BAD TASTE

What is East African lasagne?

For Beź Zewdie, lasagne took pride of place on the dinner table next to traditional Ethiopian curries. Source: Joanna Hu

When we think of colonisation and its impact on cuisine, Italy invading Africa probably doesn’t come to mind first. In this episode of Bad Taste we unpack the messy history of a dish that's much-loved by the East African diaspora.

What is East African lasagne? What stories can a dish tell us about a region’s past and present? And is East African lasagne even better than Italy’s?

Guest host Beź Zewdie shares her stories and compares notes with culture writer Ruth Gebreyesus - on pasta, East Africa, the diaspora and colonisation. 

Food as a cultural product is just full of history, stories and practices that can be geographically specific and emotionally significant.

Ruth Gebreyesus

Hosted by food writer Jess Ho, Bad Taste is a six-part podcast series that looks at who we are through the foods we eat.

Follow Bad Taste in the SBS Radio appSpotifyApple PodcastsGoogle Podcasts, or wherever else you get your podcasts.

Each episode of Bad Taste is paired with a recipe on SBS Food. Try our recipe for berbere.

Guest host and producer: Beź Zewdie
Executive producer: Michelle Macklem
Series producer: Bethany Atkinson-Quinton
Producer: Jess Ho
Sound designer: Nicole Pingon
Editor: Zoe Tennant
Theme music: Rainbow Chan
Art: Joanna Hu

Want to get in touch? Email us at badtaste@sbs.com.au

Transcript

Jess Ho: This is Jess. And I’m recording on the land of the Wurundjeri Woi-Wurrung people of the Kulin nation, where the rest of this episode has also been recorded. I acknowledge the ongoing effects of colonisation and how it impacts the soil, the production of food, and in turn, the foods we eat today. I pay my respects to the elders past and present. It always was and always will be Aboriginal land.

(sound of door opening, Beź Zewdie entering)

Ho: Hello

Beź Zewdie: I was like “I hope this is the right place?”

Ho: Yeah. It's quite confusing when you have been here before…

Ho: This is Beź Zewdie, my producer. She's come around to my place to introduce me to a food I've never eaten before. She guarantees it. So, of course, I invite her to bring it. Beź isn't just gonna take over my kitchen, she's gonna take over this episode too. And I can’t wait! Being shown new food and flavours is the best part of my job.

(chill piano and drums)

Ho: She shows up at my place with a tote bag full of ingredients.

(Unpacking ingredients)

Zewdie: Alright, so I've got some pasta sauce, some lasagna sheets, I've got some spices, paprika, coriander, tomato paste…

Ho: So, it seems to me the sum of these parts is lasagne... but Beź has promised me a dish that I've never tried before. What am I missing? And then Beź pulls out one more ingredient out of her bag. She places this small, cylindrical jar on the table.

(shimmering cymbal)

Zewdie: And, an interesting little spice mix called berbere. You heard of this, Jess?

Ho: Yes but I know very little about it

Zewdie: OK…

(music ends)

Zewdie: For me, Berbere’s warm, spicy aroma instantly transports me to my childhood dinner table.

(Ethereal drones)

Zewdie: I come from the Amhara people of Ethiopia, just one of the 80 plus ethnic groups in the country. There's nine ethnic groups in neighbouring Eritrea, and berbere is like this common thread that ties many of us together, whether back home or throughout the diaspora. My family and I are former refugees, we moved to Australia in ‘92. And berbere was in pretty much everything we ate.

(cool synth pads)

Zewdie: One of my mother’s favourite dishes to make was this lasagna with a thick, rich beef tomato sauce, minimal cheese, and full of a chilli kick. At every family occasion, it sat pride of place next to our traditional currys. And we eat most of our food with our hands, so it’s one of the only dishes we bring out the cutlery for. To this day, if I eat straight up Italian lasagna I can't help think, this could use some berbere.

(music ends)

Zewdie: I bought some bougie Berbere spice

Ho: I kind of expected it to be more finely ground.

Zewdie: The only thing is they've left a quite chunky, so we will need to grind it to like a fine dust because that is traditionally how we'd have it.

Ho: I can do that.

