The Surprising PROCESS of Sidama Cuisine

After 5 years of documenting the Sidama tribe’s food ways, Donna Sillan, MPH has completed the first “Sidama Cookbook” ever written to capture the traditional art of this ancient and unique cuisine.  It is an anthropological document to preserve the dying art of enset, the staple of the Sidama.  She spent time planting, processing and preparing enset in Ethiopia before attempted to capture what has only been transmitted orally to date and is on the verge of extinction.

Sidama Sustenance

A blurb from Donna on her shocking process

Sidama food takes the prize for being the most complicated, intricate, ancient food processed on the planet.   What strikes me as most amazing is the fact that an ancient people discovered “enset” and found out how to make it edible and determine its utility as a staple.  How did they figure it out hundreds of years ago?

I wrote this book for two reasons. First of all, I admit, I’m obsessed with food and particularly exotic, ethnic food.   It is no wonder that I spent the last 30 years as an international public health practitioner specializing in nutrition.  It was by design.  I have cooked with developing world women in huts and under trees, balancing pots on three stones in over 35 countries, through my nutrition work with NGOs. I am particularly interested in the diets, food ways and the cultural meaning of foods.  Tell me what a people eats and I will understand them more.  We are what we eat.  Secondly, I wanted to preserve this ancient art for the tribe.  It had not be recorded in history and needed to be written down for posterity before it is forgotten.

On the first day of entering Aleta Wondo in 2007, my interest was immediately piqued by the intriguing unique staple food of the Sidama called “enset.”  I started talking with the Sidama about their diet, their foodways, their nutrition, the availability of their foods, and their cooking practices. I started eating their staple “kocho”, photographing it, and preparing it. I wanted to learn how to cook enset myself.  That was easier said than done.  It is an incredibly complicated process.   Every time I asked how it was done, I was caught in the middle of long string of events which had missing pieces from the beginning or the end in the sequence.  I was completely frustrated and confused.  Then, I became disappointed.  It wasn’t as presentable as the national staple, injera.  Kocho (the edible end product of enset) looked like a pile of sand.  Meanwhile, enset, aka “false banana” in the fields is sexy gorgeous!  It has wide, fluorescent green leaves with thick, soft fleshed trunks of different colors.  There was such a contrast from field to table in terms of presentation.  The processing of this beautiful plant turned it into an unattractive pile of brown sand.   Why, how, what for?

I decided to tackle the mystery of this particular food by writing a grant to get funding to compile a “cookbook” on enset.  Christensen Fund funded the proposal.  Upon undergoing the process of learning about enset, I underwent my own personal process.  I had drawn my own hypothesis and had drawn my own conclusion.  I was prepared to propose to the tribe to find a new staple food and start over to develop a more friendly food crop. My American point of view shaped my initial hypothesis which was:

  • Nutritionally it was lousy, with hardly any value (like all staples).
  • Cuisine-wise, it looks like sand and feels like you are eating sand.
  • Culturally, it was oppressive to women.  It takes an unusual amount of back-breaking work to produce, which creates a calorie deficit rather than provide a positive energy food source.
  • Environmentally, I was sure it depleted the soil and required too much water.

I think I am the only American who actually likes the taste of kocho.  But I have unusual tastes given my exposure to different foods through my work with traditional cultures. It has a pungent odor from the fermentation process.   In spite of the fact, that I actually didn’t mind consuming it, I was sad that I would be writing a “downer” of a book.

Confused by what women told me, I started by asking children to explain enset to me in their own innocent terms, but they were not interested in it. They understood where it came from but they were quickly losing interest in the 7 year process of growing enset and the labor it entailed to make it edible.   This frightened me.  I was thus further compelled to document the recipes of the tribe, given their cuisine was on the verge of extinction and only transmitted orally. I was afraid that this very ancient cuisine would be forgotten and lost, without any trace of its existence on our planet.  This peculiar staple would go unrecorded before its disappearance.  And it is quickly getting taken over by the national staple injera of the Amhara tribe, through cultural hegemony.

The Sidama tribe can be called part of an “enset culture” in southern Ethiopia.  Enset is exceptionally labor intensive staple food.  I warn Americans who look to the book as a cookbook …”Do Not Try This at Home.”  Basically, the ingredients are not available in this country.  Beyond that critical fact, the stamina it takes to produce enset is far too great for an average American.   You think working out in a gym 5 days a week is hard.  Try providing enset daily to your family in Ethiopia.  No gym necessary. They work tirelessly day in and day out just to provide this staple on their table.  We don’t have the amount of time it takes to prepare, as we value convenience.   And most of us don’t have the muscle to prepare enset, which takes strenuous, back-breaking work.  Americans want things that take the least energy and are fast and easy.

