Nov 12, 2019

Ethiopian Women in Spice


Traveling to Ethiopia this past October was incredible, and it's hard to put it all here down on this digital page. But one moment has stayed in my mind every day since coming home.

On our last day in the Kafa region of south western Ethiopia we were invited to one of the women's spice cooperative meetings. I was a bit surprised when Rahel, my new contact, asked me to speak in front of the forty some-odd women that had gathered in the co-op. She told me someone would interpret for me and it was important to tell them why I was here. The women had gathered from all over the area (this was just one section of the co-op that includes 250 women), carrying thermoses of home-roasted coffee and wearing beautiful patterns of head scarves in a rainbow of colors. 


They were all looking at me, and I became overwhelmed with the emotion of the moment. There was so much I wanted to say—how coming here and having the chance to source directly from this women's cooperative was a huge reason why I started Curio Spice—how I am passionate about plants and farming and felt a connection with their work—how traveling has always humbled me but even more so now that I was traveling with my daughter, juggling work with her needs to eat and nurse and play—how being a woman is hard, dammit! and of course some of those things I didn't say but some I did and who knows how it was translated into Amharic. But I am grateful I was there at that meeting, sharing Curio's mission and our spice mixes that reflect each place we source.

The energy of that room has stayed with me - I keep coming back to it each day I head into our shop, or as I head home in the semi-dark of a fast-approaching New England winter. I look forward to sharing that wonderful spicy energy with you soon through a new Curio blend.


To back up a bit, I had travelled here to Ethiopia with my husband and daughter - all of us for the first time. We spent a few days in Addis Ababa before traveling out to Bonga, this village in the middle of the Kafa Biosphere, a richly diverse botanical region believed to be the birthplace of coffee. Ethiopia grows and exports huge quantities of coffee, and the Bonga region is no exception. But Ethiopia also grows a huge quantity of spices, from coriander (seen below) to nigella seed, chilies, African cardamom and others, and few people outside of Ethiopia have tried them or known Ethiopia as a spice producer. 

I'm excited to change that.


As African nations go, Ethiopia has one of the richest culinary traditions (and is why it's been on my bucket list forever). With the exception of some North African countries, Ethiopia is one of the few places on the continent that has a recognizable spice blend. "Berbere" spice is a mixture of chilies, herbs and aromatic spices that give Ethiopian food its depth. 

One herb, called Koseret (seen below with the purple flowers), is unique to Ethiopia and has a lemony-green flavor that is used to spice the clarified butter they use to cook many dishes. More on that to come, I promise, because I'm a bit obsessed with butter of all kinds.


Over several days we visited five different small holder farms to learn about what the different women were growing and the various challenges they faced. We hiked down slippery mud paths where we encountered hunters wandering the forest with spears, or children chasing lost cows back to the homestead. We saw trucks filled with coffee workers, taxi vans shuttling women to and from town, kids in matching school uniforms running in packs, police pulling us over to give our driver a hard time, baboons yakking and hopping along in the ditch. It was quite different from the bustling, gray-brown streets of the capital city, to say the least, but I've always been more inclined to the countryside over the city.

Injera with shiro wat (chickpea sauce spiced with berbere) and tibs
Tari Kua (below), whose name means 'her story' in Amharic, grows rue and besobela, two herbs used to flavor the traditional berbere seasoning. Besobela is a type of Ethiopian basil, related to holy basil but with a different flavor, and they use the top of the plant, the flower buds, as the spice. Tari Kua had an infectious smile, and when it began to pour suddenly as we looked at the spices, she took off the scarf tied around her waist and wrapped it around Linden.



Below are the pods of Ethiopian cardamom called Korerima. They turn red when ripe, and are about the size of a fig, but dry to a dark gray pod filled with richly aromatic seeds.



We were treated to many cups of coffee, including a very special ceremony that involved starting with freshly harvested coffee cherries all the way through roasting, grinding and brewing the perfect cup - served with a pinch of salt and a sprig of aromatic rue.

   



Linden loved every minute, and luckily never even suffered an upset tummy - she was a little joy-magnet who put us all at ease, since making conversation with a language barrier is hard enough as it is. She loved eating the fresh coffee cherries and spitting out the beans. 

Below, a plot of turmeric and rosemary. Worke, whose named means "my gold" in Amharic, is one of the turmeric and herb farmers (how appropriate!); she is now a proud grandmother, and has expanded her plot to three times the size that it was last year. Her turmeric leaves practically glowed in the sunlight, and I could have curled up among them and gone to sleep, if it weren't for the ankle biting ants. 



The strength and peacefulness of these women inspires me. Thinking back on that meeting in the co-op, sharing cups of rich black coffee out of a delicate handleless cups, I felt filled with a renewed sense of purpose, and a hope that my daughter, as young as she is, might remember the feeling of the room and carry it with her into the future.