I recently read a New York Times article written by journalist Danielle Pergament who pointedly began her travel essay, detailing her recent trip to Ethiopia, with the fact that, “Ethiopia is not a country people go to for food.”
I did not run into Daniell’s article until I was already there, in Ethiopia, having traveled there largely for that very reason. And as I read that, sitting in a hotel lobby researching where to go for dinner that night, I was amused by this statement. Assuming that the food has not changed substantially in the five years since the article was published (which is likely, given that it hasn’t changed in centuries), this means that one of us – either Danielle or myself – is obviously not entirely in the know…. Because, like I said: “the food” was precisely why I went.
I love Ethiopian food, and traveling to the source was deeply appealing to me. My objective in going “for the food” was not, however, necessarily just to eat it, in the way one might travel to Paris for fresh, buttery croissants and bottomless pinot. (It would not have made sense to, even if I had: Ethiopian is different from most foods in that it actually tastes pretty the exact same no matter where you are in the world – mostly a merit of its simplicity.)
Ethiopian is real; primal. To eat Ethiopian food is to, in a way, eat from the earth itself. (Danielle got something right when she pointed out that “there is no amuse bouche” in Ethiopian food. Nice power of observation, D – though I am sorry you missed the inherent value in that.) The food is not pretentious… mostly because, I guess it should be clarified, the food does not have to be. The food just is.
What I think Danielle missed entirely is the value of what is left when you strip pretenses like that away. Without charades and showmanship, the emphasis is where it should be: on food nearly in its natural form, and ease in which people who eat it adopt the same philosophy.
So, rather than going to simply eat it, I “went for the food” because I felt a food like that could only be an extension of an equally special culture underneath. I went “for the food” in the way that an archaeologist exavacates a site where arrowheads were found. You do not dig for more arrowheads. You dig for everything else.
Although apparently I wasn’t supposed to go there on the basis of food, Ethiopia may very well be my favorite place in the world for that very reason. For simply for being a very true reflection of what the food symbolizes, which is honesty, simplicity, tradition… love.
And luckily I didn’t run into Danielle’s article beforehand. Had I done more research, as Danielle obviously did before her own trip, I would have known that Ethiopia was not a place to visit for food. I would have known not to go for that very reason. And I would have never known that that reason was reason enough to fall in love with it.