Tim the Cat

Let’s talk recipes for a moment. In the 2,500 metre above sea level kitchen of Lalibela, Ethiopia, bring together a generous dash of Orthodox Christianity, mix in a few thousand metres of white, cotton cloth, sprinkle in a bit of day and night chanting and bring to a boil in a cross-shaped bowl filled with holy water. This Epiphany dish is better known to the locals as Timkat … and no, this is not an endearing name for the regional felines that stalk in and out of doorways nibbling on scraps. Timkat is the Ethiopian Orthodox Church celebration of the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan (unlike the Catholic version of January 6th, which celebrates the manifestation of the holy nature of Christ before the three kings) and is usually celebrated on the 19th of January instead, though leap year can push it back to the 20th if it so chooses.

When one comes to sit at this feast of Timkat, there are a few things you should know so as not to embarrass yourself in front of the thousands of guests also scooting up to the dinner table. Lalibela is perched in the northern regions of Ethiopia, and its table-setting is a sight to behold whether it is for a yearly gathering or a simple breakfast! Can one only whip up this tasty religious culinary treat in Lalibela? Not to worry! With a simple change of kitchen and bowl, this is a national dish that can be thrown together once a year in any Ethiopian town or village! But for the sake of argument, we’ll just keep to the ingredients found here. Lalibela (whose title comes from Gebre Mesqel Lalibela, ruler of Ethiopia in the 12th and 13th century) was previously known as Roha before a change of name was decided upon to honour the king who so loved the area. King Lalibela had supposedly seen Jerusalem before its capture by Muslims in 1187 and decided to build a “new” Jerusalem in Ethiopia, which explains why many of the place names here are Biblical in nature, even down to naming the river running through the town Jordan. It was this king that commissioned the most spectacular of the city’s features … the rock-hewn churches. If these extraordinary monolithic churches can be considered as the furnishings of Lalibela’s kitchen, then they would be God’s very own spice rack! Within easy walking distance, eleven of the world’s most exotic of “spices” can be found dug down into the living rock. By any standards, these are amazing structures that rival even the magnificent façades of Petra in Jordan, especially if you believe in the theory that a majority of them were carved and constructed by medieval Ethiopians during Lalilbela’s approx. forty year reign. With names like Bet Medhane Alem (Saviour of the World), Bet Maryam, Bet Golgotha, Bet Amanuel, Bet Merkorios, Bet Abba Libanos, Bet Gabriel-Rufael, Bet Meskel, Bet Mikael, Bet Danaghel and, my personal favourite, Bet Giyorgis (where St George – the patron saint of Ethiopia – and his trusty steed were said to have made a visit, prompting it to be quickly names after him) to tantalise your senses, a day or more perusing the narrow corridors, contemplating the symbolic carvings and early Ethiopian Christian artwork or standing in awe before the 60 cm, 7 kg gold Lalibela cross will leave you with memories not soon forgotten.

Now that the setting has been placed, let us prepare ourselves to get into the menu at hand, shall we? Firstly, if you wish to be properly dressed for the occasion, you must wrap yourself up in the lengthy white cotton cloth that is typical of church attire throughout the country. One would hate to stand out in the procession that goes from the churches to the central meeting point, eh? I know what you are thinking … “White? But I look so much better in a black tux / red evening dress!” Well, if you happen to be higher in the ranks of the church, then maybe you could get away with more colourful robes of the clergy and a gold embroidered velvet umbrella as an accessory, but since most of us most likely are not Ethiopian Orthodox priests, we’ll just try to blend in, shall we? On the eve of Timkat, each of the churches starts with a religious ceremony and then proceeds to carry (with much chanting, dancing and singing) their holiest of items, the tabots, to a central meeting place in town.

“What are talbots?”, I hear you ask. A soup starter? A Greek salad? How many of you have seen Raiders of the Lost Ark? Well, according to the Ethiopians (Steven Spielberg and George Lucas as well), the tablets that Moses brought down from Mt Sinai, which were stored in the Ark of the Covenant, were not lost after the destruction of Solomon’s Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BC. Legend has it that they were brought back to Ethiopia and hidden here for ages. The original tablets and the Ark are now claimed to be housed in a chapel in Aksum (or Axum, if you so prefer), though only the monk that guards this holiest of religious items is permitted to view them (and we all know that your face would melt off if you did see them close up anyway, right?). This has led to the tablets, or tabots, becoming the most sacred symbol of the Ethiopian Orthodox church, and every church is supposed to contain their replica versions within their inner sanctum.

Just because they are replicas, don’t think you will ever get the chance to feast your eyes upon them either! This is still a bonus solely for priests. Even during the procession, they are thickly covered in ornate velvet cloth as they are transported from one place to the next. Definitely a closely guarded recipe, wouldn’t you say? The priests tempt us and get us salivating as they parade their treasures around town and down to a central meeting point, where they are prayed over, used in blessings and, in general, just glared upon as objects of inspiration.

The Timkat Festival in Lalibela continues to draw hordes of tourists, though. And as of February 2011, you may find it difficult to find a space at this “dinner table”. Visitors and those with cash can get a better viewpoint from the wooden stands set up around the baptismal font, but I should forewarn you: after the priest has spoken his lengthy prayers, blessed the water and done a quick sprinkle over his deacons, even the angels say, “I’m outta here, dude” and all hell breaks loose! Everyone who is anyone wants that water, and since the priest knows better that to hang about and waste his day dabbing a little on the foreheads of the masses, everyone with a cup or bucket is permitted to dive right in and sling this heavenly soup for all it’s worth. Now, most local folks truly want to get a bit of a holy soaking, but those coming for a bit of voyeurism up in the stands become a captive crowd of slow moving targets just waiting for a good drenching. Watch your cameras, as I have heard many a pale-skinned onlooker cursing (in very un-Christian-like manners) the day they had their costly digital ruined with an overdose of moisture.

After the pool has been drained without a drop not doused over the heads of whoever is in range, everyone heads away for a break to towel themselves off and get into some warmer dry garb. You can’t be away too long, though, because desert is yet to be served. Around noon, everyone reassembles again, and a procession begins complete with chanting and dancing, leading the tabots back to their resting places to await another day.

And so concludes our Ethiopian feast. I hope your belly is stuffed to bursting and you have enjoyed your time without drinking too much and making an arse of yourself. But please: take the dishes to the sink and wash your hands, will you?