When Joan Nathan travels, her friends like to come along. I learned about this trip in a conversation with Suzanne Modigliani over holiday food offerings at the Chilmark library holiday party in 2019. I mentioned baking with Soom’s Chocolate Tahini, to which Suzanne replied that she’d been on a trip with Joan Nathan to where their sesame seeds are sourced in Ethiopia. I spoke with Joan Nathan at her Chilmark home in the fall, and learned Joan had wanted to visit Ethiopia ever since she “lived in Israel” for three years, where she worked for Mayor Teddy Kollek of Jerusalem as his foreign press officer.
“I visited an Ethiopian church. I had a Russian friend who was a daughter of a Romanoff and a Russian Jew,” she says. “She was my closest friend while I lived there, around 1970. I didn’t know anything about her background. She told me she wanted to take me on an adventure. We went very early in the morning to an Ethiopian church. Everybody in white. The Ethiopians have one of the oldest Christian churches. They consider [themselves] directly stemmed from the Jews via Moses’ marriage to the Queen of Sheba.” She comments on the similarities: “They don’t eat pork, they have a lot of fast days. They have two churches in Jerusalem, part of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.”
Deir Sultan, the Ethiopian church, is on the roof of the Holy Sepulchre. Joan says, “I was fascinated going up on top of the roof. Just before my husband died in 2019, we went to Israel. I knew the Ethiopian ambassador to Israel, and I took my family to see the Ethiopian church on the roof. I’d been to Africa, Madagascar, Kenya, and Tanzania and South Africa, and North Africa. I knew two Ethiopians, one an actor, Prince Sirak, who stayed with us one summer here [in Chilmark]. He’d cook shabbat dinner for us, using every part of the chicken because food was so scarce. And then there’s Ephraim Isaac, who I knew from Harvard, who is half-Ethiopian. Everybody, every cab driver knows who he is, and thinks of him as a king; I’ve known him for years. And I wrote an article for the [NY] Times on a delicious Ethiopian recipe that I had from an Ethiopian Jewish woman in Detroit who has a restaurant. In Washington there are tons of Ethiopian restaurants, though I’m not crazy for Ethiopian food, I just love this chicken dish. I’ve always wanted to go to Ethiopia, and was looking for a way. Then I met the Soom girls, first through Michael, and then I met them at a wedding in Tel Aviv.”
By now you must be wondering, What is Soom, and who are the Soom girls? Soom Foods was founded by three sisters, Amy, Shelby, and Jackie Zitelman, in 2013 “to introduce high-quality tahini and tahini products to the American market.” I tried their product after finding it on sale from Milk Street magazine. I love the Soom sisters’ recipes, from roasted cauliflower to the best chocolate chip cookies ever. Joan was introduced to Soom through her friend Mike Solomonov, a Philadelphia chef and restaurateur, who uses their product a lot. When she ran into the sisters a couple of years ago at a Tel Aviv wedding, Joan asked, “‘Are you going on another one of those trips?’ and they said ‘Yes,’ and I said, ‘I’m coming.’ Then I mentioned it to Suzanne [Modigliani], and she said she wanted to come, and then Suellen [Lazarus] said she wanted to come, and then an Italian chef friend of mine in D.C., Amy Brandwein, said she wanted to come, so we all went together.”
Getting back to Soom, Joan continued, “There are three sisters, really nice women who work really hard. So we went in the fall of 2018. It wasn’t long enough.” Twelve days, including travel, was “too short” for a visit to Ethiopia. Joan’s favorite place was Lalibela, with “twenty-two churches underground, and all these iconographs, it’s amazing. I spoke with the Ethiopian ambassador, and he connected us to people. Suellen connected us to an Ethiopian woman from Philadelphia. We met Nathaniel Scott (my neighbor Josh Scott’s brother), he’s [part of the economic growth team at USAID/Ethiopia, according to LinkedIn]. We all went to dinner at a tiny restaurant that opened that week called La Lyonnaise, run by a cook born in Lyons and her Ethiopian husband. On the menu were some North African dishes, plus a typical, delicious eggplant caviar and chocolate cake made by every single French grandmother — a treat after only two days of Ethiopian food and in a country where dessert, at most, consists of a ripe banana.”
One night in Addis Ababa they visited the brother of the ambassador, a poet whose wife cooked for them. “We went to Humera, the center, and that’s where the tahina [sesame seed] is grown.” Joan wrote of their experience: “After lunch, eager to see the sesame harvest, we went straight to the warehouse where the sacks of harvested sesame seeds are stored, the seeds cleaned, and sold. Major buyers include China, the largest producer of and consumer of black and white sesame products in the world, then India, Sudan, Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Africa, Uruguay, and Mexico. Other major uses are for cosmetics and tahina, which is the reason we are all in Ethiopia. According to Shelby Zitelman of Soom, the terroir in Ethiopia is very dry clay and the climate very hot, perfect for breeding the prized white sesame seeds grown in Humera. Jackie’s [one of the Soom sisters] husband’s import business brings Humera sesame seeds to Israel, where they are double-ground in an Israeli plant, and the product is purchased and packaged by Soom. According to Elshadaii Abay, an importer from Addis who comes back to his family farm in Humera for three months, from cultivation to the harvest of sesame seeds, if Ethiopia had better irrigation, they could have three crops a year, but they don’t have irrigation and are dependent on rain.”
Joan wrote that the sesame is stored in 100-kilo bags and sent abroad throughout the year. When ready to be shipped, seeds are cleaned and sorted by color. They can be stored up to three years in the warehouse. That is why, when you go to spice markets, the sesame and other spices, usually in a relatively dark space, can be stored for a long time. There are more than 300,000 hectares of sesame being harvested, with different flavors from different farms, Joan says. Black sesames are grown in China and India, and are slightly more bitter than white sesames. In other areas of Ethiopia, there are reddish and black sesame. In Humera, when the sesame plants reach maturity, 300 to 500 people work throughout the day and night to complete the harvest process, Joan explains.
