Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Eritrea - The Land of Punt

A small country with big problems, Eritrea, is trying to rebuild after more than thirty years of civil war and conflict with Yemen and Ethiopia. This former colony of Italy – evidence of which can still be seen in the architecture of the capital – is a conglomerate of deserts and fertile lands. It’s known for its long coastline on the Red Sea and bisected by the world’s longest mountain ranges.

In researching Eritrea I found a photograph of the Eritrean Railway that was built during the Italian colonialism. It looked like a scene from a movie – like Out of Africa or The Ghost and The Darkness – and it was so beautiful. Surrounding the railway was mountains of various heights and shades of brown and green, and blue sky; a small train chugged across a railway bridge bellowing out puffs of white smoke.

I am currently reading the book King Leopold’s Ghost and so, despite myself, I find the days of colonialism romantic. It can only be seen this way from a white man’s perspective, of course. Colonialism could be a brutal business but I suppose in some cases good came out of it as well. It depends on how you want to look at it. For instance, during Eritrea’s Italian rule the country underwent industrialization and modern infrastructure was put in place. From a modern Western point-of-view I see this as a good thing, but I wonder what the average Eritrean thought of all that development at the time. Italy ruled Eritrea from 1890 to 1941, only a short span of fifty years. In the 1930s around 100,000 Italian colonists had settled in Colonia Primigenia – this is what Eritrea was called by the Italians.

Because Eritrea is a former province of Ethiopia their food is very similar. For instance, both countries enjoy injera, a pancake-like spongy bread. Pieces of the flat bread is torn off and used to scoop up the food. I decided to make injera, I even found teff flour that I needed at Whole Foods. It wasn’t hard to make, but then again, my injera didn’t exactly turn out the way it was supposed to. For our main Eritrean dish I made Alitcha Birsen, a vegetarian lentil soup. I love lentils and the kids enjoyed the soup. We ate the soup with our spoons, by the way, and ate the injera as I side dish.

From my brief glimpse of Eritrea I get the feeling that it possesses a magical quality. The Egyptian pharaohs referred to present-day Eritrea as The Land of Punt, the area known for its abundant source of gold, ebony, ivory, slaves and wild animals. Eritrea’s capital, Asmara, was to be Mussolini’s “Little Rome” – but it was never to be.

It sounds like Eritrea has great potential. It certainly has a rich history.

Alitcha Birsen

5 TBSP vegetable oil
6 garlic cloves, crushed
250g tomatoes, blanched and peeled
200g lentils
1 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
1 tsp ginger
2 fresh red chilies, finely chopped
1 liter boiling water

Heat oil in a pan and fry the garlic until golden. Add the sliced tomatoes and simmer for 5 minutes before adding lentils. Simmer for a few minutes then add the ginger, chili and boiling water. Season with salt and pepper, cover the pan and simmer for an hour.


1/4 cup teff flour
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup water
A pinch of salt
Peanut or vegetable oil.

Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl then slowly add water stirring to avoid lumps. Add the salt and stir some more.

Heat a nonstick pan and lightly oil the pan. Coat the pan with a thin layer of batter. Injera should be thicker than a crepe. Cook until holes appear on the surface of the bread. Once the surface is dry, remove the bread from the pan and let it cool.

(This is a quick injera recipe. In other recipes that I saw the dough was turned sour by letting it sit for three days).


  1. All you need to know about Eritrea.

  2. Try some authentic Eritrean in some of these places

    Truly you will be blown away :)

  3. Thank you, Simon, for your links. The youtube clip about Eritrea was wonderful and I'll have to try some of the Eritrean/Ethiopian restaurants in Toronto.