Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Customer is Always Right…Right?

The Customer is Always Right…Right?

It’s been another week here in Addis Ababa and as I’ve been pondering what to write about my thoughts keep going back to food preparation. Sounds boring right?! First lets go over food preparation in the United States,
Step 1: Go to Wal-Mart (or your favored super market).
Step 2: Purchase everything that you need and some things that you don’t, for the foreseeable future all in one place.
Step 3: Take food home, rinse produce under running tap water and use some sort of Veg-all spray if you are really worried about cleaning your produce.
Step 4: Consume food.

In Addis there are A LOT more steps to consider.  In fact buying and preparing food here can be a daunting task. I will take you through the steps that I have discovered in order to consume food and not get incredibly sick.

Step 1: Call your favorite taxi driver. Yes, I now have a favorite taxi driver his name is Solomon and he is a pretty great guy, however I often wonder how much longer his taxi is going to hold it together before it completely falls apart.

Step 2: Inform the day guard that he is going shopping with you. This can also be step one if you decide to go shopping on foot. I mostly go on foot when buying fruits and vegetables. There are little produce shacks everywhere you just have to find one that has decent food. Last time I went produce shopping I took Jacob with me and he refused to ride in the stroller so I carried him on my back, like a local. When we got to the shack I put Jake down and all the Ethiopians loved him. They even gave him some free fruit!  

Step 3: Convince the 2 year old that the blue car (taxi) is not scary and promise to buy him candy if he stops crying. Yes, I believe that bribing my child is absolutely OK in this instance!

Step 4: Drive to the first “super market”. I don’t know why they call them super markets here there really isn’t anything super about them. The stores are tiny and often don’t carry everything that you need.  As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the ride to the store can be an adventure in it’s self, so watching the cows, horses, donkeys, chickens and crazy people goes without saying.

Step 5: Shop for food. Easier said than done. Sometimes they have what you are looking for but sometimes not. Many of the items are not marked with prices. This is where my guard comes in handy; he is the official cart pusher and price asker.

Chicken - Looking for chicken? The chickens here are not fed all the nasty hormones and antibiotics and what ever else they give the chickens in the U.S. This means that the chickens are small and you have to buy a few of them just for one meal. It is nearly impossible to buy just chicken breasts in Addis, most of the time you have to buy the whole chicken. If the chickens are not freezer burned I will usually pick up a few of them.  How do the chickens taste? Well, they are a little tough and chewy. The first time I cooked a chicken it didn’t turn out too good. The key, I’ve found, is to soak the chicken in a salt-water solution for about four hours before cooking. This makes the chicken juicy and tasty.

Milk- milk does not come in gallons or even liters. It comes in little two-cup bags! I think that is a pint.  I usually buy about 10 of these bags at a time and I’m hard pressed to make that last a week. The high altitude and the grass that the cows eat give the dairy products an interesting flavor. The milk has an almost smoky taste to it. My kids like it but I’ve heard that many of the ferengi kids don’t like the milk very much and won’t drink it. How much does a little bag of milk cost? About 9 birr per-bag, which is about 50 cents, not really that cheap. They also sell powdered milk as well. I usually get some of the powdered and mix it with the fresh stuff.

Flour – Easy to find but I use it up quickly. The bread here is not very good.  The years I’ve spent honing my bread making skills has become very useful in Addis. I usually bake about four loaves of bread a week sometimes more.  I got 5kilos of flour for about 60 birr, which is about 4 dollars.

I am also able to buy juice by the liter. Not very cheap but Jake needs his comfort food. There are not many snack foods here. No chips or crackers, cheese is really expensive and not very tasty. I have been able to find some cookies that taste like gram crackers for the kids and macaroni and cheese in a box that is produced by a company called MagicTime. Cereal is expensive but I buy Mr. Flakey’s for the boys because they really crave it.

Step 6: Next stop the fruit stand. This is a little shack on the side of the road where you can buy mangos, bananas, eggs (you can also buy eggs in the super market but they are more expensive) papaya, watermelons and strawberries (tiny strawberries). These places are all over and are very cheap. Last week I bought 2kilos of mangos, 2kilos bananas, lemons and strawberries for about 100birr (6 bucks).