Zewdie: And maybe add some more chili. Cause I think they've sort of created this for a Western sort of palette. I need the thing where you smash stuff.

Ho: Yeah, yeah. Smashy, smashy smash, poundy poundy.

Zewdie: The smashy smashy thing. That's it.

Ho: I grab my mortar and pestle and Beź puts me to work… And then, she drops a bombshell on me.

Zewdie: So I should preface this, um, this journey, this adventure by saying that I really hate cooking.

Ho: (gasps)

Zewdie: Yeah. Yup. I thought I'd save that revelation for… once we were in it and you couldn't, you couldn't turn away (laughs).

Ho: She. Hates. Cooking. And that’s so fine. I am happy to slice and dice and grind spices down with my mortar and pestle. But I am definitely not qualified to talk about this dish, so I'm going to hand over to Beź. Take it away…

(theme song: ‘Ylang Ylang’ by Rainbow Chan - inquisitive bassline begins)

Zewdie: I'm Beź Zewdie, and this is Bad Taste, a podcast about who we are through the foods we eat. As we start cooking - or rather, as Jess starts cooking while I watch - I couldn’t help but think, how does changing the ingredients of a dish change its meaning? How does this dish connect us across the diaspora? But also, how did East African lasagna even come to be? If food tells a story, what stories can this dish tell us about the region's past and present? Oh and of course, do we make lasagna better than Italians? Spoiler alert— the answer is yes, yes we do… Content warning for any Italians cooks listening to this episode…

(music ends)

Zewdie: As a kid, growing up in Melbourne in the early 90s, the East African community was small and tight knit. Most East African restaurants were in the suburb of Footscray, but that was a trek for my family. We didn't have a car and it took two trains to get there from our home in Preston. So when we did go, we made it count— we stocked up on as many traditional ingredients as we could. But my mum was always suss when buying a bag of berbere. She'd say “I think they’ve mixed store bought stuff in this.”

(gentle synth tones)

Zewdie: See, the best berbere comes from the motherland— 100% authentic and affordable. So If you announced that you were travelling back home, you’d immediately be inundated with requests from the community for coveted real estate in your luggage. For the uninitiated, Berbere’s a spice blend that varies in ingredients from household to household town to town. Even from motherland to diaspora.But it usually consists of chilli peppers, garlic, ginger, fenugreek, and native herbs and spices like Ethiopian holy basil and korarima.So, the key thing that separates East African lasagna and Italian lasagna is, of course, berbere.

(music ends)

Ho: All right. I think that's enough.

Zewdie: I can like smell that now.

(pan sizzles)

Zewdie: While Jess chopped and stirred, I thought about this dish’s significance to me and my family, and to our homeland. My experience is specific to being raised in Melbourne. So I wonder, what does this dish mean for others in the East African diaspora?

(laidback beat)

Ruth Gebreyesus: I grew up going to an Italian bakery in Ethiopia. When we moved to the United States, we found sort of a replica of the bakery that we'd always loved. And I go there still to the day to this day and the people who work at that bakery know to expect Ethiopians at certain times of the year and know to expect Eritreans at certain times of the year for celebrations, even wedding cakes.

Zewdie: This is Ruth Gebreyesus. She's a culture writer and producer based in Oakland, in California's Bay Area. And her work looking at Italian dishes within East African cultures helped put words to feelings that I previously struggled to articulate. I remember the first article of hers I read. It was about how colonialism brought pasta to East Africa. It looked at just how complicated the influence of Italy is.

Gebreyesus: I'm really interested in cultural products because they tell really interesting stories about power and so that their production and their consumption can lead me to ask questions about power and who's producing and with what intentions, and what are the impacts, and who's consuming.

(music ends)

Zewdie: Ruths’ upbringing is different from mine. I was born a refugee overseas, and moved to Australia as a baby. Ruth was born in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, and moved to the U.S. as a young kid. I think these differences, whether big or small, influence our respective ideas on food.

Gebreyesus: Food as a cultural product is just full of history and stories and practices that that can be geographically specific and emotionally significant. But the thing about food that maybe is you know, particular and significant is that even if you don't speak them Amharic or Tigrinya or Orominya or any other languages from Eritrea and Ethiopia, you can still participate in eating the food.

