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Modernity Invades the Eritrean Kitchen!

It is said that shiro made in a tsahli (Clay Bowl) tastes much better than shiro made in a metal casserole. To tell you honestly I have never tasted shiro that was made in a tsahli that is because we don’t have tsahli at home.

At present the Eskimos of Canada are using snowmobiles and guns to hunt the caribous. In the Amazon, the natives are using plastic hammock for siestas, and tincans to fetch water. In Eritrea, cellophane and plastic bags have replaced goatskins while big barrels or oil drums are becoming handier for storing grain in the place of kofo(Mini-silo made of cow dung and ash).

Kofo was not used to keep only grain in the past. When emptied of its contents, children used to hide inside as peeping toms to discover what went on between newly married couples.

Now they have to do it inside an oil drum. It does get cold at night and hot during the day. Not a nice place from which to conduct their insolent jobs.

Our grandparents made tsebhi (Spiced sauce) in a tsahli. They used mokhos (a wand-looking wood staff used for stirring). Now they are using metal casseroles and spoons to do the same job. The sauce could stay for long in the clay bowl without turning poisonous. Now you cannot eat food that has been kept in a metal sauce-pan for more than a day.

Some Eritreans complain about the food served in wedding feasts. Diarrhea should more or less be accepted as a mild ailment after such invitations. Those with strong stomachs may get away with a little heart burn or a bloating feeling. What could be the problem? Food is not being cooked the way it used to.

A few months ago I happened to be in Gash-Barka with a few colleagues for a work visit. We entered a teashop in a little town and after having lunch we asked for water. One sip and I asked:

“Do you have a refrigerator?”

They didn’t have a refrigerator but they kept the water in an etro (Traditional amphora). It kept the water cold probably because of the porosity of the clay used in manufacturing the container. As the water inside evaporated in small quantities, it took the heat for its evaporation from the remaining water and kept it cold in the process. Now in most traditional dwellings, people are using plastic containers and drinking lukewarm water during summer as a result.

In the past, our people used to drink suwa from a wancha (made from cattle horn). It was organic and caused no heavy metal poisoning. When the Italians arrived and suwa houses invaded Eritrean towns, there was shortage of wanchas in Eritrea. So the Italians went on to craft metal goblets to meet the demand.

If foods are going organic, why not utensils that are used to prepare them. You know, some people are allergic to plastic, others to metals, still others to chemical coatings that are used to embellish the container or keep it from rusting, etc. So why not use traditional housedhold utensils made of clay, palm leaves or wood for better health?

For example Kitcha baked in a traditional clay oven is more tasty and healthier than Kitcha baked on a metal oven. Organic cooking is just around the corner.

I once heard a woman saying that Kitcha made of flour obtained from grain ground in a traditional millstone is healthier than that made from flour ground in modern electric powered mills that use metal parts.

Our traditional millstone has two parts, the methan (the big stationary stone) and the medid( the small movable stone). It is used to grind, crush or knead. As the woman holds the small millstone and moves it up and down over the grain along the milled part of the big millstone, the flour pours down at the other end into a container known as bakhura. Meanwhile, the child strapped to the mothers back in a mahzel (traditional rucksack for carrying babies) goes to sleep lulled by the rhythmic movement of mama.

You want a whole meal? Then you simply bring a megu’ (large wooden mortar) and the weddi megu’ (big wooden pestle) and pound wheat or barley. The husk or shell is preserved. Boil the final content of the mogu and eat it. Good for the intestines (bowel movement) and for lowering blood pressure. The child strapped to the mother in a mahzel is now subject to a continous jolting and wakes up and bawls.

As you milk the cow and receive the nutritious white substance in a guagud(clay bowl for milk), you boil it and drink it from a fyo(clay bowl for drinking).

Now milk churned in a plastic or metal container doesn’t produce good smelling ghee. Gourd shoul be used as a churn for best results. This is called alba in Tigrigna. Apparently, tossing a hanging alba to and fro is a tedious work that only unfortunate mothers or obedient children are assigned to do. One has to sing silly songs to keep the mind lulled and free from boredom.

Still clay pot (jebena) is used to brew coffee. Although in some localities metal pots are in use, the taste differs.

As for the mortar and pestle for grinding the roasted coffee beans Eritrean used special wood that resisted continuous pounding in the past. However, with the shortage of wood, people began to use metal components. Spent ordnance was used as mewket bun (mortar) and as far as pestle was concerned metal shafts or rods from motorcars or old machinery did the job.

Again, coffee tasted better when the mortar and pestle were made of wood; that’s when everything was organic, says my grandmother plugging, in the electronic coffee grinder.

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