“First, they cut the sesame stalks with their scythes, and then wrap the stalks into small bundles. Then the stalks are arranged in teepeelike stacks and left in the field for 15 days. They make sure that the sesame pods are upright so they can dry out in the sun. When the stalks are dry, they begin the final harvest process by hand-shaking each bundle on a tarpaulin to release the precious sesame seeds,” Joan says. “The dried stalks are then burned. Mostly men do this exhausting work in the hot sun. After the planting, there is weeding, and after the harvest they put more nitrogen into the soil by planting sorghum. In addition to the sesame crop, they do similar things for the sorghum, and cotton, rotating the crops.”
Joan tells me, “Of course, I want to meet with the Jews, I do that wherever I travel. We went to a town where there are a lot of Jews who are trying to get to Israel; some of them have stayed for seven years. A friend of my daughter gave me a phylactery that had belonged to her father, who had died. I gave it to a man who did not have his own, and would be taking it to Jerusalem with him.”
Joan says that every day on the trip was an adventure. “I love to see how people live. It wasn’t the way any of us would have traveled, but it was the way we could see the country.” Joan kept a travelogue during her journey, and began to read it to me. Turns out Ethiopians have “278 fast days a year, 168 are mandatory and the rest are optional,” Joan learns from their flight attendant, and adds, “No wonder they stay so thin.” The flight takes 14.5 hours from Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C. At 7 am they transfer to their Addis Ababa hotel on the main street in the heart of the city. After a two-hour nap, they join their guide Sam and “headed to the small, family-owned Mocha Coffee Shop across the street” to enjoy freshly roasted coffee from the country of coffee’s origin. Sam notes that Ethiopia is one of only two African states never colonized, except for the Italian occupation in the late 19th century and during Mussolini. “The only lingering effects of the Italians are a mixed grill of delicious fried meats cooked quickly, although the meat is so tough we learned that some cooks use papaya as a tenderizer. And the Ethiopians can thank the Italians for pasta, lasagna, mortadella, and provolone available at trendy supermarkets,” Joan says. “I suspect the Italians brought rosemary and sage — two herbs I saw growing in the countryside near churches — and also ate it in restaurants.”
Joan continues reading me the history of Ethiopia and the Jews, resulting in “Solomon being the most popular name in Ethiopia to this day.” Gondar, which they visited, says Joan, is “where all the Jews are. At one time there were about 270,000 Jews, but they’re all in Israel now.” According to an NPR story at n.pr/3bbD6BQ, there were 6,000 Falash Mura left in Ethiopia who no longer have a viable way to move to Israel unless they prove with documents their roots through seven generations. Turns out Ethiopia does not permit cremation, and has raised graves; buried at Addis Ababa’s fabled Holy Trinity Cathedral is none other than Bob Marley.
At the Ethiopian National Museum, Joan comments, “an early photograph shows the process of making teff, ancient and tiny grains, sour-fermenting them for three to five days before cooking the bread on a grill.”
Teff is originally from Ethiopia, and it is illegal to “take teff out of the country.” Joan was not fond of the sour-tasting bread, which differs in different areas of the country, but says, “it is an acquired taste.” The group ate at the museum’s Lucy restaurant (named for the fossilized hominid in their collection) trying their “black and white teff, prefer the black, accompanied with lentil, chickpea, chicken, and lamb.” After lunch they “drove back to the hotel via the Addis Merkato, the largest market in Africa, almost a half-mile wide, that sells everything.” After dinner there was music and dancing, Joan says.
“We had platters of injera [the Ethiopian flatbread meals are served upon and used to eat with in lieu of silverware] with vegetables and quickly fried goat stew. It was delicious. Suzanne got on stage and danced with the professionals. It was really fun. She danced and danced. Then we walked home.”
Before finishing, Joan explains, “There’s a big Armenian-Ethiopian connection because the Armenians were welcomed in Ethiopia during their recent genocide, but they were here before that.” She notes, “There’s even an Armenian section” in Addis Ababa.
From the Shola market, Joan and her friends picked up spices that make berbere, which “can include dried garlic, dried shallots, roasted red chilies for heat and color, then a combination of cardamom (in the shell), coriander, ginger, cloves, cumin, sesame seeds both black and white, fenugreek, etc. We brought the spices to a mill (in a shack under the highway) and they were ground five times, twice with one size and then three times with another. We each were able to take some of the spices home to make our own Watt, either Doro with chicken or Shiro (chickpea) with chickpeas and sometimes brown tiny peas.”
They visited way too many places to share their entire 12-day adventure. Joan was thrilled to be able to bring the Soom girls to Gondar and Lalibela, places they’d never before visited. Joan offered me all the books she used for research before her trip, asking if I wanted to visit Ethiopia, and encouraging me to do so.
As I finished writing this story, Ethiopia faces its own civil war. Joan and gang were lucky to visit when they did. And we will all have to wait for Joan Nathan’s memoir to get the full scoop on her Ethiopian trip and so much more.
All the accompanying photographs with this story were supplied by Suzanne Modigliani, who I am grateful to for taking the time to cull her hundreds of images down to share. She says she wanted to go on the trip because “I realized it was a once-in-a-lifetime, nontouristy experience.” Although Suzanne doesn’t cook with tahini, she enjoys hummus, and believes “the world’s best hummus [is] found at Sevan Bakery in Watertown.”
Learn more about Joan Nathan, cookbook author and regular contributor to the NYT and The Tablet, at joannathan.com.