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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Egg Cups & Injera Bread

I was born and raised in Europe until the age of ten.  My mother died when I was four, leaving my Army Officer father alone to raise two young boys.  To his credit, his answer was:  Nannies and housekeepers.  My first surrogate mother/nanny was Frau Olga an escaped Chekoslovakian Hotel Chef.  This was obviously during the iron curtain era.  Between her broken English and my broken German, we managed to communicate.  To get me to be a "god boy", she would threaten a return to Chekoslovakia where she would be immediately executed.  Hence, I was a very "god boy"  I  adored her!  Her child raising skills were a bit questionable, but she was a marvelous cook/chef.

Every single morning during my three years with Olga, there was, on the table: a soft boiled egg nestled inside a cermaic egg cup, the top just barely cracked open, revealing the bright yellow yolk, still warm and soupy.  She would salt & pepper it, and I would eat it with a demi-tasse spoon, dipping toast points into the runny inside.  Next to it was always a sliced grapefruit, supremed in the shell, salted and broiled almost  like a brulee, glistening pink and caramelized.  The perfect pairing.  The acidic sweet/tartness from the grapefruit cutting through the buttery fat of the soft boiled egg.  She was teaching me life lessons.  Lessons I still use.

When my father was transferred to Asmara, Ethiopia in Africa,  Ababa assumed the reign of mother/nanny.  Ababa was a native Ethiopian with a gentle spirit and soul. She would arrive every morning dressed in her native attire, complete with veil, and spent most of her time humoring my adoration of Barbie dolls, ( I actually had Barbie's ugly freckle-faced friend, Midge).

On occasion, when my father was out of the country, Ababa would sneak me off base to her "home".  Literally a dirt floor with  walls.  Her home was always filled with love and laughter.  While I would play with her children, Ababa would cook.  She would cook her food.  There was always a big round cast iron kettle sitting on a fire, with Zigney (as we called it) simmering away.  Zigney is what most would recognize as Doro Wat, which means stew.  When in her home, I never really knew or understood what was in that pot cooking.  But, I knew that I loved it.  While the zigney cooked, Ababa would slap injera bread dough  onto the sides of the pot, almost tandoori  style.  It would cook and become honey-combed in texture and taste sour from the pungent fermentation time.

The zigney, with chicken, was spicy from the berebere paste, and sweet from the vegetables, a deep deep red color that permeated all of the other ingredients. It was silky and rich....and messy. Injera bread  was placed on our plates and the zigney was ladled on top.  We ate it with the bread.  No spoons or forks.  It is still eaten this way in most Ethiopian restaurants, save for the ambience of dirt floors.

I still search out Ethiopian restaurants to remember the flavors Africa.  To remember Ababa. To taste and smell those days in her home when she was cooking for her family, and for me.

When we moved back to the United States from Africa, Ababa was very sick.  She did manage, God only knows how, to come to the airport to say goodbye.

She gave me a doll.
A doll much more beautiful than Midge.

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