(dreamy synth pads)

Zewdie: This really hits home. I don’t speak my native language, Amharic, fluently. And the very little I can speak, is often met with bemusement and judgement from elders. It’s all part and parcel of being a third culture kid. I always worried what impact time and distance would have on our traditions— there’s just so many barriers.It’s like food is a language that I actually can speak.

Gebreyesus: So I think that it's the most accessible and ritualistic daily act that we do as far as like cultural practice goes. And so it can be passive, it can be intentional, but it's always there. All of us can, can practice in participating, consuming this cultural product, without much knowledge or skill. Anyone can sit at the table and eat, which is, you know, a really great way to feel connected.

Zewdie: The first time I visited Ethiopia, I was 24. I’d spent a week with my extended family. And I remember my last day there, as we tried to leave for the airport, my Auntie, who speaks very little English, was feeding me spoonfuls of food as I walked out the door, luggage in hand, and posing for farewell photos. In fact, the entire time I was there, she was feeding me, filling up my plate with pasta and curry and vegetables. The whole trip we could barely communicate, so she used my plate to express her love instead. It was a medium accessible to both of us, that didn't require my translator— that is, my cousin— and allowed me to participate in culture with my Auntie without feeling out of my depth. Instead I just felt really, really full.

(music ends)

Gebreyesus: Knowing what you like and knowing, whose version of what, like, if you like your mom's doro weht, but you like, your aunt's such and such, you know, that that's already like such a nice, easy low threshold entryway into cultural participation. And then when you add more and more skill to it, so maybe you to know how to eat it. Maybe that's the first skill. And then to know how to cook, it might be, you know, the next tier. And such.

Zewdie: Yeah cooking… that's the tier I'm stuck on. But dishes like East African lasagna still provide me that entryway that Ruth talks about. It didn't always have a place in East African cultures though.

Gebreyesus: There's ways that these cultural products, which of course came through violent subjugation and occupation of several countries in East Africa— including Eritrea and Ethiopian parts of Somalia— how the remnants of, of the occupation, of that colonisation, became absorbed and ritualised.

Zewdie: When people think of colonisation on the African continent, they probably think of the British, the French, maybe even the Dutch. Italian colonisation? Probably not. But for me, Italian colonisation is the first thing I think about.(synth pads)

Zewdie: During the Scramble for Africa, European powers came together to salivate over the continent, divvying up parts of it to claim as their own. Italy was one of them, determined to create quote-unquote “Italian East Africa.” This resulted in the colonisation of Libya, Eritrea, parts of Somalia, and the occupation of Ethiopia.

Gebreyesus: Italy's interest in colonisation as the scramble for Africa was happening, did begin in the late 1880s. And eventually Italy took colonial control, essentially, through their regime of Eritrea. And during that time, Italy also crept further south into Ethiopia. 1936 is when the occupation of of Ethiopia by Italy began. And there's a lot of nuance there that can be missed, which is that at the time, Ethiopia was also itself an empire that was not granting independence to Eritrea. And there is a lot of tension and political trade. Eventually, Eritrea was under total occupation of Italy. Eventually Italy, dissatisfied with just Eritrea, crept further south occupied Ethiopia for about five years from 1936 to like the early 1940s.

Zewdie: While many— especially within the Black diaspora— herald Ethiopia as the only uncolonised country in Africa, it's important to remember that it was occupied. So while Ethiopia may have avoided officially becoming a part of the Italian empire, it still experienced, and continues to experience, the violence of colonisation.

Gebreyesus: And even beyond that, after Italy's occupation of Ethiopia ended, Ethiopia was not free from the policies and structural adjustment programs and other things that continue to integrate African countries and colonialist values and the global order.

(music ends)

Zewdie: Italy’s presence in East Africa was an incredibly violent, and recent, part of our history. Growing up, I was told stories about the brutally of the Italian occupiers, the bloodshed of both the First and Second Ethiopian-Italian wars, of my family members who took up arms and made it back home alive, and those who didn’t. So I can’t help but feel a sense of conflict surrounding one of my favourite childhood meals, East African lasagna. This is the reason it came to be.

