Bookshelf: Ethiopia, its food and its people

Bookshelf is a monthly feature of SuddenlySamantha where you can look for reviews, recommendations, musings, and general conversation about all varieties of books.


This month I stumbled into two books with ties to Ethiopia, Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson and Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese.  Ethiopia, all the way in the Horn of Africa, is largely a mystery to Westerners. Here in D.C. we have a relatively large (and visible) Ethiopian population.  Little Ethiopia near U Street is a favorite of many adventurous diners, with great dining spots like the matriarchal Etete.  They even make their own tej or honey wine.  The food of Ethiopia has brought the culture closer to me in a way that international relations courses and national geographic articles could never have done.  The spongy, sour injera used to pluck up the spread of stews  presented to you on a silver platter, the warm and friendly tradition of feeding the person next to you, all of it makes for a fantastic and memorable experience.

Samuelsson at his Harlem restaurant, Red Rooster, Michael Appleton for the New York Times (click for article)

In his memoir, Samuelsson captures all of these wonderful facets and uses them as a tool to bridge the gap between his worlds.  An Ethiopian by birth, Swedish by upbringing, and American by choice, Samuelson weaves together a story of elbow grease and dreams – a tale told with grace and humility.  While it may not be the greatest literary feat of the decade, Yes, Chef  provides an utterly human, and uniquely Samuelsson view into the culinary world.  Go pick it up and head to your local Ethiopian dining establishment! (you’ll be starving after reading his descriptions of doro wat)

Cutting for Stone, however, is a much more serious literary endeavor. Often weighty and perhaps a bit overdone, the book follows Marion Stone from birth to adulthood.  It begins with a gory birth scene which blossoms into the many medical descriptions Verghese employs throughout the novel.  As a biology major myself, these scenes were  engrossing rather than off-putting.  His descriptions of Ethiopian life bring the land of berbere to life in a manner not unlike Samuelsson’s. If you’re in the mood for a lengthy and emotionally absorbing dive into a character study, look no further than this book.