Africa - Debrutu Alemeneh-Rosenbaum

Africa - Debrutu Alemeneh-Rosenbaum

Gaye Weeden, Hayley Smorgon
4 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Mark Roper


Debrutu Alemeneh-Rosenbaum grew up in a large, religious family in a vibrant Jewish community, where the holy days were celebrated and Sabbath was observed throughout the entire village. On the Sabbath, no one worked, no one cooked and it was a time to get together, to eat and pray.

But in her village of Gondar in Ethiopia, living a Jewish life was markedly different from what was being experienced in the Western world.

‘It was completely different, everything was different,’ Debrutu says. ‘I grew up in a Third World country.’ Her family lived on a farm with a large number of animals, along with a variety of vegetables that were harvested and then used to prepare the food. Debrutu’s father was the local village rabbi and would run education classes in the synagogue that was built next door.

Debrutu and her siblings attended the Jewish school run by the American aid organisation ORT and, from a very young age, each child was expected to assist in some way with the running of the home.

‘When you started walking then you needed to help,’ Debrutu explains. ‘When you get to the age of seven or eight, you’re an adult already and you can help. Either you needed to cook or help on the farm; it was a different life.’

Debrutu found herself in the kitchen with her mother, where she learnt how to make the staple Ethiopian bread dish called injera. Eaten in virtually every household across the country, the sponge-like bread was similar in consistency to a crumpet and became the base for a range of sauces and spices that were served alongside.

Whether it was a sauce made from lentils, chicken or meat, as Debrutu showcases on the following pages, the dish featured on her family’s table every day.

On Fridays, preparations for the Sabbath would begin, with the baking of the meal’s centrepiece, the traditional Jewish bread known as challah. But the Ethiopian version was quite different from the standard plaited roll seen on Australian shores.

After the dough was made, stirred and left to sit for half a day before being mixed again, it would be placed in a clay pan that sat on an open fire in the garden. It was then covered and left to cook until it resembled dark bread, and was eaten with homemade cottage cheese or milk.

And while Friday night dinners generally featured the standard weekly fare, it was Saturday mornings that were the most important time of the Sabbath for the Ethiopian Jewish community, with a number of families coming together at the synagogue to eat their own food and challot after Debrutu’s father would say the blessings over the bread and wine.

Ethiopian Jewry was devoted to Jewish customs and lore, yet traditionally kept only the High Holidays that fell before the destruction of the temple. This meant Purim and Chanukah were not a part of Debrutu’s childhood, but she recalls the other festivals being extremely important in her home.

‘Rosh Hashana was a very big holiday for us,’ she says. ‘We would invite a lot of people in the area, around one hundred, and my mother used to prepare a beer and bread and the people would come and drink and eat.’

On Passover, each Jewish family would have to prepare the traditional unleavened bread called matzah on every day of the festival, both morning and night.

The dough was prepared and then taken to a clean area free from breadcrumbs, where it was quickly cooked for five minutes before being eaten fresh. The matzah couldn’t be left for a long period without fear of it becoming unkosher for Passover, so the family would cook a new batch before every meal.

When Debrutu was in high school, she moved to the neighbouring large town to finish off her studies, with the dream of moving to Israel upon graduation always in the back of her mind. It was an aspiration she fulfilled by herself in 1983.

‘We had been taught that Israel was the Jewish country, and we always wanted to go to Israel, that’s what I was taught since I was young,’ she says.

When she arrived, Debrutu began a Hebrew course, where she studied and lived with Jews from all over the world, one of which was an Australian man named Ian who had recently moved there to live.

For Debrutu, who had learnt about Israel throughout her childhood via religious studies and was taught it was a country filled with devout Jews, it wasn’t at all what she expected.

‘I was happy, it was freedom … but it was different from what they told me.’

‘We thought everyone kept Shabbat and they were religious, but it wasn’t what we thought,’ she says.

Debrutu moved with Ian to a kibbutz and admits that she never really cared for the food, finding its texture hard to adjust to after her life in Ethiopia. But she made do with the meals that the kibbutz provided, only enjoying dishes from her childhood when she went to visit her family who had all made the move to Israel, some via the now-famous exodus through Sudan.

After six years on the kibbutz, Debrutu and Ian decided to move to Australia, and before too long they were married. Now with two boys of her own, Debrutu finds that her traditional food from her homeland is not really a cuisine embraced by her Australian-born children.

‘Here sometimes I cook my own food but no one eats it,’ she explains. ‘I cook what they want to eat.’

For Debrutu, making the move to Australia was a happy one and, despite the differences in language and culture, she found the people to be nice and the food quite pleasant and easy to enjoy.

She still struggles to find the flour she needs to correctly cook her injera recipe as she did at home, but makes do with normal flour and isn’t too fussed by the difference.

For Debrutu, it’s not necessarily the food that ties her back to her childhood, but the Jewish traditions that were so ingrained in her by her family and community at such a young age.

‘I want to keep my family’s traditions that I learnt from my family,’ she says. ‘Who knows what my family will do when they grow up, they’ll do what they want to do. But I’m teaching them now.’

And sometimes, just because she wants to, she’ll cook herself injera and a lentil sauce brimming with spices, and just like that, her suburban home in Sydney takes on a bit of her Ethiopian homeland.

Recipes in this Chapter

    No results found
    No more results
      No results found
      No more results
        No results found
        No more results
          No results found
          No more results
            No results found
            No more results
              No results found
              No more results
              Please start typing to begin your search
              We're sorry but we had trouble running your search. Please try again