By Oromsis Adula
Few months back, I wrote an article entitled Being Oromo in the States. In that article, I talked about what it is like to be an Oromo in Ethiopia and the challenges of answering the most FAQ, “Where are you from?” in the States. Today, I wanted to address one issue that is less talked about among the Oromo Diaspora – Oromo food.
Recently, the author of a forthcoming book on the subject of Ethio-American foods asked me the difference between Oromo and Ethiopian food.
But first, who are the Oromos? They are the 3rd largest ethno-national group in Africa that inhabits the region commonly referred to as the Horn of Africa. Oromo people make up about 50% of Ethiopian population. This is the third most populous country on the continent of Africa.
In a country largely known to the rest of the world for its vicious cycles of famine and starvation, Oromos occupy the most fertile and evergreen areas. The Oromoland (sometimes referred to as a bread bowl for Ethiopia) is about the size of Texas. The Oromo country (also known as Oromia) is home to coffee beans (the second most traded commodity on the world market), teff and about five different varieties of Barley found only in that region.
Food as a Globalizing Commodity
Exploration expeditions, industrial revolution and the technological advances thereafter have changed the concept of food for better or worse. International events that followed, such as the slave trade and the diminished costs of transportation across a vast body of water within shorter period’s of time, made food a global commodity.
Slaves brought their cooking and food cultures to the new world. The colonizers imported cattle and grains from other world regions. Slave traders took new cooking styles and food items back to their countries. Later, immigration and the unrestricted movement of people across cultures intensified these globalizing aspects of food.
Countries like the United States, formed by the influx of immigrants from other parts of the world, played a significant role in the growth of ethnic cuisines. Research also shows that the ethnic cuisines flourished and competed for customers. For instance; the Greeks, the Italians, the Chinese, the Germans and the Jews came at different times, succeeded one another and left their marks. Over long years of prominent existence, these ethnic cuisines established an image that conjures a thought at the mention of the name.
Food among the Oromos
In Oromo society; food serves spiritual, sustenance, enjoyment and pleasure purposes. There are food items made only for rituals, ceremonial events, weddings and other special occasions. As it is in most cultures; food and drinks play an important role in Oromo culture. Generally, Oromos don’t eat food without blessing. And before they eat, the first bite of every food or drink is offered to the spirits of dead ancestors and to non-humans.
At the heart of Oromo worldview is a core belief that humans are not alone in this world and are responsible not only for each other but for other creatures as well. For instance, when an animal is slaughtered for sacrificial or other purposes there are parts of the animal body that are not edible. For instance, the neck of a slaughtered animal is thrown away for hyenas. And the fresh blood of the slain animal will be sprayed to feed the spirits of the dead.
Religious leaders known as Qaalluus don’t eat anything with feather. Different Oromo tribes also have parts of the animal body that they can’t eat. The story is long. But it is believed that a forefather for each particular tribe has died from eating the now forbidden part of the animal. Thus, the tribe leaders have so declared that no one in that tribe is allowed to eat that particular item in animal’s body.
Today, most Oromos have embraced Judeo-Christian beliefs and do not practice those sacrificial and other traditional rituals. But the custom remains largely intact in rural and remote areas of Oromia.
Even today, when Hunter and Gatherer societies opted for other ways of life — constrained largely by environmental and man-made social dynamics, Oromos remain attached to their traditional cuisines with some apparent limitations. The most notable among them; Marqa (Porridge), Cacabsa, Cukoo (Micira), Anchote, Qince (similar to Marqa but made from shredded grains as opposed to flour), roasted meat (foon wadi), milk (anaan), butter (dhadha), cheese (baadu) and other dairy products, Qorso (Akayi) as snacks, and Warqii/Enset also called False Banana. Oromos also drink mead (dadhii) made from Honey, Farso (beer like made from Barley) and a lot of Coffee (Buna).
Oromo diet consists of non-pork and a lot of animal products. In Oromo country, where I grew up, almost every food item is served with some mix of dairy products, mainly milk or butter. Oromos offer milk to guests and strangers alike as tea or water is offered to visitors in the United States.
Oromo vs. Ethiopian Food
All in all, the concept of food among the Oromos is a subject of broader research beyond the scope of this paper. Yet I wanted to shed some light on the stark differences that exist between Oromo and what is conceived as “Ethiopian” food. In so doing, I would also like to note that no one culture is distinct. Rather cultures borrow and trade off certain fundamentals over years of interaction. In simple terms, culture is a result of human interaction and the amalgamation of values, practices, arts and other social artifacts.
Oromo urban dwellers consume the same or similar foods as what is categorically known as “Ethiopian” food – the staple among them Injera (Budeena in Oromo). The taste, the cooking styles and ingredients may vary from one household to another. Besides that, Oromos has also modified and perfected the “Ethiopian” dishes itself. For instance, in eastern Oromia, Laftoo is a freshly cooked rather smaller type of Budeena, similar yet a totally different kind of Injera.
But again really, who gave the patent/ownership of the recipe for Injera (Budeena) to the Amhara? Injera might have been started in Amhara areas of Ethiopia but arguably through long years of cultural interactions, it has been transformed and modified according to cultural preferences. For instance, my Somali acquaintances in the states prepare a different kind of Injera than what you find at Oromo or other Ethiopian household.
Oromo traditional dishes, such as Cukoo or Marqa known for its prestige and superior quality, are hard to serve in restaurants. Lack of ingredients and the health consciousness are maybe limiting factors for absence of Oromo restaurants that serve Oromo traditional food. Yet the distinction is clear.
For so long, everything Ethiopian remained synonymous with all things Amhara – language, culture, religion, food and many other indicators of identity. And it remains the case to this date. Every time Ethiopia is represented on the world stage (events like the Olympics), certain elements of Amhara culture are portrayed as national culture. The truth is Ethiopia is an empire state made up of over 83 different ethnic groups forcefully convulsed together.
In some states like Washington DC, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Chicago; Ethiopian Americans are establishing a prominence very similar to the Chinese, Indians and etc. The irony is that most restaurants known for serving delicious “Ethiopian foods” are owned by Oromos, and Eritreans.
In closing, we are not only what we eat but we also eat what we want. Or sometimes we don’t even know what we want to eat. Uncommon of food items made its way onto our common food shelves and onto our kitchen counters. Food no longer has its local place and we are faced with endless choices of food. But to my fellow countrymen, I say, food is not just what you eat.