Step 7: Now we drive to the vegetable stand. This is similar to the fruit stand, they sell things like peppers, potatoes, carrots, lettuce, green beans, really whatever you are looking for. I never spend more than 100 birr, usually less and I can get a TON of veggies.

Step 8: Still looking - This is the part where you go to another little grocery store or two looking for whatever you couldn’t find at the first store. The entire process can take hours and by the time you get home you just want to take a shower to wash the Addis off of you because I haven’t even mentioned all of the traffic and beggars grabbing at you and the exhaust fumes and dirt and dust that gets everywhere.

Step 9: Washing your produce. Sounds simple right? Well, you are mistaken. First you have to wash all of the dirt off of your produce. You can do this in the sink with the tap water. After you have scrubbed all the mud off of your fruits and veggies you have to fill up a big bucket of water from the distiller. What is a distiller? That is a machine that uses hot tap water and runs it through a series of filters and then distills the water making it safe to drink. A side note; because our water is distilled there are NO minerals or anything in the water that we drink. This means that my kids have to take prescribed fluoride tablets and Jake takes drops to ensure that their teeth don’t rot out.

Ok back to cleaning the produce. After you have a big bucket of water filled you add a cap full of a bleach solution to the distilled water and soak the vegetables in the bleach water for about 30 minutes. Think this is gross? I can tell you that your veggies are also washed in bleach water it just happens before you buy them. You also have bleach in the tap water you drink to make sure that you don’t get sick.
After the soak the veggies must be drained and then rinsed off with more distilled water. Now you are ready to prepare and eat your veggies!  The exceptions to these rules are for fruits and veggies that you peel, bananas, mangos, watermelon etc. I still rinse the veggies that have to be peeled with the bleach but I don’t take as much care with them because we don’t eat the outside. As you can imagine this process is draining! I have not found a housekeeper yet so that means that all of the shopping and cleaning is up to me. On top of the produce prep I’m also making my own bread, tortillas, muffins or anything else that we want to eat.

By Friday I was so tired of all of the work that it takes to put food on the table that I gave up! I decided that we needed to go out to eat. I really wanted to have some local food. You have to be careful though; you have to eat at places where you won’t get sick. I settled on a place in the Old Airport area (you can look it up on Google maps I think) called Yid Abyssinia. Locals in Addis eat Injera (a flat bread that uses a yeast and a very tiny grain called tef.) The injera is the plate as well as the fork. Injera has a sour flavor that reminds me of a strong sourdough. It is served communally and on top of the injera “plate” is wat. Wat are sauces. Some wat is made with meat like beef and lamb and others are made from squash and vegetables. Extra injera is used to scoop up the wat and enjoy! The wat can be very spicy! Dad, you would love this stuff! When I get back to the states we are going out for Ethiopian food!

This restaurant was obviously catering toward ferengis and wealthy Ethiopians. There was dancing and singing on a stage the entire time we were there. There are many different tribes and ethnic groups in Ethiopia and I believe that the dances and music reflected the different groups. I wish that I’d had a local with me to explain it all to me. There was one lady who, as part of her dance, swung her head around so fast I was sure that it was going to fly off! We can’t drink the water here so we ordered Mirindas for everyone. A Mirinda is a Fanta like soda. The bill was pretty high especially for Addis! 900Birr! About $60.00! When looking at the bill it became obvious that the majority of the cost was the soda! The food was only about 500Birr. While that was fun and I’m glad that we went, I do not think that we will be going back there any time soon.   