Gebreyesus: Food and cultural products are exchange all sorts of ways and sometimes those ways are violent and it's really good to remember the violences, and it's really good to sort of reflect on them. But I don't necessarily feel conflicted. As much as I just wanted to know how do people, for example, in my grandmother's and my mother's generation, see this, who were around for some of this occupation. There was like really violent, and bloody incidents throughout this time, so I just wanted to know how they reckoned with it. And that doesn't necessarily mean you have to stop eating something or, you know, just how do you understand it inside one body, you know, inside one mind and inside one lifetime.

What's interesting about Italy's remnants from the colonial period is that it's not Italian cooking habits or Italian cooking methodologies entered our own extremely established and quite ancient cuisines, right? So the way Italian cultural remnants entered are kind of in this like side thing, you know, this dish that sits next to, or this dessert that's eaten after the rest of it. So in that way, it's not something that like really can be either considered a betrayal or a rebellion to me. Good food is good.

(beat drops)

Zewdie: And food tells a story. Dishes like Berbere-laden East African Lasagna tell a part of our story. Stories of colonisation and its many forms of violence. Of colonisation's cultural remnants

And stories of resilience and strength. It’s these stories and these histories that make this dish so significant to me.

I was the first of my extended family to be born and raised away from home. Over the years, there are more and more younger relatives to add to that list. But with each generation raised in the diaspora, comes the risk of losing traditional knowledge and stories. Now I may not have full grasp of my native language, or close proximity to our lands and elders back home, but I do have recipes and the stories they hold. And now I get to be that Auntie showering my younger loved ones with food and love and stories.

Ho: Wow. Look at that.

(Plating sounds)

Zewdie: As soon as Jess pulled the lasagna out of the oven, and that familiar spicy aroma hit me, I knew her first attempt at the dish was a success. No surprise there.

(eating)

Ho: Mmm! Good spicing.

Zewdie: Ah! The spice. Do you understand what I mean when I say a punch to the taste buds?

Ho: Yes.

Zewdie: You know, like as soon as you eat it, you're looking at it, it's a lasagna. Your brain is registering it as, you know, typical lasagna and you kind of almost forget, and then you take a bite out of it and you're like, “ooh”.

Ho: And I can feel this warmth just coat my mouth and it's all the spices, and it's literally making my mouth water.

Zewdie: Yeah, it's a East African party in your mouth

(laughter)

(music ends, bell rings)

Zewdie: Stay tuned after the credits to learn how to make your own Berbere spice blend.

(theme song: ‘Ylang Ylang’ by Rainbow Chan— inquisitive bassline begins)

Ho: ​​Bad Taste is an SBS podcast. Michelle Macklem is our executive producer. Our Series Producer is Beth Atkinson-Quinton. Our sound designer is Nicole Pingon. For this episode, Our producer and host is Beź Zewdie. Our editor is Zoe Tenannt. And I'm Jess Ho, your regular host and producer.

Big thanks to the SBS team is Rachel Sibley, Caroline Gates, Joel Supple and mix engineer Max Gosford. Thanks for helping us explore all the pasta-bilities.

Our theme music is Ylang Ylang by Rainbow Chan. Our stunning podcast art is by Joanna Hu. Thanks to Ruth Gebreyesus for chatting with us, Hannah Giorgis for the lasagna recipe, and Eleni Woldeyes for the berbere recipe. We’re back next week with more delicious and disgusting flavours, so make sure you follow Bad Taste in your favourite podcast app so you can get every episode delivered straight to your device. Live, laugh, lasagna.

(theme music ends)

(synth chimes)

(upbeat 80s groove)

Zewdie: And the recipe is for Berbere. Take a quarter cup of New Mexico chilli, and Hungarian paprika. Then two teaspoons of freeze dried red onion, free dried garlic and whole black cardamom. A quarter teaspoon of ground ginger. And another quarter teaspoon of whole carom seeds. A quarter teaspoon of whole black cumin seeds. And then one eighth of a teaspoon of cinnamon powder, five whole cloves, two teaspoons of dried Ethiopian besobela— aka Ethiopian Holy Basil— and then finish off with half a teaspoon of salt.

