“Why does it have cabbage?” I almost shrieked, when a steaming bowl of spaghetti was placed in front of me by a young waitress, who looked like she’d rather be anywhere but in this desolate restaurant on a highway in northern Ethiopia. She shrugged, “Do you want carrot in it?”
“No thanks,” I said with some dignity. “I want real spaghetti.” She gave me a long-suffering look, which seemed to say, this is the way we eat it, take it or leave it. I had no choice but to eat the spaghetti with the cabbage, laced with Ethiopian sauces and spices. I did not know it then, but this was my first encounter with Ethiopian Italian cuisine, and let’s say I was not an instant fan. But I’m getting ahead of my story.
I had been in Addis Ababa for a few days in May, and everyone said I must try Italian food in the city. So I headed to Ristorante Castelli, a delightful trattoria in Piazza, the old Italian quarter that used to be the heart of the capital and is now a modern shopping district with eateries. Along with Liberia, Ethiopia is one of two countries never to be colonised in Africa, but remnants of Italy’s brief occupation can be seen in some of the old buildings in Piazza. Mussolini’s forces occupied Ethiopia in 1936, during the Scramble for Africa—they were booted out in five years following much bloodshed and massacre.
This political history is a byway to understanding the legacy of Italian food in Ethiopia. The Ethiopians are proud of resisting colonising forces, and proud of their rich and diverse cuisine, unique to the African continent which they say has no outside influences. But stubborn traces of the Italian interlude can still be found in two streams of cooking in Ethiopia: authentic Italian food straight out of provincial Italy and popular in the bigger cities; and Ethiopian Italian cuisine, a fusion of local flavours and the food of the would-be colonisers.
Ristorante Castelli belongs to the former category. Tucked in a leafy corner of bustling Mahatma Gandhi Street, its walls are covered with photographs of famous people who have eaten here, including Angelia Jolie, Brad Pitt, Jimmy Carter and Tony Blair. Bob Geldof, on one of his visits,deemed it the best Italian restaurant in the world. It’s probably not the best, but it’s warm and authentic and the staff is friendly with a sense of ceremony. The fettuccine in creamy white sauce was reassuringly hearty. The local Ethiopian wine was a revelation.
The day I visited, Tiziana Castelli, the hospitable owner of Castelli’s, was seated at the till. Her father was a soldier in the Italian army and her parents started the restaurant in the 1950s. She has been coming to Castelli’s since she was a child, and it has remained exactly the same, even though Addis Ababa has grown into a metropolis and many Italian families have left. “Ethiopians really love our food. People often share memories of visiting as children with their parents,” she said.
Addis is full of new and hip competitors to Castelli’s. Most of these steer clear of traditional Ethiopian flavours in their kitchens. So I wasn’t prepared for Italian food cooked in the Ethiopian way, though I later found that every Ethiopian family feast always has pasta just as it has tonnes of injera.
The cuisine is little-known outside of the Ethiopian community. I discovered it far from Addis, in tiny eateries in the countryside, while driving through the northern region of Tigray on my way to the medieval city of Lalibela and the volcanic landscapes of Dallol. After days of eating injera, I was craving anything else. Most eateries would only serve injera and spaghetti, and sometimes spaghetti in injera. The flavours are adapted to the local palate. Instead of the tomato and cream base of Italian food, it’s made with onions, garlic and a mix of spices, and it tastes sour, spicy and pungent. Cheese is almost entirely missing, as the Orthodox Christian population does not consume dairy or meat during frequent fasting periods. Beef is the mainstay meat—Ethiopians have a lot of it and are averse to pork. The vegetarian version offers very few vegetables apart from cabbage or carrot.
The closest I can get to describing this hybrid cuisine is to compare it with Indian Chinese food, that joyful, spicy concoction hatched in Calcutta and unrecognisable to Chinese people. Perhaps Italians have the same reaction to spaghetti and lasagna cooked in the Ethiopian style. Italians might scoff, and it’s not food you instantly fall in love with, but it may be an underrated treasure. After a bit of work and some patience, I did grow to appreciate its novelty—though I won’t be adding cabbage to my spaghetti anytime soon.
Sunaina Kumar is an independent journalist who lives in Delhi. She has a bad case of farsickness, and likes to spend a little too much time in museums. When she doesn’t travel, she is a flâneuse in her city.