I was in Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago and while there, visited one of my favorite little places to shop. Since you probably already know that I’m a real food lover (I still feel odd saying “foodie”), of course it’s related to where I can buy what I love most: cooking ingredients!
Since I happened to be in LA on some other business; I took the occasion to make my way down to Papa Cristos Greek restaurant. So, why on earth, you are certainly asking yourself, would I find myself so excited to go to a Greek place? Well, because I do love Greek wines, baklava and Eritrean food. Yes, I said it: Eritrea is (almost) in Greece.
Now, to try to turn that into something that makes sense: in LA, as in most large cities, there are ethnic neighborhoods. Ethnic neighborhoods tend to blend, as opposed to having a clear line. I’m sure that if I were to return to my childhood memory of New York’s Chinatown and Little Italy with a clearer view; I’d have realized that they too blended. But, that is a story for another time…
So, let’s return to LA: There is a section of Los Angeles called “Little Ethiopia”. It is home to many Eritreans and the largest population of Ethiopians in the United States. It is a great stop if you want to have a taste of Ethiopian or Eritrean cuisine. I highly recommend the Nyala Restaurant on Pico if you decide to pop into the area. They are famous for their lunch buffet.
But back to how Greece meets Eritrea… You see, the first time I realized that the connection isn’t automatic for a lot of people is when I first took a friend with me to Papa Cristo’s to pick up some injera (a soft sourdough “pancake” of sorts that is used to eat most Ethiopian and Eritrean dishes with). She looked at me completely perplexed when we entered the place and asked the obvious question: “WHY on earth would this Greek guy sell African foods?” I then had to explain to her that we were related in many ways. Eritrea used to be a part of the Greek sphere of influence, we have traded for centuries and our foods reflect that, (as I’m sure would our DNA, if anyone bothered to check). Eritrea’s name comes from the Greek name for the Red Sea coastline “Erythra Thalassa”.
Queen Cleopatra of Egypt was from the Ptolemy family of Greece, not a woman of African or Arab descent, as many tend to imagine her. And, since the Nile River flows north to Egypt, much trade was done in both directions. Thus, ancient Greek archeological sites can be found in both Eritrea and Ethiopia. This river has connected the peoples of the Mediterranean Sea to those in the Horn of Africa for ages. After all, where there is water, there is commerce. And, where there is commerce, there is an exchange of ideas, cultures and faiths.
Let’s compare cultures for a moment: Greece: Greek Orthodox Church, Eritrea: Coptic (Orthodox) Church. Greek food has a particular flavor profile which uses: fenugreek, oregano, ginger, cumin, turmeric… Then you come to Eritrean food where you meet those same flavors again. It’s all about the way in which they are blended and in what proportions. Lamb? Yes, we both eat it. At the end of the day, the climates are the same and so are many aspects of the cultures. Where food is concerned, Eritreans have much more in common with Greeks than we do with Senegalese or Namibians. And Greeks have more in common with an Ethiopian Copt where faith is concerned than they do with fellow Europeans in Norway or even Catholics in Ireland.
So, for me to walk into Papa Cristo’s store, it makes complete sense that he’d have incense burners, tiny coffee cups for our coffee ceremony, containers stacked high of spices we use for cooking and yes, even injera made by a local Ethiopian lady who runs a business from home. Greece and Eritrea have always felt like cousins to me. We might speak a different language and look a little different; but even that isn’t always the case. But for my friend, as well as many others that I’ve had conversations with in the past… it is a healthy reminder that European influence in Africa didn’t start with colonization. We’ve been trading together, praying together and eating together for eons before that nasty turn of events. And, I have faith that with good will and a clear understanding of history, which is then put in its proper context… we’ll be working together to create a mutually beneficial experience for a long time to come. Not because of politicians or debates in the United Nations. But because of good hearted people who reach out to each other with sincere interest and good will.
Papa Cristo is a man who is short in stature, but big in heart and personality! His father founded the store over 60 years ago with the idea of bringing a little of his homeland to Southern California. Considering his proximity to the Little Ethiopia neighborhood, they slowly added Eritrean and Ethiopian products to their list of wares. It was a brilliant move considering there is so much cross-over of flavors. If you think of Greek cuisine, you think of a few different spices and herbs off of the bat: Cumin, turmeric, fenugreek… all of which are also used in Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine.
Greece is tied to both of my cultures, Italian and Eritrean with a pretty tight knot. Thus, it isn’t surprising that I feel at home among the olive oil jars, baklava and loud voices greeting one another as people come through the door. It is so typically Mediterranean and despite Eritrea lying on the Red Sea, it is a nation with a large Mediterranean influence and feel, due to decades of influence from Greece and Italy.
It’s amazing how many people think of Africa as a dark continent first discovered by colonists in the late 1800’s. When, in fact, we have had a rich common heritage for centuries before that. We’ve shared queens, spices and art for ages. We’ve been sending our vessels over the seas to trade, we’ve intermarried and yes there were even African rulers of the Roman Empire.
Africa and Europe, especially southern Europe have a common history that dates way before the Portuguese mimicked and greatly expanded the Arab method of slave trade. And I suspect that our futures are tied as well. So, the next time you hear people oversimplify the relationship between the evil white Europeans and the poor African victims… remember me sitting among the Greeks and buying freshly made injera, remember Cleopatra of Egypt- by way of Greece, remember the Roman emperors and generals who were of African heritage.
My mantra here on the blog is “Dialog matters”. Well, honest, open dialog about our cultures and history is a part of what matters most. Often, we find that as often as it opens the door to discussions about our past and current wounds… it also reminds us of our commonality. So, let’s use this space as a place to keep the dialog going! I anxiously await your comments.