Take the whole spices, the black Cardamom, the carom seeds, and the black cumin seeds. Pop them over medium, low heat and toast for about two minutes.

Cool them down for a little bit, then grind them in a spice grinder with the dried Ethiopian besobela. Then take all the other ingredients, grind them even more until you've got a smooth red powder. You can add more or less of your favourite chilli to suit your liking.

For the full recipe and instructions head to our website on sbs.com.au/badtaste.

(upbeat outro to song)

Jess Ho: This is Jess. And I’m recording on the land of the Wurundjeri Woi-Wurrung people of the Kulin nation, where the rest of this episode has also been recorded. I acknowledge the ongoing effects of colonisation and how it impacts the soil, the production of food, and in turn, the foods we eat today. I pay my respects to the elders past and present. It always was and always will be Aboriginal land.

 

(sound of door opening, Beź Zewdie entering)

 

Ho: Hello

 

Beź Zewdie: I was like “I hope this is the right place?”

 

Ho: Yeah. It's quite confusing when you have been here before…

 

Ho: This is Beź Zewdie, my producer. She's come around to my place to introduce me to a food I've never eaten before. She guarantees it. So, of course, I invite her to bring it. Beź isn't just gonna take over my kitchen, she's gonna take over this episode too. And I can’t wait! Being shown new food and flavours is the best part of my job. 

 

(chill piano and drums)

 

Ho: She shows up at my place with a tote bag full of ingredients.

 

(Unpacking ingredients)

 

Zewdie: Alright, so I've got some pasta sauce, some lasagna sheets, I've got some spices, paprika, coriander, tomato paste…

 

Ho: So, it seems to me the sum of these parts is lasagne... but Beź has promised me a dish that I've never tried before. What am I missing? And then Beź pulls out one more ingredient out of her bag. She places this small, cylindrical jar on the table.

 

(shimmering cymbal)

 

Zewdie: And, an interesting little spice mix called berbere. You heard of this, Jess?

 

Ho: Yes but I know very little about it

 

Zewdie: OK…

 

(music ends)

 

Zewdie: For me, Berbere’s warm, spicy aroma instantly transports me to my childhood dinner table.

 

(Ethereal drones)

 

Zewdie: I come from the Amhara people of Ethiopia, just one of the 80 plus ethnic groups in the country. There's nine ethnic groups in neighbouring Eritrea, and berbere is like this common thread that ties many of us together, whether back home or throughout the diaspora. My family and I are former refugees, we moved to Australia in ‘92. And berbere was in pretty much everything we ate.

 

(cool synth pads)

 

Zewdie: One of my mother’s favourite dishes to make was this lasagna with a thick, rich beef tomato sauce, minimal cheese, and full of a chilli kick. At every family occasion, it sat pride of place next to our traditional currys. And we eat most of our food with our hands, so it’s one of the only dishes we bring out the cutlery for. To this day, if I eat straight up Italian lasagna I can't help think, this could use some berbere.

 

(music ends)

 

Zewdie: I bought some bougie Berbere spice

 

Ho: I kind of expected it to be more finely ground.

 

Zewdie: The only thing is they've left a quite chunky, so we will need to grind it to like a fine dust because that is traditionally how we'd have it.

 

Ho: I can do that.

 

Zewdie: And maybe add some more chili. Cause I think they've sort of created this for a Western sort of palette. I need the thing where you smash stuff.

 

Ho: Yeah, yeah. Smashy, smashy smash, poundy poundy.

 

Zewdie: The smashy smashy thing. That's it.

 

Ho: I grab my mortar and pestle and Beź puts me to work… And then, she drops a bombshell on me.

 

Zewdie: So I should preface this, um, this journey, this adventure by saying that I really hate cooking. 

 

Ho: (gasps)

 

Zewdie: Yeah. Yup. I thought I'd save that revelation for… once we were in it and you couldn't, you couldn't turn away (laughs).

