My childhood is marked by a huge figurative line in my memory- before and after, there and here, two countries, with life defining experiences divided between Ethiopia, my country of birth and Sydney, Australia, where I spent most of my childhood. They were two worlds that I could never quite believe truly existed when I was in the “other”. While in Addis Ababa, I knew of that foreign, far away place where my parents lived, and I used to make up a language that I imagined they spoke there, a land so distant that I’d figured would require a pretty long bus trip to get there. It may as well have been the moon.
Once in Australia, aged 6, as my thoughts were quickly filled with the colours, smells and faces of my new home, my old home became fragmented in my memory, as foreign to me as Sydney had once been. The magic of doro wet, my favourite childhood meal was what reconciled my two homes. It was the smell and taste that made my memory whole. The beautifully rich chicken sauce, which is cooked slowly and lovingly, was the highlight of any celebration. Even my now pescatarian self can think back on the flavours and crave the succulent, tender chicken that easily breaks off the bone, to be picked up in a morsel with a small, torn piece of spongy, sour injera, wrapped expertly together with a mopping of sauce and a broken piece of hard boiled egg, eaten with a true appreciation of every single mouthful.
In Addis Ababa, it was prepared in my grandmother’s kitchen by Muluye, her live in cook- a norm in many households in Ethiopia to this day (oh, the luxury!). Muluye would be up early on the morning before a festive occasion- Ethiopian New Year, Christmas, Easter, one of many saint’s days, the end of a fast, a birthday etc. peeling mountains of onions and preparing other ingredients I wasn’t privy to as a child who wasn’t allowed in the kitchen, where I’d only get in the way of the bubbling pots of sauce being stirred by half a dozen or so older girls and women who banded together to prepare for the feast. It seemed every party really began when the hive of activity picked up in my grandmother’s kitchen (well, more precisely, Muluye’s kitchen), with no short cuts taken, even when the focus was on all sorts of gossip that was exchanged, which I eavesdropped on while trying to look inconspicuous on the other side of the kitchen door. The smells would linger long after the doro wet was cooked and eaten, as would my curiosity that had been piqued with all I’d overheard but not understood. In Sydney, when my mother cooked doro wet, again, it was to celebrate all the milestones in life, but we didn’t observe saint’s days, so that narrowed it down to less occasions when I could indulge in my favourite meal. The smell transported me to all that I loved, and missed and was quickly forgetting about my homeland.
Throughout my childhood, doro wet grew in mythical proportions in my memory, being even better in fantasies between feasts. As time went on, because it took so long to cook- over 8 hours, I think, but what seemed like days to me as a child, and perhaps as our tastes became more “assimilated”, my mother cooked it less and less, replacing even celebratory meals with comparatively bland dishes like lasagna, quiche, honey soy chicken, potato salad and roasted turkey. Getting a choice of what we could have for our birthday dinners, I always requested doro wet, until my mother well and truly got the message and didn’t need to ask me. This carried on well into my move in my late 20s to be vegetarian, and then pescatarian. It took many meals where I’d remind my mother, while fighting the urge for just a little morsel of my beloved doro wet, before she stopped preparing it for my visits, which in themselves were reasons for her to celebrate. Now, even though I no longer eat it (never say never, but I can’t right now see myself eating chicken again), the smell of doro wet still connects my two worlds, a culinary pathway that allows my memories to freely flow between the two countries, making my life feel seamlessly a part of both cultures, a feeling that otherwise eludes me.
Prompt from Writing 101, Day 10 Happy (Insert Special Occasion Here)! Today’s Prompt: Tell us something about your favorite childhood meal — the one that was always a treat, that meant “celebration,” or that comforted you and has deep roots in your memory. Today’s twist: Tell the story in your own distinct voice.