Dogged Faith and Fermented Honey

If you live in a major city which happens to be blessed by immigrants from Ethiopia, you may already have been exposed to a little of that country’s fascinating culture and cuisine. One of the African nations with the oldest continuous literate culture, it is also one of the two countries that first embraced Christianity; Ethiopia competes with Armenia for the title of oldest and the longest-persecuted Christian church. Like Armenia, Ethiopia was largely converted to Christianity in the fourth century, and spent most of its history surrounded by hostile, non-Christian neighbors. Keeping the faith in each of these countries was a slow and painful battle, generating dozens of saints and martyrs whose names have come down us—but which, sadly, we cannot pronounce:

Krikor Loosavorich (Armenia)
Ewostatewos (Ethiopia)
Vartanantz (Armenia)
Gabra Manfas Queddus (Ethiopia)
Mesrop Mashtots (Armenia)
Takla Haymanot of Shoa (Ethiopia)
Vartan Mamikonian (Armenia)

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Try to read off a litany of these saints really quickly, especially after a few glasses of the Ethiopian honey wine tej, and you’ll appreciate one of the difficulties Christians in these countries endured. Oh yes—and both nations were surrounded by aggressive, Islamic neighbors. That never helps.

Tej is a form of fermented honey drink similar to English mead, flavored with ground up leaves of the gesho plant. In its native land, tej is served at bars called tej abet. It’s spicier and often drier than mead, but sweet enough to serve as a counterbalance to the often spicy hot cuisine that Ethiopians enjoy. If you’ve never eaten with Ethiopians, you’ll benefit from this little dining tip: Wash your hands before eating, because they’re what you’ll be using. Like Europeans before Marco Polo, the Ethiopians eat with their fingers—and their mothers don’t rebuke them, because it’s the custom. All food is served as dollops of meat or vegetables doused with piquant sauces, arranged on large, flat pieces of spongy bread called injera, made from an African grain called teff. You grab a piece of the bread, wrap it around some of the entrée, and pop it in your mouth. Then, since it’s quite spicy enough to burn an American palate, you douse your mouth with a sip of refreshing tej. Repeat the process, trying a variety of dishes such as doro wat (chicken stew with hard boiled eggs), sega wat (diced lamb), or my favorite Ethiopian dish, kitfo (raw steak, ground with cayenne pepper, served with farmer’s cheese—see recipe). As you might guess, in the case of kitfo, freshness is important; best not to use old, scavenged carcasses of cattle you found by the side of the road in preparing this one. Save that for a good, old-fashioned American shepherd’s pie.

I’m told that in Ethiopian homes, a hostess traditionally balls up the food for each of her guests and pops it in their mouths. Since I’ve never traveled to that ancient, war-ravaged country, I haven’t experienced this myself, but I imagine it has important implications for etiquette, and might prove handy when entertaining contentious guests. How many of us have wished, while serving dinner to various crank friends we’ve collected like lint balls over the years, that we could interrupt someone’s monologue about the Middle East, Vatican II, or the “corpses of aliens frozen in the cellars of the Vatican” (a favorite of my one-time acquaintance Malachi Martin ) by stuffing their thundering pie hole with a bread roll. Well, in Ethiopia, you can! So perhaps the next time you find yourself faced with hosting cantankerous cousins, or conspiracy theorists from your charismatic choir, you should announce: that “Tonight, we’re eating Ethiopian style.” Confiscate the silverware, and hover around the table with the platter, feeding guests whenever they need to be silenced. This may make you feel like a mama bird facing a nest full of chirping chicks with gaping mouths, but resist the atavistic temptation to chew the food first and regurgitate it into their mouths. In Ethiopia at least, this simply isn’t done.

Ethiopia stands out from other African countries in that it alone was never colonized by Europeans. Because the place was already Christian, they lacked the requisite fig leaf to justify an invasion to bring the Gospel to the natives—who already had it, albeit one written in the (now-dead) liturgical language of Ghe’ez. The country has links to the Bible which long predate the arrival of the Ten Commandments in Europe; its native histories claim that the Queen of Sheba came from Ethiopia, and that from Jerusalem she sent one of her sons sired by King Solomon back to the homeland to serve as their king, and convert the nation to Judaism.

Likewise, the locals assert that after the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem, the Jewish high priests smuggled the Ark of the Covenant to Ethiopia, where it still resides in the monastery of the Church of St. Mary Zion in Axum. I can’t judge the truth of this, since only a small number of monks are allowed into the shrine to see the Ark—though the modern Israelis clearly don’t believe it, or else they’d be trying to get it back. (Israel did, however, make prodigious heroic efforts in the 1970s and ’80s to rescue the Ethiopians who still practice Judaism—the Falasha—from the tyranny and famine imposed by the country’s then-Communist regime.)

Even after their conversion to Christianity, the Ethiopians carried on a number of distinctively Old Testament customs, rejecting various foods as “impure” and celebrating the Sabbath on Saturday, instead of Sunday. Ethiopian religious art—which I mainly know from the walls of Ethiopian restaurants in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of D.C.—has features far more references to Solomon and the Queen of Sheba than to Christ or the Virgin Mary. The Coptic Orthodox Church, to which most Christians in that country belong, stands at odds with Catholic doctrine on one important point of doctrine: it accepts the ancient heresy of the Monophysites. Unlike most heresies, this one is not named for its founder. There was no deacon named Monophysos running around the Mediterranean sowing confusion; this heresy’s name comes from its claim, namely, that Jesus did not possess both a divine and human nature, but had only one (mono) nature (physis)—which was somehow both divine and human at once, without confusing the two. Are you confused yet?