 

Ho: She. Hates. Cooking. And that’s so fine. I am happy to slice and dice and grind spices down with my mortar and pestle. But I am definitely not qualified to talk about this dish, so I'm going to hand over to Beź. Take it away…

 

(theme song: ‘Ylang Ylang’ by Rainbow Chan - inquisitive bassline begins)

 

Zewdie: I'm Beź Zewdie, and this is Bad Taste, a podcast about who we are through the foods we eat. As we start cooking - or rather, as Jess starts cooking while I watch - I couldn’t help but think, how does changing the ingredients of a dish change its meaning? How does this dish connect us across the diaspora? But also, how did East African lasagna even come to be? If food tells a story, what stories can this dish tell us about the region's past and present? Oh and of course, do we make lasagna better than Italians? Spoiler alert— the answer is yes, yes we do… Content warning for any Italians cooks listening to this episode…

 

(music ends)

 

Zewdie: As a kid, growing up in Melbourne in the early 90s, the East African community was small and tight knit. Most East African restaurants were in the suburb of Footscray, but that was a trek for my family. We didn't have a car and it took two trains to get there from our home in Preston. So when we did go, we made it count— we stocked up on as many traditional ingredients as we could. But my mum was always suss when buying a bag of berbere. She'd say “I think they’ve mixed store bought stuff in this.” 

 

(gentle synth tones)

 

Zewdie: See, the best berbere comes from the motherland— 100% authentic and affordable. So If you announced that you were travelling back home, you’d immediately be inundated with requests from the community for coveted real estate in your luggage. For the uninitiated, Berbere’s a spice blend that varies in ingredients from household to household town to town. Even from motherland to diaspora. But it usually consists of chilli peppers, garlic, ginger, fenugreek, and native herbs and spices like Ethiopian holy basil and korarima.So, the key thing that separates East African lasagna and Italian lasagna is, of course, berbere. 

(music ends) 

 

Ho: All right. I think that's enough.

 

Zewdie: I can like smell that now.

 

(pan sizzles)

 

Zewdie: While Jess chopped and stirred, I thought about this dish’s significance to me and my family, and to our homeland. My experience is specific to being raised in Melbourne. So I wonder, what does this dish mean for others in the East African diaspora? 

(laidback beat)

 

Ruth Gebreyesus: I grew up going to an Italian bakery in Ethiopia. When we moved to the United States, we found sort of a replica of the bakery that we'd always loved. And I go there still to the day to this day and the people who work at that bakery know to expect Ethiopians at certain times of the year and know to expect Eritreans at certain times of the year for celebrations, even wedding cakes.

 

Zewdie: This is Ruth Gebreyesus. She's a culture writer and producer based in Oakland, in California's Bay Area. And her work looking at Italian dishes within East African cultures helped put words to feelings that I previously struggled to articulate. I remember the first article of hers I read. It was about how colonialism brought pasta to East Africa. It looked at just how complicated the influence of Italy is.

 

Gebreyesus: I'm really interested in cultural products because they tell really interesting stories about power and so that their production and their consumption can lead me to ask questions about power and who's producing and with what intentions, and what are the impacts, and who's consuming.

 

(music ends)

 

Zewdie: Ruths’ upbringing is different from mine. I was born a refugee overseas, and moved to Australia as a baby. Ruth was born in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, and moved to the U.S. as a young kid. I think these differences, whether big or small, influence our respective ideas on food.

 

Gebreyesus: Food as a cultural product is just full of history and stories and practices that that can be geographically specific and emotionally significant. But the thing about food that maybe is you know, particular and significant is that even if you don't speak them Amharic or Tigrinya or Orominya or any other languages from Eritrea and Ethiopia, you can still participate in eating the food.

 

(dreamy synth pads)

 

Zewdie: This really hits home. I don’t speak my native language, Amharic, fluently. And the very little I can speak, is often met with bemusement and judgement from elders. It’s all part and parcel of being a third culture kid. I always worried what impact time and distance would have on our traditions— there’s just so many barriers. It’s like food is a language that I actually can speak.

 

Gebreyesus: So I think that it's the most accessible and ritualistic daily act that we do as far as like cultural practice goes. And so it can be passive, it can be intentional, but it's always there. All of us can, can practice in participating, consuming this cultural product, without much knowledge or skill. Anyone can sit at the table and eat, which is, you know, a really great way to feel connected.

