Border Crossings


Having spent more than half our lives in foreign countries, many of them African, we’ve crossed a few borders.  In West Africa, we loved to hop in the car and travel to a neighboring country for 3-4 days.  Border crossing wasn’t so bad.  Polite patience got you checked in and out faster than flashing a diplomatic passport.  The borders were usually midpoint between the two countries, isolated, with no electricity, no telephones and little in the way of food supplies and entertainment.  We always thought that border crossings were punishment posts and that that accounted for the mostly irate and armed soldiers on duty who entertained themselves by playing cat and mouse with the travelers.  We always carried a surplus of cold soft drinks, beers and huge chunks of ice to sooth their “fevered brows.” After several crossings we were well known and usually cruised through the borders like royalty 🙂


No, crossing the borders was not a problem.  It was the police checkpoints within the countries, one located at the beginning and one at the end, of every town, village, hamlet and wide spot in the road.  We must have stopped 20 times before reaching the border each way!  As was explained to us, these checkpoints were established for internal security, which was just a joke because if they had guns, which was seldom, they had no bullets. They had no radios or telephones, nor did they have any transportation, not even bicycles. Their partial uniforms and scowling faces were intimidating enough for most of us!  Still, during this one trip, after about the 10th checkpoint stop, my husband cracked.  He swore he wasn’t stopping anymore until the border!  I tried to tell him that it could be dangerous, to which he replied with a crazed laugh, “What are they going to do, radio ahead?”  And you know, he had a point.  As a compromise, I told him that he could run the checkpoints and that I would look behind to see if anyone was in the road waving a gun and if so, we would immediately brake and back up.

This worked like a charm until the last checkpoint before the border.  The policeman was not just waving the rifle, he was taking aim!  Screech went the tires and back we went in reverse.  The man was absolutely furious!  He jerked open the driver’s door and told us all to get out of the car immediately, including the nanny and our toddler, and fast marched us to the checkpoint building.  Sweat streaming from his face, he began to verbally abuse my husband while waving his rifle around.


Me:  Excuse me, do you have any bread in this town?

Policeman:  What?

Me:  Bread.  We bought some meat down the road but couldn’t find any bread.  We don’t want to eat the meat plain.

Policeman:  Just a second.

He goes over to a teenager, with a withered leg, lying on the floor asleep and kicks him a couple of times.

Policeman:  Get up and get Madame some bread!

Me:  I’m really sorry about the checkpoint.  We were talking and didn’t see it.

Policeman:  That’s okay, but you should be careful.

Me:  Okay.  Want a cold beer?

True story.


One of things that surprised and pleased me was that Ethiopia has a cuisine as varied and interesting as any European or Asian cuisine.  This is not often true in African countries;  I think it has a lot to do with poverty.

I have collected cookbooks in every country we have visited and/or lived in, but unfortunately the only cookbooks I could find in Addis Ababa were horrible, made for tourists, caricatures of Ethiopia’s rich and fine cuisine.  One day I was reading an Ethiopian culture column in the newspaper and the writer mentioned a cookbook that had been compiled and printed by the government’s Ethiopian Nutrition Institute in 1980.  It was 1998 and I had not seen this book in any of the stores I visited.  Jade’s godfather worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and I asked him about it.  He said he would look into it.

After about 3 months, he found the book along with thousands of copies, stored in a government warehouse, having been printed and then abandoned.  Such a pity!  It is a compilation of authentic Ethiopian cuisine with unique measures and ingredients.  He just got a copy and gave it to me.  The money they could have made from these books!  Oh la la!

Anyway, the wot or stew recipe that I made today is from this book.  Not quite authentic but it tasted about right.  I didn’t have any injera, so we ate it with boiled potatoes.

Ethiopian Alicha Wot with Veal and Cabbage

1 tbsp dried basil

1 tbsp cumin seeds

6 green cardamom pods, cracked

1 tbsp garlic powder

1 tbsp ginger powder

1 tbsp turmeric

1 1/2 tsp salt

1/2 tsp black pepper

2 lbs veal, cut into cubes

3 tbsp ghee

1 large onion, finely chopped

4 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 inch fresh ginger, finely chopped

1 green bell pepper, chopped

3 cups of water

1 small head of cabbage, chopped

Mix the first 8 ingredients in a bowl and set aside.   Brown the veal in 2 tbsp of the ghee, then remove from the pan and set aside.  Add the remaining 1 tbsp of ghee to the pan along with the onion, garlic, ginger and bell pepper, cooking until the onion is soft.  Add the reserved spices and cook slowly for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Put the meat back into the pan, pour in the water, bring to a boil, then simmer for 1 1/2 hours or until the meat is very tender.  Add the cabbage and continue to cook for 20-30 minutes.  Serve with injera, rice or boiled potatoes.