Saturday we decided to take the Hubs to get a hair cut and to visit the “mall”. We had Solomon, our favored taxi driver; pick us up in the morning. The mall was not like the malls in the USA I don’t even know how to describe it. There were shops but they were all very small and above the fourth floor it looked like there were apartments or something. After wondering around “the Friendship Mall” we decided to find another mall that is supposed to be near by. On our way we saw a little bakery/ coffee house. We decided that we should get a snack. The décor was really nice and the menu was in English. I ordered a “special tea”, the kids asked for milk shakes and Jake wanted ice cream. The waiter came back after taking our orders and told James and Brenden that there were no milkshakes. His English was not very good and we were having trouble telling him what we wanted. In the end James ended up with two mango ice cream cones (he ordered one cone with two scoops) and Brenden got a cappuccino (He ordered chocolate ice cream)! What the heck?! Who gives an eleven year old a cappuccino? It didn’t even look like it was a good cappuccino. At least James got two ice cream cones even if they were only half full. James shared his two ice cream cones with Brenden. My “special tea” was a ginger tea that actually tasted pretty good. The Hubs got a cinnamon bun and a drink. Luckily the grand total for all of this was only about 125birr or 6 dollars and some change.

We asked for directions to the Edna mall and headed on our way. There are some functional sidewalks in this part of town so we could actually use the stroller. The hubs didn’t want to bring the stroller due to the non-existent sidewalks, boulders and craters in the roads but I didn’t want to carry him so we brought it. As we walked there were little kids selling things like gum, tissues and all kinds of crap. These kids took no time in attacking us! The children were maybe 7 years old and they got a hold of the hubs sleeve and wouldn’t let go! He had to pry one kid off and tell him to get lost! After shouting at the kids to go away about five times, they finally did. While all of this was happening another boy that was older was following us and shouting “Go USA, Go USA!” it was crazy.

We finally found the mall! Inside this mall there was a “Play area” it was like an arcade with some small rides and a jungle gym like you would see at a fast food restaurant only bigger, and dirtier. The kids really wanted to play, so I bought James and Brenden tickets to play in the fast food play area but when they tried to go in, it turned out that Brenden was too big. So James went alone and Brenden rode a ride. Jake wanted to ride the “horsey” (the carousel).  After the older boys played I bought Jake a ticket to ride the horsey. This carousel was tiny and super slow, granted it was intended for smaller children but it still seemed like it was on its last leg and would just stop working at any moment. The noise in this place was really getting to me so I was happy when the Hubs said that he was going to head over to a burger joint that we saw across the street. He went ahead and I stayed with James and Jacob. The carousel attendant allowed Jake to ride twice and then James, Jake and I headed outside. The hubs called and said that the burger joint was closed; he suggested that we make our way to the Beer Garden, a German place a few blocks away.  Bummer, I was in the mood for a burger.

The three of us made our way down to the Beer Garden ignoring the pleas for money and the taxi offers. The restaurant seemed nice. We ordered two burgers for one for the hubs and one for myself. James got pizza, Brenden got a bratwurst and I ordered a cheese plate for Jake. When the food came out the waiter gave us one burger (it was really a chicken sandwich?) and two cheese platters. When I told him it was wrong he started arguing with me! Holy crap! He told me that he wrote down two cheese platters. I told him that he wrote it down wrong. He continued to argue, finally the manager came over and he said that they would make me another sandwich. Great! But by time that the food arrived everyone else was finished, AND he took the extra cheese platter! In the USA even if I was wrong and had told him the wrong thing I STILL would have been right! And my meal would have been free. Who ever heard of a waiter arguing with a customer! They still charged me for my “chicken burger sandwich”. I’m pretty sure he spit in my food! YUCK! By this point we were done, we just wanted to go home and be off the street! We called Solomon and had him take us home. 

This experience made me weary of eating out and I was happy to head back to my labor-intensive kitchen. I didn’t actually cook that night. I think that we just had cereal and recovered from being out and about in Addis.

Food Preparation Survival Tips

1)   Find a house keeper that cooks ASAP (it’s on my to do list)
2)   When you have a house keeper have her do the shopping and food preparation
3)   If you don’t have a house keeper take a local with you
4)   Be prepared to spend at least 45 minutes washing your produce
5)   Plan ahead so that you only have to go out shopping once or twice a week!

Out and About Survival Tips

1)   Don’t expect all restaurants to be inexpensive.
2)   Don’t expect all restaurants to be open.
3)   Make sure that the waiter reads what he’s written back to you.
4)   Bring hand sanitizer with you.
5)   Don’t be afraid to yell at street children.

