Smells and Spice and Everything Nice by Cheryl Armstrong

Smells and Spice and Everything Nice

Cheryl Armstrong

Did you know black pepper comes in different flavors?

I’m eight-years-old, standing in Doris’s kitchen doorway, hoping she’ll invite me to dinner. My friend Janice is still in her room with her dolls, and I’ve had enough of that.

I desire Janice’s mom’s plump green lima beans with juicy, smoked ham hocks, sautéed golden onions, and garlic and black pepper. If Doris invites me to dinner, I’ll shake on extra black pepper, bite into the lima beans, and suck the meat off the bone. Doris hasn’t made her biscuits yet. I want to watch her measure the powdery flour, cut in the butter, pour the milk, and work the dough. On the stove is a pot of greens, simmering with more sautéed onions.

“Darlin’, it’s near time for you to head home. Your Momma must be blowin’ her whistle.”

I frown. I haven’t heard the whistle—the one my mother uses to fetch my brother. Maybe I have more time. I stall, because at my house there will be plain, boiled potatoes and roasted or fried meat with frozen green beans. My mother will say, “Add your own salt.” She is Vermont- born, transplanted to California.

Doris is Maryland-born, cooks Southern style and has a spice cabinet full of the most wonderful colors and smells. Her lobster bisque practically makes my Daddy cry into his holiday cocktail every Christmas. Her Southern cooking changed my life.

Fourteen years later, Doris gives me a going away party when I join the Peace Corps to head off to Ethiopia. She offers me a big bowl of her spicy crab dip. “I’ve heard Ethiopian cuisine will challenge your palate, honey. Try this; it’s hot.”

Doris’s dip is spicy and delicious, with paprika and tobasco sauce. But it does not challenge my palate the way berbere does in Ethiopia. Traditionally berbere is made up of hot red peppers dried on straw mats in the sun, pounded in a wooden mortar, then mixed with herbs, spices, dried onions, garlic and salt.  Another important Ethiopian spice is mitmita. Orange-red in color, it contains ground bird’s eye chili peppers (piri piri), cardamom seed, cloves and salt. Sometimes it has cinnamon, cumin and ginger in it.

I meet these spices in a buna bet in Shashemane, my training town, south of Addis Ababa. Tsegaye and Berhane, two of my Peace Corps trainers, bring me and a few fellow volunteers for our first injera and wat to what they hope will be the mildest introduction to Ethiopian cuisine: aliche and kai wat ordered special for farengis (foreigners.) Injera is a whitish-grey, round, spongy sourdough flatbread made from teff, an Ethiopian grain. Wat is Ethiopian stew served on the injera, which is spread on a tray—like a food towel.

Following a demonstration, I tear off a strip of injera and use it to pick up a chunk of spiced meat and pop the package in my mouth. Wowie kazowie, is it hot! It is hotter than Mexican chili peppers; hotter than Indian spices; and definitely hotter than Doris’s crab dip.

Some injera is dark, some light. Just like biscuits, there’s good injera and injera that’s not so good. Traditional injera is made over charcoal fire. In fact, the closest I’ve ever come to these Ethiopian dishes is Doris’s cooking. An equivalent to Doris’s lima beans would be the mesir wat or kik aliche which are the split red lentils in berbere sauce or split pea stew in turmeric sauce. An equivalent to Doris’s greens would be gomen, collard greens cooked with onions.

At the next table at that buna bet, an Ethiopian gentleman dips two-inch cubes of raw beef into a bowl of berbere powder and pops them into his mouth as if they are as bland as flour. “He thinks the berbere will kill the tapeworm,” Tsegaye says. “Eventually he’ll get an ulcer. We all get stomach ulcers from raw meat and berbere.”

I grow to love Ethiopian cuisine as much as I love Doris’s cooking: Doro wat (spicy hot chicken stew), yebeg wat (lamb stew), awaze tibs (cubed lamb with ginger and onions and many spices), yetsom beyaynetu (a vegetarian platter of shiro, or chickpeas, and other vegetables), and injera.

After Ethiopia, I live in Turkey and the Pacific Northwest and travel to Southeast Asia, Bali, Indonesia, New Zealand and much of Europe. Everywhere I go, there is a spice market and a new cuisine to try. Every spring, I visit South Carolina and enjoy shrimp cooked with bacon and onions and black pepper. Oh, my—black pepper.

Black peppercorns come from India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brazil. They vary in acidity and sweetness and can be more or less aromatic and citrusy. In my spice cupboard, in addition to berbere, I store spices from all over the world—and five different black peppers. While in Charleston, I buy myself two big bags of grits, a box of Blazin Blends, Zesty Seasoned Salt, and a box of Old Bay Seasoning—a piquant mixture of celery seed, salt, red pepper, black pepper, and paprika used in Frogmore stew, crab cakes, deviled eggs, soups, stews, gumbo and other Lowcountry boils.

I love it when my grown son Nuri, born in Istanbul and now living in the East Bay, stops by for a visit. He opens the spice cabinet and says, “I know I’m in Mom’s home when I open this cupboard. Sweet smells.”

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Cheryl Armstrong is a San Francisco Bay Area writer, photographer, certified yoga instructor, and world traveler. Her career was spent as an automation librarian in academic, public and special libraries. She was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ethiopia and a librarian in Istanbul, Turkey. Cheryl writes about outsiders and what they teach us about ourselves.

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