Thursday, July 12, 2007

Keren restaurant

There have been two reasons why we've resorted to eating out so far since moving to D.C. :
1) dinnertime, not home yet and too tired to cook
2) celebration

This morning, our breakfast out was more serendipitous. Call it "dictated by fate" if you will. We had a dentist appointment scheduled, but when we showed up (five minutes late, I might add), the blinds were drawn, no one answered the doorbell/knocking, and a call to their answering machine yielded a full queue with no way to leave a message! So, we decided to use the extra time and go out for breakfast.

Both of us have passed Keren restaurant before but hadn't really thought much of it. However, this time we headed there hoping we could get some of those delicious Ethiopian breakfast beans like what they serve at Dukem (beans might not be the best choice for everyone for breakfast, but we basically embrace any and all manner of breakfasts).

Once inside, a quick glance around (and at the menu) told us that we were in an Eritrean restaurant, not an Ethiopian one. For one, there were pictures of the coastline-- Ethiopia is a landlocked nation. For another, the dish of jumbled-up bits of injera and curried meat was called 'fatta' on the menu, not 'fitfit' as we'd seen in the Ethiopean restaurants we frequent. The menu also featured spaghetti dishes, a fact which tied into something later on in our meal.

We ordered Egyptian mango juice and ful (stewed, spiced beans)- here the ful came with a side of salad, and M ordered scrambled eggs as well. The salad was fresh and contained crisp romaine lettuce, not anemic iceberg. The bread that came with the beans was crusty and fresh and great when dipped in our dishes of beans. It was not lost on us that practically all the ingredients (with the exception of the clarified butter and the particular blend of spices) could have been easily reconfigured into a Mexican repast and no one would have blinked an eye.

As we tucked into our food with English Al-Jazeera playing on the television overhead, we noticed the cook (owner?) chatting with one of our fellow diners, in Italian. Now, M. and I were aware that Italy had some presence in Eritrea in the 19th-20th centuries, but we were puzzled as to why these two people, in this setting, would be conversing in Italian as opposed to the local language (Tigrinya was the only one we were aware of). Italian influences on the food seemed more straightforward than use of the Italian language. Was Italian a lingua franca in Eritrean among local dialects? Was the diner an Ethiopean or from somewhere else in the region? Was their use of a Italian a mark of status, class or education?

A quick internet search shed some light, but didn't completely answer all of our questions. The CIA World Factbook entry on Eritrea does not list Italian among the languages spoken in the country. The Wikipedia entry for Eritrea cites Italian cultural influence but does not talk about the language; it also cites mother tongue education but not Italian language education. It could be that the diner was Somalian, but he seemed a little young to be educated in Italian.

Perhaps we'll just have to visit the Horn someday to resolve this tantalizing linguistic puzzle. But in the meantime, hopefully return visits to Keren are in our future so long as we stay in the neighborhood.

For another review of Keren restaurant, from 2006, visit this page on DCist.


Rowenna said...

Hi, found your blog entry whilst looking for a recipe for fatta, one of my favourite foods whilst living in Eritrea. So I thought I'd answer your questions posed - hope you don't mind!!

Italian is spoken widely in Eritrea especially the older generations, because as you already stated it was an colony of the aforementioned country and all other languages were fiercely oppressed during their time in rule.

Tigrinya is the most widely spoken language in Eritrea, however there are 8 other offical langugaes, Tigre being the second largest. This probably accounts for the Italian you heard spoken. English is the 'common' language of Eritrea, but Italian is also used if the two speakers speak two different dialects and do not speak English.

The food is similar to Ethiopian I'm told, but is not the same, ful is the bean type dish often eaten for breakfast and is also one of my favourite dishes!!

I hope this helps,

Rowenna Ashwell

erasmo said...

Hi, I came across this site looking for Eritrean recipes.
I have been spending holidays and living in Asmara for about 11 years and I had a chance to talk to many Eritrean elders (both in Ethiopia and Eritrea). Nobody reported to me about any fierce constriction for language teaching/learning (regardless of the occupation itself). Italian was the language of the rulers and it was necessary to speak that language to find a job and live better. Quite a common finding, among many others, in other European ruled countries
Some young Eritreans are still speaking Italian because of the Italian School present in Asmara (at least up to 2002) from kinder-garden to 13th grade equivalent level, that was much more affordable than the International School (American system) which allows many children to undertake a western education.
Best regards

Jaemus said...

Extremely belated thanks to Rowenna, and thanks to erasmo for your comments! They were very helpful, and I think the issue is cleared up now: The people we overheard speaking in Italian must have been speakers of different Eritrean dialects who did not speak English.


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