Immigrants EAT: Eritrean Family Style
For the next segment of Immigrants EAT, Scott La Rockwell and I took a trip to my friend Senai’s home in Oakland. When I had discussed the shoot with Senai he said it would make the most sense to eat together at home because that’s the way Eritreans do it- communally- everyone sitting down together and sharing a meal.
We walked up the leafy stairway up into their sun-filled home and were greeted by their children Bella and Jordan.
Bella has a certain star quality and obviously enjoys the limelight, Jordan, a star in his own right, is mostly interested in riding around on his toy truck. This was the first time I had met Tigisti or Tee, the stunning powerhouse of the family. We sat down and started chatting about life, kids, culture and of course FOOD.
A little background: many Ethiopians and Eritreans identify as being Habesha- a common term used to refer mainly to the culturally Ethiosemitic-speaking people inhabiting the highlands of Ethiopia and Eritrea. One could make the fatal mistake of confusing someone from Eritrea as being from Ethiopia- they share many of the same foods, customs, religious practices and historical roots however there is some serious history between the two- first a civil war starting in 1974 which resulted in 1991 with the two separate countries of Ethiopia and Eritrea, and then a war from 1998 that officially ended in 2018 between the two countries.
Check out this video from geography now to get a brief overview of the social-political geography of Eritrea
Senai and Tigisti are both from Eritrea, hail from the same tribe and both speak Tigrinya at home. They both came to the United States as refugees (separately) and have lived in different parts of the country but settled in Oakland in part because they wanted to make sure they could raise their children in a place with a large Habesha community.
“We met at a BBQ as friends hung out the whole weekend and exchanged emails. I was always attracted to her, but I was never on her radar, she used to be into bad guys back then (laughs)” - Senai
When asked how they started dating Senai tells me; “It happened through social media- there was this network called Hi5 and if you put your email in and it sends out a blasts to all these contacts- and she responded to an email and said ‘and who would Senai be?’ She had completely forgotten we had already met in LA! At the time she was living in Houston. We kept the conversation going… we started talking on the phone. For a year and a half we were talking on the phone almost every day and became best friends that way.”
“In our culture there is no such thing as “dating”, you just get married”- Tigisti
They were in fact dating for around 3 years before Tigisti told her family about Senai. “Even when I was on my own, had a career… even though I was dating a guy I knew that they would approve of - someone who is educated, a guy from Eritrea, also a guy from my area which is another layer of regionalism, and we are from the same ethnic group, but even still I didn’t say anything because I knew the next question would be when are you going to get married!” - Tigisti
When I ask if there is pressure to get married early Senai says no but Tigisti disagrees, “For girls there is a lot of pressure and expectations, they do pressure you to get married earlier to protect your reputation. My family is more traditional than Senai’s as well so there was extra pressure on me.”
She goes on, “Culture over anything- sometimes culture over life! And there are times where that comes in handy - in times of death and struggle and need and everyone bands together.”
One of most universal ways that people come together is over a plate of food.
Injera is the spongy, pliable, sour, risen flatbread made out of fermented teff or sorghum that can be found throughout the Horn of africa. It is gluten free, packed with amino acids, and purportedly the secret to the success of many famous long distance runners who eat it as a porridge to train. It is the base and basis of food culture in Ethiopia and Eritrea, where it serves as the national dish of both countries.
You should use your right hand to tear a piece of injera and wrap it around a morsel of food- then place it on your tongue, like a chameleon and then draw your tongue back into your mouth- careful NOT to touch your fingers to your lips! “There is a real art to it- you are not suppose to touch your lips or tongue. Also when eating you are supposed to stay on your side as much as possible”- Senai. “Even when you are feeding it to other people there is a way to do it, you dont want to be all messy with it!” - Tigisti
Gursha (also written as goorsha or gorsha) is an Amharic word which means “mouthful”. When you perform Gursha at a meal you take a large morsel of food wrapped in injera and place it in the mouth of someone at the table, and then the person you have just honored will return the favor. The elderly or an honored guest are often the first the receive gursha, as a way to show respect. The word for Gursha in Tigrinya is mukilas.
There is a fable about the origin of gurshas written by Ephrem Eshete, as described in Ethiopian food: Messob across America; the story revolves around a cruel king who wanted to degrade his citizens by putting starving people in an arena around a magnificent spread of food but only gave them long silver spoons with which to eat it. How could they get the spoons in their mouth? Again and again they failed until one of them had an idea to feed each other across the table with long spoons.
At home people did not have long spoons so instead used their hands. The undertone of the story suggests that if we dont feed each other, we will all go hungry.
Its common that when eating someone will just take a piece and feed you. But only if they like you! Trust me if they dont like you they’re not doing that!” - T
As one diner at an Ethiopian restaurant said: “I view it as a symbol of love,” …“Nothing has meaning without you giving it gursha. Once you share that food, then whatever you are doing becomes good and important.”
Speaking of love…
“There are times where maybe you fall in love with an outsider and that becomes hard.”- Tigisti
Senai tells me “Most people date outside the culture and then come back. Ultimately maybe they aspire to marry within the culture but that usually happens later.”
Tigisti jumps in “In many ways I am more habesha in the culture than he [Senai] is because I came here older. Even for me- Senai was the first Habesha guy I dated, not because I didn’t prefer a habesha guy but… because of that situation where you can’t let your business become known because the minute you do - your re known as that person who dated around”
“I wish people could date casually but its impossible [such a small] community” - Senai
I ask them how they will feel about Jordan and Bella marrying outside the community:
“We love our culture, for us its a big part of your identity, self esteem to say you come from something great- a place that is beautiful and wonderful and that can anchor you, particularly in a place thatch sometimes feel foreign or alienating. We want to give that to our kids, so we are very careful to teach them about their culture and foods, they learn their language, we speak Tigrinya to them, they are around other habesha kids”.
“Its important because ultimately when you come here as someone of African descent you inherit a lot of the racism and prejudice that black people in this country face. And a lot of them had their identities their heritage stripped away from them. In many ways you lose a piece of yourself in a way that you can never get back not knowing where you come from.”
“So we are very careful to preserve that for our children. We feel if we do our part whatever they decide for themselves in the future they will always have something to anchor themselves. That’s very important to us- to be a safe harbor for them- this piece of their heritage is theirs. We fight for that for them.”