 

Zewdie: The first time I visited Ethiopia, I was 24. I’d spent a week with my extended family. And I remember my last day there, as we tried to leave for the airport, my Auntie, who speaks very little English, was feeding me spoonfuls of food as I walked out the door, luggage in hand, and posing for farewell photos. In fact, the entire time I was there, she was feeding me, filling up my plate with pasta and curry and vegetables. The whole trip we could barely communicate, so she used my plate to express her love instead. It was a medium accessible to both of us, that didn't require my translator— that is, my cousin— and allowed me to participate in culture with my Auntie without feeling out of my depth. Instead I just felt really, really full.

 

(music ends)

 

Gebreyesus: Knowing what you like and knowing, whose version of what, like, if you like your mom's doro weht, but you like, your aunt's such and such, you know, that that's already like such a nice, easy low threshold entryway into cultural participation. And then when you add more and more skill to it, so maybe you to know how to eat it. Maybe that's the first skill. And then to know how to cook, it might be, you know, the next tier. And such.

 

Zewdie: Yeah cooking… that's the tier I'm stuck on. But dishes like East African lasagna still provide me that entryway that Ruth talks about. It didn't always have a place in East African cultures though. 

 

Gebreyesus: There's ways that these cultural products, which of course came through violent subjugation and occupation of several countries in East Africa— including Eritrea and Ethiopian parts of Somalia— how the remnants of, of the occupation, of that colonisation, became absorbed and ritualised.

 

Zewdie: When people think of colonisation on the African continent, they probably think of the British, the French, maybe even the Dutch. Italian colonisation? Probably not. But for me, Italian colonisation is the first thing I think about.(synth pads)

 

Zewdie: During the Scramble for Africa, European powers came together to salivate over the continent, divvying up parts of it to claim as their own. Italy was one of them, determined to create quote-unquote “Italian East Africa.” This resulted in the colonisation of Libya, Eritrea, parts of Somalia, and the occupation of Ethiopia.

Gebreyesus: Italy's interest in colonisation as the scramble for Africa was happening, did begin in the late 1880s. And eventually Italy took colonial control, essentially, through their regime of Eritrea. And during that time, Italy also crept further south into Ethiopia. 1936 is when the occupation of of Ethiopia by Italy began. And there's a lot of nuance there that can be missed, which is that at the time, Ethiopia was also itself an empire that was not granting independence to Eritrea. And there is a lot of tension and political trade. Eventually, Eritrea was under total occupation of Italy. Eventually Italy, dissatisfied with just Eritrea, crept further south occupied Ethiopia for about five years from 1936 to like the early 1940s.

 

Zewdie: While many— especially within the Black diaspora— herald Ethiopia as the only uncolonised country in Africa, it's important to remember that it was occupied. So while Ethiopia may have avoided officially becoming a part of the Italian empire, it still experienced, and continues to experience, the violence of colonisation. 

 

Gebreyesus: And even beyond that, after Italy's occupation of Ethiopia ended, Ethiopia was not free from the policies and structural adjustment programs and other things that continue to integrate African countries and colonialist values and the global order.

 

(music ends)

 

Zewdie: Italy’s presence in East Africa was an incredibly violent, and recent, part of our history. Growing up, I was told stories about the brutally of the Italian occupiers, the bloodshed of both the First and Second Ethiopian-Italian wars, of my family members who took up arms and made it back home alive, and those who didn’t. So I can’t help but feel a sense of conflict surrounding one of my favourite childhood meals, East African lasagna. This is the reason it came to be.

 

Gebreyesus: Food and cultural products are exchange all sorts of ways and sometimes those ways are violent and it's really good to remember the violences, and it's really good to sort of reflect on them. But I don't necessarily feel conflicted. As much as I just wanted to know how do people, for example, in my grandmother's and my mother's generation, see this, who were around for some of this occupation. There was like really violent, and bloody incidents throughout this time, so I just wanted to know how they reckoned with it. And that doesn't necessarily mean you have to stop eating something or, you know, just how do you understand it inside one body, you know, inside one mind and inside one lifetime. 

