Memories in a Meal

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My childhood is marked by a huge figurative line in my memory- before and after, there and here, two countries, with life defining experiences divided between Ethiopia, my country of birth and Sydney, Australia, where I spent most of my childhood. They were two worlds that I could never quite believe truly existed when I was in the “other”. While in Addis Ababa, I knew of that foreign, far away place where my parents lived, and I used to make up a language that I imagined they spoke there, a land so distant that I’d figured would require a pretty long bus trip to get there. It may as well have been the moon.

Once in Australia, aged 6, as my thoughts were quickly filled with the colours, smells and faces of my new home, my old home became fragmented in my memory, as foreign to me as Sydney had once been. The magic of doro wet, my favourite childhood meal was what reconciled my two homes. It was the smell and taste that made my memory whole. The beautifully rich chicken sauce, which is cooked slowly and lovingly, was the highlight of any celebration. Even my now pescatarian self can think back on the flavours and crave the succulent, tender chicken that easily breaks off the bone, to be picked up in a morsel with a small, torn piece of spongy, sour injera, wrapped expertly together with a mopping of sauce and a broken piece of hard boiled egg, eaten with a true appreciation of every single mouthful.

In Addis Ababa, it was prepared in my grandmother’s kitchen by Muluye, her live in cook- a norm in many households in Ethiopia to this day (oh, the luxury!). Muluye would be up early on the morning before a festive occasion- Ethiopian New Year, Christmas, Easter, one of many saint’s days, the end of a fast, a birthday etc. peeling mountains of onions and preparing other ingredients I wasn’t privy to as a child who wasn’t allowed in the kitchen, where I’d only get in the way of the bubbling pots of sauce being stirred by half a dozen or so older girls and women who banded together to prepare for the feast. It seemed every party really began when the hive of activity picked up in my grandmother’s kitchen (well, more precisely, Muluye’s kitchen), with no short cuts taken, even when the focus was on all sorts of gossip that was exchanged, which I eavesdropped on while trying to look inconspicuous on the other side of the kitchen door. The smells would linger long after the doro wet was cooked and eaten, as would my curiosity that had been piqued with all I’d overheard but not understood. In Sydney, when my mother cooked doro wet, again, it was to celebrate all the milestones in life, but we didn’t observe saint’s days, so that narrowed it down to less occasions when I could indulge in my favourite meal. The smell transported me to all that I loved, and missed and was quickly forgetting about my homeland.

Throughout my childhood, doro wet grew in mythical proportions in my memory, being even better in fantasies between feasts. As time went on, because it took so long to cook- over 8 hours, I think, but what seemed like days to me as a child, and perhaps as our tastes became more “assimilated”, my mother cooked it less and less, replacing even celebratory meals with comparatively bland dishes like lasagna, quiche, honey soy chicken, potato salad and roasted turkey. Getting a choice of what we could have for our birthday dinners, I always requested doro wet, until my mother well and truly got the message and didn’t need to ask me. This carried on well into my move in my late 20s to be vegetarian, and then pescatarian. It took many meals where I’d remind my mother, while fighting the urge for just a little morsel of my beloved doro wet, before she stopped preparing it for my visits, which in themselves were reasons for her to celebrate. Now, even though I no longer eat it (never say never, but I can’t right now see myself eating chicken again), the smell of doro wet still connects my two worlds, a culinary pathway that allows my memories to freely flow between the two countries, making my life feel seamlessly a part of both cultures, a feeling that otherwise eludes me.

Prompt from Writing 101, Day 10 Happy (Insert Special Occasion Here)! Today’s Prompt: Tell us something about your favorite childhood meal — the one that was always a treat, that meant “celebration,” or that comforted you and has deep roots in your memory. Today’s twist: Tell the story in your own distinct voice.

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17 thoughts on “Memories in a Meal

  1. I loved your statement that the food drew your two homes together when so many things had changed. I thought, “How true” that food habits would not change that much unless certain ingredients were not available. Anyplace I could get ground beef, I could make a hamburger! You sent me to the dictionary with “pescatarian” self. New word to me. Love it.

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    1. Thanks for reading and commenting Oneta. Yes, back in the 80s (or even until the last 10 years or so), a lot of the ingredients- well, the spices at least, couldn’t be found in Australia and you’d have to wait for a parcel to be sent from Ethiopia or a traveler to bring it. The injera is traditionally made with a grain called “tef” but to this day, it isn’t found widely and most people use a range of alternatives such as wheat flour, rice flour and sorghum. It boggles my mind now to see the proliferation of Ethiopian restaurants and spice shops as well as injera sold in small grocery shops.

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  2. Isn’t it amazing how a scent can trigger a thousand memories?! I love how something otherwise trivial might bring connection to a different time and place
    As we remember things, our mind reconstructs the scenario so it always changes slightly – I have similar memories of home that have grown into fantastic proportion.
    I really enjoyed reading this post Mek and came back to read it a second time to be magically transported to a similar world. Beautifully written and so vivid! Thanks for sharing this special part of you xx

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    1. Ohhh I’m so touched that you came back to read this. I really only have the vaguest of memories. I returned in 2008 for the first time since leaving (26 years later). Fortunately, the house i grew up in was still with family and i spent 3 weeks having the strangest memories, many of which gave me a feeling that was equal parts dejavu and that feeling you get whdn something is at the tip of your tounge but escapes you. I did recognise what had been my grandmother’s tej brewery that had been converted into apartments. The fact that memory was there, even with thd changes, blew my mind. How long have you been away from ‘home’? xx

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      1. I think some things never leave us no matter how deep and far back in our minds and hearts they may reside. A tiny trigger can set off a waterfall of memories.
        So pleased your childhood home has remained in the family.
        Oh my 26 years is a long time. I haven’t been home since 2010 and have been living here for nearly 12 years now. Kenya has changed so much that there is a part of me that worries that I might be a complete tourist in my own country. . . . .I have many close friends and family there so a trip home is well overdue.

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      2. Isn’t that interesting?! With the passage of enough time, we become shaped by all that is around us. But really, to use an analogy, I think the clay you begin with plays the biggest deciding factor.
        Changes during our formative years tend to give us our most vivid memories and can be the most fundamentally transformational. I read once that the accent you develop by the age of 15 is the one you generally remain with (unless you make deliberate efforts otherwise). That explains a couple of things about Arnold Schwarzenegger 🙂
        No visit on the cards yet . . .

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      3. Great analogy. My memories are quite sketchy for a number of reasons of that time, but certainly, those years shaped my relationships with the world and myself and of course, my sense of place in this world. The move coincided with going from living with my grandmother for the first six years of my life to being reunited with my mother for the first time since my early months of life (around 6 months), and meeting my father for the first time- it was traumatic on many levels…

        My accent is a little strange. Well, meld of Aussie, American and English.

        Have a lovely day. Hasta la vista, baby 😎

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  3. “Throughout my childhood, doro wet grew in mythical proportions in my memory, being even better in fantasies between feasts.” So true! You have captured these memories in a palpable way…

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    1. Thanks so much for taking the time to read this. Memory is such a powerful evocateur (is that a word?) Of emotions…and often blurry enough to evolve in the mind too, with details and nuances taking on new meaning over time.

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