Ground beef is ground in front of you and taken home in a shopping bag.

Our fist dinner, spaghetti is always a safe bet. 

I think that those are Fantas but the Mirinda looks the same.

Nothing to do with the post but here is our generator 

We don't have much in the way of staff but here is the staff quarters.

Laundry room (the center door if you look at the staff quarters).

The back of our temporary home.

The side garden of our temp home and our water storage.

These are the tiny milk bags!

Front of our temporary home.

Our living room! The boys were making forts. 

The view from the back porch.
                                                    Until next time friends and family! 


  1. Oh my gosh Jen. You are far more adventurous than I am. Feel good to know that if I were in your shoes, I'm sure I'd be in a puddle of tears on the floor by now. Can't wait to hear more!

    1. This is definitely a "just do it" situation. If I were to stop and think about everything too closely I'm sure that I'd be crying on the floor. However crying on the floor doesn't get the food cooked or the kids off to school or get the internet up and running so I must drive on. :-) Luckily even with the extreme poverty the people are actually very nice and they love children, so that is great. In fact our night guard will play outside with the boys almost every night. It cracks me up to see this grown man playing outside with all three of my boys.

  2. I'm sorry life is so strange and so hard for you all. I can only think about all the wonderful things we all take for granted over here. I hope after you all learn the "ropes" over there, life will settle down some. How long before you get the permanent home? This reminds me of life out in the wilderness for pioneer wives.Homemade everything. You are working so hard and keeping your family safe.Keep writing, it's good for you to write. And, save all your blogs and publish a book. I do enjoy them.

    1. It is ok that life is strange and hard. This is all a learning process and boy am I learning... A LOT! It does make you appreciate our country after living in a place like this. Makes you realize that all those extras (internet, tv's, phones, big screens, cars) are not the most important things in your life. Food, shelter, keeping your family safe and healthy are much more important to these people than any of that extra stuff. That stuff is nice though!

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  4. I love reading every word about your daily adventures! Keep it up! Sounds like eating out is a real bummer but that you are getting overloaded with so much home food prep.
    A word on bleach... instead of relying on store bought bleach I make my own using a specific dry powdered pool shock (only active ingredient Calcium Hypochlorite - some other pool shocks have other additives or sodium in them) I found a local pool supply who sells them in 1 LB packets instead of the giant buckets. If you'd like (and it is okay to ship... it IS totally dry) we would gladly mail you out some.
    The powder is shelf stable, whereas store bought bleach is slowly "going bad". Also you only need about 3 tablespoons of the powder to mix with 3 cups of water to make a standard bleach concentration. Then of course you dilute the bleach solution for your household use.

    Glad you found a favorite taxi driver. I imagine that building good working relationships with locals is valuable - have you thought about asking him where he goes to eat? I'd also ask your guards where their favorite places are to eat and shop? Right now pretty much everybody knows more than you do, rely on their recommendations!

    Since beverages are so expensive when eating out, have you tried just bringing your own distilled water in water bottles? I don't know if that is okay socially there or not? I don't drink much aside from water and I know that is not always a safe option to order overseas.

    I also love hearing about the kids food choices, it seems like Brenden is especially adventurous and that makes me proud. James is a good brother for sharing his ice cream.
    -Uncle "Fat" Brandon

    1. I have thought about asking the locals about where to eat but you have to be REALLY careful because the things that the locals eat will probably make me REALLY sick. So I'm forced to eat at more expensive places at least for the time being. Locals here really enjoy raw meat. I've been told that we can try it as long as we eat it at a VERY reputable places where there is A LOT of turn over.
      I do take my guard with me when we shop and he usually steers me in the right direction when buying food for the house. I'm not sure that bringing our own water would be socially acceptable. If you are at a normal (not super expensive) restaurant its not really that bad, about 14 birr or about 85 cents.
      Thanks for the offer for the bleach but what I get here is fine. I actually get a vegetable bleach that has something else in it and its only about $1.00 for a big bottle of it. I don't want to have to teach my house keeper how to make anything else:-). Hope that you guys are doing well hope to hear from you again soon!!!!