauty
is beyond 'comely.'
And kissed her Arab eyes,
"There's not a man or woman
Born under the skies
Dare match in learning with us two,
And all day long we have found
There's not a thing but love can make
The world a narrow pound."
Yeats The Wild Swans at Coole
& Yemeni Recipes:
Many thanks to Faye Levy for sharing sections of her article on kubaneh.
It first appeared in THE JERUSALEM POST on Jan. 5, 2005. Reprinted with
the author's permission.
NOTE: Ethiopia has been plagued by famine. While we are happy to introduce
their foods, we hope you will remember the hardships that plague the Ethiopian
peoples and make a donation to the charity of your choice.