About cookinginsens

An American living in Burgundy, France
This entry was posted in African, African, Cooking, Food and Wine, Main dishes, Recipes and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

41 Responses to Border Crossings

  1. That check point story is gold. And the veal and cabbage looks damn tasty too!

  2. Excellent stories. Your sang froid is astounding…I would have been terrified into using the old Navajo trick of kneeling, begging and pleading ( pace Woody Allen). I once had an assistant who had spent his youth in Mali, where his father worked for an outfit called General Farming. He told me that, on crossing checkpoints, his father just said General Farming and was immediately saluted and waved through:)

    • Thank you Roger. It’s a point of ‘keeping your head when all about you are losing theirs.’ I’ve never heard of General Farming but it would have been nice to work for them 🙂

  3. Mad Dog says:

    Great story! If the German border wasn’t so far away I’d send you some Ethiopian bread, they make it next door to me 😉

    • Thanks Mad. Wow, I’d really have liked the bread. There are a lot of Eritrean restaurants here but the food, though similar, is not the same as Ethiopian and the bread tastes funny, although they are really the same people. Could have been that Italian occupation that did it.

  4. I love coming here, never know what I’ll find, French, American, African… Very cool dish.

  5. Jon says:

    I would love to get my hands on one of those cookbooks, what a find! Is there a kitfo recipe in there?

  6. Jon says:

    Your story reminds me of an epic road trip from P-au-P to Sosua and back, complete with the checkpoints in every pueblo and a shake-down by armed colonel at the border crossing at Jimaní on the way in to the DR and being received with bearhugs by the same colonel on the way back “how did you like my country my friends?”

    • Kitfo – 1 1/2 lb coarsely minced meat, 2 tbsp of mit mit ta or awaze, 1 tsp cardamon seeds, 1 tsp salt, 1/2 cup melted spiced butter (see recipe below).

      Mix all together and serve with injera, chopped kale and cheese.

      Spiced butter- 2 large cloves garlic, 1 inch fresh ginger, 1 tsp dried basil, 1 tsp fresh basil, 1 tbsp cumin, 1 tsp cardamom seeds, 1 lb butter. Pound all the spices together, then bring to a boil and simmer with butter for 30 minutes.

  7. Sounds good! Love that spoon in the pic!

  8. Brilliant idea bringing cold drinks with you!

  9. Oh my what a story! But the same approach often works with the Spanish Guardia Civil, some of whom still seem to yearn for the days of dictatorship 🙁 Lovely recipe, what a shame we can’t all buy a copy of the book and help a few of the folk of Ethiopia out.

  10. Micki Darbyshire (we met on the train from Paris to Munich) says:

    I LOVE your stories!!!! Not to mention that the recipes make me “drool”!!!!

  11. nita says:

    Fabulous story and the dish looks delicious!

  12. AnotherDish says:

    I’ve been to some great Ethiopian restaurants (one was in Stockholm, of all places!), but I’ve never made this cuisine at home — you’re recipe looks great. Can’t wait to try it!

  13. Janet Rörschåch says:

    My students will be making Ethiopian on Tuesday. The injera starter is working. Can’t wait. Thank you for your story.

  14. Love the story and the sound of the dish. Would love to hear more from the book as I’ve never cooked Ethiopian food but have eaten it in a restaurant and it was fabulous!


  15. lolarugula says:

    Oh! This recipe sounds wonderful and what a fantastic story!

  16. Caroline in San Francisco says:

    How is the memoir coming along? 😉 Great stories and photos as usual. Thank you.

  17. afracooking says:

    I was already smiling when I was reading your story, but when i saw the picture of the recipe book I had to laugh out loud. I HAVE THAT BOOK! I asked my parents for an ethiopian recipe book (my heritage) but I never thought to ask where they got it from. I will ask! Funnily enough ethiopian cabbage dishes are what I enjoy least, but maybe I should give them another try.
    Great story!

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