Doing Fieldwork on Fermented Foods in the World

(Mar.22-Sep.24, 2022, Nagoya University Museum)

Part 1. Fermented foods as staples

When fermented foods as staple foods are mentioned, bread is what comes to mind for many people. We tend to think of bread as something soft and puffy that has been fermented using yeast, but a diversity of bread is seen worldwide. In Ethiopia, there are people who eat a sour, lactic-fermented bread that resembles pancakes as their staple. Moreover, bread is not the only staple that is fermented. Again in Ethiopia, there are also people who drink an alcoholic beverage made from alcohol-fermented grains as their staple. As a means of taking in needed nutrients safely from grains, fermentation has played a major role in humanity’s existence.

Chapter 1. People addicted to sourness: Breads in Ethiopia*

Ethiopia, located in Northeast Africa, is the second most populous nation in that continent, with roughly the same population as Japan. Many of its more than 80 ethnic groups live at altitudes of around 2000 m above sea level. In this region, there are uncommon crops and fermented foods seen nowhere else and loved by the native people living there.

■ A unique kind of pancake—injera

One representative Ethiopian fermented food is injera. These are thin pancakes made from a fermented liquid batter that are baked like crepes and eaten with a sauce from boiled beans or meat. They are said to be the national dish of Ethiopia. The main ingredient is teff (Eragrostis tef), a cereal with a grain size of no more than about one millimeter. Globally, this is a minor crop, hardly cultivated at all outside of Ethiopia (and Eritrea), but in that nation, it is the most widely grown staple grain. The reason teff is so widely cultivated there is surely the great popularity of injera.

Injera can be made from grains other than teff, but teff is essential for giving it its unique spongy texture.

Everyone sits down around the injera and tears off bits by hand to eat. Dining halls even in rural communities of Ethiopia have injera, but with its sourness and the spiciness of the sauces, it seems that travelers may find it a very zesty food.

■ Ensete flatbread—kitta

In the southwestern region, where many ethnic minorities live, ensete (Ensete ventricosum), a relative of the banana in the Musaceae family, is grown as a crop. Unlike bananas, however, it is not the fruit that is eaten, but the starchy rhizome. In other words, it is mostly the tuber that is used for food. It takes three or more years before it can be harvested, and the yield can be several tens of kilograms. It may be steamed and eaten on the day it is harvested, but it is often eaten after pulverizing the tuber, mixing it with pulp extracted from what looks like its stem (pseudostem) and letting it ferment for several weeks.

There are various ways of preparing it, but the most common is to bake it into a flat bread on a round, flat earthenware griddle. In places where ensete is not cultivated, this is made from grains, and even when fermented ensete starch is used, it is frequently mixed with wheat or other grain flours. It is known by the name “kitta,” and its shape and degree of importance differ among ethnicities, but it is essential as an everyday food in villages, where it is enjoyed together with side dishes.

■ Ethiopian sour bread—ambasha dabo

In Ethiopia there is also a bread called ambasha dabo which has leaven added and is fermented. The main ingredient is wheat, and the fermented dough is sandwiched between two griddles and baked at high heat from above and below. After baking for an hour or more, the freshly baked bread has a thickness of as much as ten centimeters.

Unlike injera and kitta, ambasha dabo is basically eaten by itself without side dishes. The lactic acid fermentation is allowed to advance further than for Injera or kitta, giving it a characteristic sour taste. Bread like this is called “sour bread.”

Strangely, however, the local people do not consider it sour, but rather perceive it as having flavor and thus being a delicious food that brings a sense of satisfaction. It is a meal for festivals and other celebratory days, but in recent years it has come to be sold on market days and other times as well.

* The English title has slightly been changed from the panel.