My sister and I are the first generation of my family to be born in America. Both our parents are immigrants. My mom was born in Ethiopia and my dad in Eritrea. The two countries were once one but split after the war that took place from May 6, 1998, to May 25, 2000. Although the two countries have had their issues since then, many people still consider them one. The culture of both countries is the exact same. The only difference is their language. In Eritrea, the main language spoken is Tigrinya; in Ethiopia, it is Amharic. When I went to Eritrea in 2004, I was star struck by the culture, and since then I have wanted to hold it tight.
When I was a young girl, my grandma cooked traditional food every day for my family. We barely ate any other food because we were so immersed in our culture and food was a big part of culture. To my grandma, this meant preparing food the day we would eat it, not the night before or weeks in advance. She would make himbasha for our family, a traditional bread that can be eaten with butter, honey, cream cheese, coffee, tea, or milk, though milk was usually available only on special occasions. I remember watching her make the bread and asking her if I could pattern a small personal himbasha the way she did hers. She showed me how to use a fork to imprint different lines and patterns into my small loaf.
Himbasha is never made the night before. The dough is prepared a few hours in advance and then is covered so the dough can rise. Most often it’s made plain but it also can be made with raisins or made with different grains. My mom will usually make several of the doughs and have each one sit out in pans or bowls until it rises, when she bakes it in the oven or on the stove top. Though my mom makes the bread when we request it, himbasha is usually made for special occasions. When a child turns one, for example, himbasha is placed on the child’s back and broken in half. Traditionally, this represents future prosperity and blessings for the baby. It symbolizes good health, safety, and a multitude of blessings.
We had our own himbasha celebration last year when my niece, Saige, turned one. The extended family and some close family friends gathered in my brother and sister-in-law’s house. The night before, my great grandma had flown in from Virginia. On the way back from the airport, she and my brother stopped at a grocery store to get the ingredients she would need to bake the hibasha the next morning. My brothers-in-law also drove up from Missouri, so we had a full house. My great grandma slept on a bed in baby Saige’s room while I slept on an air mattress on the floor.
The next morning the sun peaked out from behind the clouds and a warm breeze flowed in through the window. My great grandma, brother, sister-in-law, her parents, her brothers, my parents, and I woke up early, played traditional music, did some dancing, and set out to clean the house. It had such a lively feel inside. The two moms and my sister-in-law set out to prepare the food while the two dads and my brother set tables and chairs outside, set up the speakers, and put the tents up. I bathed my niece and got her ready for the party. I clothed her with the light pink dress with a flower pattern and pink headband that had been laid out on her bed and slipped on her new pair of white sandals. Holding her gently in my arms, I carried her downstairs and played with her outside. In the afternoon, with the party ready to begin, my great grandma humbly prayed over the food we had prepared for our guests.
Soon after dinner, my mom made an announcement that it was time for the blessing. My sister-in-law held baby Saige, with my brother right beside her. My great grandma then took the bread and broke it over little Saige’s back. Everyone started cheering when baby Saige received the blessing. We gathered for family pictures and then the music grew louder and people started dancing again. I took the bread and cut it into pieces, distributing it amongst our guests as we all celebrated the life God had given this child we loved. Something Eritrean and Ethiopian had followed us to America.
1 x 7 g. sachet dried yeast
2 tsp. ground cardamom
55 g (1/4 cup) caster sugar
80 ml (1/3 cup) vegetable oil
600 g (4 cups) plain flour melted butter, to serve
2 tsp. black sesame seeds
Cook’s Notes: We use Australian tablespoons and cups: 1 teaspoon equals 5 ml; 1 tablespoon equals 20 ml; 1 cup equals 250 ml. All herbs are fresh (unless specified) and cups are lightly packed.
Dissolve yeast in 250 ml lukewarm water. Stir in sugar and set aside in a warm, draught-free place for 10 minutes or until mixture bubbles.
Combine flour, 1 tsp. salt, sesame seeds, and cardamom in a large bowl. Add oil and yeast mixture and mix to form a dough.
Turn dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead for 5 minutes or until smooth. Place in a lightly greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap and set aside in a warm, draught-free place for 1 hour or until dough doubles in size.
Preheat oven to 180 degrees centigrade (355 degrees Fahrenheit). Divide dough into 2 equal portions. Roll out to form 2 x 30 cm. rounds (12 inches). Place into 2 x 30 cm. greased skillet pans. Using a sharp knife, score 3 concentric circles in each round, working from the middle out; then make 4 shallow cuts intersecting through the centre to form a wheel pattern.
Brush with oil and bake for 20 minutes or until cooked through and golden. Brush with butter and serve with hummus, if desired.