 

What's interesting about Italy's remnants from the colonial period is that it's not Italian cooking habits or Italian cooking methodologies entered our own extremely established and quite ancient cuisines, right? So the way Italian cultural remnants entered are kind of in this like side thing, you know, this dish that sits next to, or this dessert that's eaten after the rest of it. So in that way, it's not something that like really can be either considered a betrayal or a rebellion to me. Good food is good.

 

(beat drops)

 

Zewdie: And food tells a story. Dishes like Berbere-laden East African Lasagna tell a part of our story. Stories of colonisation and its many forms of violence. Of colonisation's cultural remnants

And stories of resilience and strength. It’s these stories and these histories that make this dish so significant to me. 

I was the first of my extended family to be born and raised away from home. Over the years, there are more and more younger relatives to add to that list. But with each generation raised in the diaspora, comes the risk of losing traditional knowledge and stories. Now I may not have full grasp of my native language, or close proximity to our lands and elders back home, but I do have recipes and the stories they hold. And now I get to be that Auntie showering my younger loved ones with food and love and stories.

 

Ho: Wow. Look at that.

 

(Plating sounds)

 

Zewdie: As soon as Jess pulled the lasagna out of the oven, and that familiar spicy aroma hit me, I knew her first attempt at the dish was a success. No surprise there.

 

(eating) 

 

Ho: Mmm! Good spicing.

 

Zewdie: Ah! The spice. Do you understand what I mean when I say a punch to the taste buds? 

 

Ho: Yes.

 

Zewdie: You know, like as soon as you eat it, you're looking at it, it's a lasagna. Your brain is registering it as, you know, typical lasagna and you kind of almost forget, and then you take a bite out of it and you're like, “ooh”.

 

Ho: And I can feel this warmth just coat my mouth and it's all the spices, and it's literally making my mouth water .

 

Zewdie: Yeah, it's a East African party in your mouth 

 

(laughter)

 

(music ends, bell rings) 

 

Zewdie: Stay tuned after the credits to learn how to make your own Berbere spice blend.

 

(theme song: ‘Ylang Ylang’ by Rainbow Chan— inquisitive bassline begins)

 

Ho: ​​Bad Taste is an SBS podcast. Michelle Macklem is our executive producer. Our Series Producer is Beth Atkinson-Quinton. Our sound designer is Nicole Pingon. For this episode, Our producer and host is Beź Zewdie. Our editor is Zoe Tenannt. And I'm Jess Ho, your regular host and producer.

Big thanks to the SBS team is Rachel Sibley, Caroline Gates, Joel Supple and mix engineer Max Gosford. Thanks for helping us explore all the pasta-bilities.

Our theme music is Ylang Ylang by Rainbow Chan. Our stunning podcast art is by Joanna Hu. Thanks to Ruth Gebreyesus for chatting with us, Hannah Giorgis for the lasagna recipe, and Eleni Woldeyes for the berbere recipe. We’re back next week with more delicious and disgusting flavours, so make sure you follow Bad Taste in your favourite podcast app so you can get every episode delivered straight to your device. Live, laugh, lasagna.



(theme music ends)

(synth chimes)

(upbeat 80s groove)

 

Zewdie: And the recipe is for Berbere. Take a quarter cup of New Mexico chilli, and Hungarian paprika. Then two teaspoons of freeze dried red onion, free dried garlic and whole black cardamom. A quarter teaspoon of ground ginger. And another quarter teaspoon of whole carom seeds. A quarter teaspoon of whole black cumin seeds. And then one eighth of a teaspoon of cinnamon powder, five whole cloves, two teaspoons of dried Ethiopian besobela— aka Ethiopian Holy Basil— and then finish off with half a teaspoon of salt. 

Take the whole spices, the black Cardamom, the carom seeds, and the black cumin seeds. Pop them over medium, low heat and toast for about two minutes. 

Cool them down for a little bit, then grind them in a spice grinder with the dried Ethiopian besobela. Then take all the other ingredients, grind them even more until you've got a smooth red powder. You can add more or less of your favourite chilli to suit your liking.

For the full recipe and instructions head to our website on sbs.com.au/badtaste.

 

(upbeat outro to song)




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