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In Pursuit of Injeera: Cooking and Community Development

Today’s participant blog post comes from Rachel Kutcher, a participant in the Yahel Social Change Program. This group is living, learning and volunteering in the Ramat Eliyahu neighborhood of Rishon LeZion for 9 months this year.

Bat El and I with a batch of cooked injera

After my last Yahel blog post, I started telling a few families in the neighborhood about my “assignment” to write about learning to make injera for the Yahel website. I got a lot of promises, but nothing really materialized. Then, magic happened! I’ve been wanting to get to know a woman named Bat El who is one of the leaders of the neighborhood Garin Ehud for a while, and we finally made a plan for buna (Ethiopian coffee) after Shabbat. Garin Ehud is a group of Ethiopian families who are committed to remaining in Ramat Eliyahu and working together in order to develop activities and resources to support the wellbeing of the community. We talked for hours about our respective community work and passions, the Garin model, and the neighborhood. I mentioned my desire to learn to make injera and she offered to teach me. Something about the way she offered made it clear that she was serious, so we made an appointment for the following week.

Mixing teff and water to make the buho

Making injera requires a small initial input of hard work, practice, a certain comfort with delayed gratification, and perhaps a leap of faith. During my first lesson, I eagerly dug in to a basin of teff flour and water with both hands, mixing and kneading for a long while and trying to memorize the texture. There are no measurements, as the amount of water needed varies with each batch of the grain. My notes probably read strangely to the outside observer, as I used the terms “quicksand,” “chocolate pudding,” and “coconut milk” to describe the buho (batter) at various stages of preparation. It will take a lot of practice for these to become intuitive. After making the buho, we let it sit for several days until it had fermented sufficiently to rinse, thin, and cook. Days later as Bat El and I added baking powder to the thinned buho in preparation for cooking the injera, she told me “this is the step you start to pray to have a good injera.” As we laughed about this she went on to tell me that “When you get married and cook something for the first time with your mother-in-law you pray a lot!” Luckily, as we cooked the first injera and the “eyes” (small holes) began to appear, she declared it an excellent injera. While I mostly credit the teacher, she insisted that success began with the persistent attention I gave to mixing and kneading the teff and water in the initial buho-making process. A good injera, like a strong community, requires attention to build a strong foundation.

“Eyes” appearing in the first injera we cooked

As we shared a piece of injera spread with berbere and jo while we continued to cook, Bat El commented how nice it is to share food from a single plate. We talked about this common practice in Ethiopia and how much less common it is among Ethiopian families in Israel. Bat El told me about how when she was nine and her family came from Ethiopia, the family was instructed on the “proper” way to eat with silverware instead of their hands and from individual plates. They lived in a hotel for a month or two before they were given an apartment in an absorption center, and did not have a way to make injera during that time. The family dropped the practice of eating from a communal platter almost immediately upon making aliyah. Bat El told me what a shame she feels this is – that they were immediately sent the message that there was somehow something wrong with a practice that was so integral to their culture, a practice that emphasized attention to the needs of the whole group. The Garin’s activities in Ramat Eliyahu embrace Ethiopian culture, recognizing connection to culture as a community asset that brings people together.

A platter of injera topped with cabbage, shiro, and gomen that I made for the yahelnikim

During my cooking lessons with Bat El, I’m learning to make traditional Ethiopian food, but I believe for both of us the experience is far more. We share stories, culture, ideas, and most importantly are developing a friendship. It’s through these lessons that I’ve also been given an opportunity to contribute to the community in the way I had been hoping all along. During my first lesson, Bat El brought up a previous conversation we had about my non-profit resource development experience and asked if I could help her bring in some funding for the activities of Garin Ehud. Bat El and I are now working together to build a proposed budget and descriptions of their programs for funders. I’m looking forward to using my non-profit experience to support the capacity development of this local garin, a contribution which I hope will have a sustained impact on the community through the ongoing work of these committed community leaders. At the same time, I’m thrilled to learn about the model and ideology of Garin Ehud, and how to support the needs of this type of organization. And it all began with a simple request for an injera lesson!

Yahelnikim dig in!

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