Today, on the World Food Day, PROJECT-E is celebrating Alem. Alem is the much-beloved cook at the PROJECT-E Hospitality Institute, and she was lovely enough to take a break from making lunch for all the students and the staff members to answer a few questions that may explain why the food she makes is so scrumptious.
She explained, while cooking rice in the biggest pan I have ever seen, that she has been working at the site of PROJECT-E in Addis Ababa from the very beginning. She did not work as a cook before, but her previous experience and self-taught knowledge of making food served her greatly as she started working at the institute. She never thought of herself as a professional cook, though, since she was not taught to cook in a professional setting. Rather, she acquired her skills through experience over time.
Alem loves making all of the dishes she is known for at PEHI, although injera (which is the typical garnish most Ethiopian dishes include) is her personal favourite. Especially when it is paired with sega wet (a meat stew) it is delicious! The same goes for most of the staff and students, who always count down the days until Alem makes injera again. She herself enjoys preparing shiro the most, which is a stew made of chickpeas, and likes preparing macaroni the least. PEHI has a purchaser who brings fresh food for the week every Monday. The food Alem prepares therefore depends on what was bought for the week as well as on the season and the ingredients that are available at the markets. Most of the time, the meals consist of shiro, lentil and potato stew. All the food at the institute is vegetarian, making it convenient to accommodate all dietary preferences of the students and staff members.
Ethiopian food has a significant connection to its culture, as Alem noted. For example, for the holiday Meskel, quinche is prepared, a mix of crushed, boiled barley and butter which is typically for the Oromia Tribe. In the South of Ethiopia, they eat dishes such as kitfo (a popular meat dish), kocho and tire siga (a type of raw meat) during the holidays of Meskel. Moreover, the origin of eating raw meat can be traced back to ancient times, during warfare specifically. If people had made a fire to grill meat, the enemy would have seen the smoke and attacked them. To avoid this from happening, they started to eat raw meat. Raw meat is now eaten during holidays or special occasions and serves as a reminder of old times. Food, generally, is a value beyond necessity in the Ethiopian culture. There even is a saying in Amharic that translates to “food is king”. Alem agrees with the saying and sees it in practice: “We respect the food we are eating up until we have finished it.”
As I was asking Alem these questions about Ethiopia, its food, and her job, a number of students were helping her out without having been asked to. This, apparently, is a frequent occurrence and something the students themselves enjoy a lot. When I asked one of them whether they like helping Alem out with small tasks, she answered “yes” with the biggest grin on her face. “Alem is like our mother,” she said, as other students nodded in confirmation. Alem’s smile was as warm as ever when she told me that she cared about the students a lot. What makes her the happiest is, she stated, that she is able to prepare food for all people here at the institute. And she is beyond grateful that it is food that everybody loves.