So am I. Since this is primarily a bar guide and not a monograph on Christology, I won’t presume to attempt explaining the convoluted, fourth- and fifth-century arguments among dozens of theologians who tried to square the circle and account for Jesus’ Incarnation. I leave this one to theologians. And I can’t blame the poor Ethiopians for getting it wrong—particularly since they spent 1,000 years surrounded by hostile Islamic countries, isolated from the rest of the Christian world, beginning with the Moslem conquest of Egypt, to the arrival of Portuguese traders in 1508.

And I can’t deny a certain fondness for one of the founding Monophysite fathers, Severus, Patriarch of Antioch (+538). Born at Sozopolis in Pisidia (love them names!) he followed the local custom of delaying baptism until he could grow a beard. (This patriarchal tradition was hard on the female Christians, as one might imagine.) Severus became famous as a teenager for smashing idols and chasing out wizards. Then once his beard came in, he was duly baptized—and, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, vowed never to bathe again. So that new beard must have had quite a pretty smell—a combination of man-sweat, old hummus, and garlic—by the time Severus was elected Patriarch of Antioch in 512. On entering his palace, the compulsively filthy bishop ordered its baths torn out and fired all the cooks. He wrote extensively and eloquently against the orthodox doctrine of the Incarnation, and for his efforts was deposed within six years. For some 20 years Severus continued to write, and reek, as the Encyclopedia reports:

He died, 8 February, 538, refusing to take a bath even to save his life, though he was persuaded to allow himself to be bathed with his clothes on. Wonders are said to have followed his death, and miracles to have been worked by his relics.

For instance, I’m willing to bet that the scent of his discarded clothes would keep Antioch free of hyenas.

But apart from these differences about the natures of Christ, the Ethiopians kept up most of the doctrines and practices familiar to Catholics and Orthodox, albeit in exotic, ancient forms: seven sacraments, reverence for Mary, prayers for the dead, and a long, arcane liturgy conducted in a dead language that includes the use of drums. (Though parishioners might be forgiven for going out to smoke during one of the deacon’s interminable drum solos.)

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Ethiopian religious tradition to modern Americans is the outrageous form it took in Jamaica, where followers of the Rastafarian faith revere the last emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, as a messianic figure. In fact, the Jamaican-Rastafarians believe that he was the reincarnation of Christ—reborn to lead all the Chosen People (Africans) back to the Promised Land (Ethiopia), once they have smoked enough ganja (pot) to attain Irie (beatitude). Have you got all that?

That’s a rough summary of the creed professed by the brilliant musician Bob Marley for most of his life,  and propounded to the Southern white frat boys of the world in his reggae albums. For instance, the song “Exodus” imagines a worldwide reverse- migration of the African Diaspora:

We know where we’re going, uh!
We know where we’re from.
We’re leaving Babylon,
We’re going to our Fatherland.

Think about how segregated most frats still are, and you can see why they love the song.


Haile Selassie was at best ambivalent about the notion that he was the universal messiah of black people around the world. Himself an Orthodox Christian, he made no claims to divinity, and had enough problems on his hands with poverty, Communist rebels, periodic famines, and the after-effects of Mussolini’s brutal invasion of his country (1935–36), during which the Fascist troops used airplanes and poison gas against his soldiers (some armed with spears), and took the skulls of slain Ethiopians back to Rome as trophies. (That showed those African “savages” didn’t it?) When Selassie made a state visit to Jamaica in 1966, his plane was promptly surrounded by some 200,000 dredlocked Rastafarians, smoking spliffs and bowing deeply to worship him. Selassie, quite sensibly, refused to get off the plane.

When local believers finally managed to coax the frightened emperor onto the tarmac, he was greeted by Bob Marley’s wife Rita—who promptly told the world that she had seen on his palms the stigmata, the nail wounds of Christ. Selassie never returned.


CELEBRATE: Because of ongoing political problems in that country, it’s sometimes hard to buy tej directly from Ethiopia—though it’s worth making the effort, since Ethiopian would benefit from more international trade. But fine American versions are widely available, for instance Saba Tej from New Jersey’s company of that name. I suggest serving it up to your bemused guests as they stare suspiciously at a plate of kitfo. (see recipe). This dish of heavily spiced raw beef on a plate of spongy bread, is especially appropriate for a bachelor entertaining a lady guest at home for the first time. There’s nothing quite like the look on a woman’s face the first time you ball up raw meat in injera and pop it in her mouth. It makes for an evening she will never forget. Or repeat.



Seasoned butter:
¼ cup clarified butter
2 tablespoons onion, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves
1 1-inch piece fresh ginger, minced
¼ teaspoon turmeric
4 crushed cardamom pods
1 stick cinnamon
2 cloves
¼ piece nutmeg

2 pounds filet mignon
¼ cup grated onion
½ teaspoon fresh ginger, finely chopped
¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon berbere pepper


Make seasoned butter by combining all ingredients in small saucepan and simmering very low for 30 minutes. Strain through cheesecloth and set aside.

Finely chop beef. Add seasoned butter to pan and warm, add onion and cook until dissolved. Add remaining spices. Add filet and cook on low, stirring constantly just until raw color is gone – about five minutes.

Serve with injera (Ethiopian bread), farmers’ cheese, and sautéed collard greens.

Serves 4


This article is excerpted from The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Wine, Whiskey, and Song.


  • John Zmirak

    John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

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