When I asked women; the grannies, the mothers, and the traditional cooks, about their opinion of enset, they unanimously said “This is our gold.”  I couldn’t believe it!   How could one enjoy this laborious, long process?  They told me about their “special power,” exclusive only to those who know the secret of enset.   It is strictly a women’s domain and men are not allowed to enter this inner sanctum.  Men cultivate the trees and that is the end.  Only women can scrape the trunk, and process it.  Men can’t even WATCH the women doing this, since they raise their leg and place it on the trunk, revealing a bare thigh and calf deep in the recesses of the forest.

Women then help each other in a communal fashion, basically forming an informal women’s support group.  They rotate through the neighborhood and help each other process their crop.  It is a time for gossip, reflection, song and dance.  Once the process is completed, each woman has a special knowledge or “potent” in how she prepares it so that it is uniquely hers.   A woman is judged by the taste of her kocho.  If it is not tasty, she will not be married (not always bad thing).  A woman has her own dominance in this arena and it is her “concoction,” which is expressed solely without a man breathing down her neck.  She is her own artisan and appreciated for it.

Another empowering aspect of enset , in contrast to coffee, is that it is the only product that women can sell in the market and keep the change.  When they prepare enough in excess, after feeding their family, they can sell it in the market, and do whatever they like with the proceeds. It is her own “stash” or security pouch.

There are many aspects of the enset tree, which make it environmentally a winner:

  • It provides shade to other crops, so inter-cropping is a sustainable agricultural practice aiding other crops.
  • It collects water within its own architecture of wide leaves, so it doesn’t take much water.
  • It prevents erosion and holds soil on hillsides.
  • The plant can grow continually at different stages of development, so that there is always a crop ready to eat depending on the age of the tree.   It can provide a family food year-round.

At the end of my research, I invited 5 of the best traditional cooks (my informants) to come for a full day of reviewing the entire process.  We started in the forest, moved to the fields, and then took some “ready” enset into the kitchen.  We squeezed and kneaded and cut and removed the fibers from the enset for hours.  Then we cooked it into kocho, adding fresh butter and feasted on it.  I gave them many thanks and suddenly the hut started to shake with energy.  They broke into DANCE and sang for joy.  We danced and danced for hours, so happy to have their art valued and appreciated.

So what does it take to process enset into kocho?

  1. Cut down a big false banana tree after it is 7 years old
  2. Scrape the trunk  of its fibrous, wet inner flesh
  3. Dig a hole in the ground and line it with its leave and put the scrapings in it
  4. Add a starter from the core root of the tree and cover it with leaves
  5. Let it ferment for 3 months, with lots of checking and churning
  6. Take it out and wrap it in big enset leaves into 35 pound rounds
  7. Cut it, knead it, remove the fibers in the kitchen
  8. Shift it to death until it forms a flour like texture
  9. Pan-fry it over a fire
  10. Mix it with butter or beans or salt or nothing
  11. EAT it with your hands or an enset leaf

Relieved that I was absolutely wrong in my judgment, I came 180 degrees around to conclude that enset is a miracle crop and one that should be promoted, propagated and planted throughout Ethiopia!  So what I have written is actually a surprisingly passionate endorsement of enset.   Being a positive person, I was relieved that in fact, I could write an “upper” of a book.  My initial hesitancy about the utility of this food staple was gone.  I had shifted by the end of my research to find enset to be a profoundly environmentally sound and beneficial food crop.

Experiencing this epiphany was one big lesson in humility. I learned about my own American bias and prejudices.  I held preconceptions, which I projected onto the surface of the cuisine and judged it unfairly, without reflecting deeper and understanding it in its wholeness.

The book is more of an anthropological record rather than a “cookbook.”  It will eventually be translated into the local Sidama language, although 90% of the tribe is illiterate. Oh well, I got it off my chest and have written it down.  I discuss many issues surrounding nutrition, culture, women and environmental sustainability.  And I finally understand the process.  My original distaste has turned into an utter love and appreciation for this ancient crop.

When the book was published, Tsegaye brought the first copy to Common River and shared it with my female resources. He said they hugged the book to their chest and called it “their Bible.”  They had never seen their food presented on paper, in color photos, bound in a book, much less ever heard of a cookbook.   They felt honored that someone outside of their culture had seen the gold in the mainstay of their life.

It is true that enset is not just a staple food.  Rather it is a way of life, upon which their culture revolves.  It not only feeds them physically, but mentally and spiritually as well.  We can’t say that about American food, especially now as a “fast food nation.”   Sidama cuisine is definitely a SLOW FOOD, which nourishes the lives of the Sidama, not only their bodies but in their minds and souls.  It is friendly to the earth, which is another reason to love it.  And now, to me it tastes even better when I grab a handful and eat it.

Jan. 2013 Donna Sillan