Full story published in Me Naiset Magazine 11/2012
Text: Maija Koski, Photos: Katja Tähjä
Rooster from yard to pot
In Ethiopia, the flavors are brewed to perfection and nobody ever dines alone. It is no wonder that everyone is talking about the Ethiopian cuisine.
Every honorable woman knows how to pluck a hen.
Recently, two roosters sauntered into the backyard of a house in Addis Abeba. Now they slouch in a bowl with their heads cut off. Kibbinesh Ergano, 37, and Meskerem Nebret, 30, pour hot water on top of the birds and start to flay them. The cockerels will have the honor of becoming doro vot, a chicken stew that Ethiopian women learn to prepare as little girls.
An Ethiopian man takes part in cooking only by slaughtering the animal. Importantly, a woman will never slaughter the animal; if she does, the meal will be ruined.
Store-bought, ready-to-cook meat is but a fantasy to anyone other than the richest people living in the capital. That might be just as well – a self-bought live bird or lamb is certainly fresh.
Kibbinesh and Meskerem have come to assist their friend Meseret Degefun, 31, in cooking. Meseret is having guests over, and the women are making a 10-course feast: fried lamb, raw beef, farmer’s cheese, lentil stew, mashed peas, and various vegetarian side dishes. The stews and sauces are eaten by hand – only the right one – with a slightly sour flatbread called injera.
The roosters got to see the wake of dawn, but the base of the stew – onions and tomatoes fried in oil – has been simmering since yesterday.
– Two hours and 45 minutes, and another hour today, Meseret says.
Of course, it is possible to take shortcuts, but this is the way Meseret is used to preparing her vot. And vot is the pride of every Ethiopian woman.
When an Ethiopian invites guests to come over, at least one meat dish must be served – anything else is considered an insult. In practice, however, the everyday food of most Ethiopians is mainly vegetarian. Lentils, peas, and vegetables can be cooked up into all kinds of different stews. In many African countries, a bean sauce is always a bean sauce and a plantain stew is a plantain stew. In Ethiopia, however, three lentil dishes that look alike can be seasoned so that they taste completely different, from mild and spicy to tangy and hot.
And even though most Ethiopians eat only one or two proper meals a day, those meals are enjoyed in the company of loved ones, who usually share the same dish.
It is no wonder, therefore, that the Ethiopian kitchen, which is founded on communality and healthiness, has spread all across the globe. In cities such as New York, Stockholm, and Amsterdam it is becoming increasingly common to sit down and share one huge plate with one’s companions.
On the other hand, if you ask for a restaurant tip in Addis Abeba, the capital of Ethiopia, the first recommended places will probably be Italian. When the Italians occupied Ethiopia from 1935–1941, they brought with them pasta, of course, and Italian cuisine is still today perceived as a natural part of the culinary culture of Ethiopia.
Traditional Ethiopian food is also served in a grand environment. In the fully booked Yod Abyssinia restaurant, waitresses bring abundant dishes to two large dinner parties. One party consists of a young bride and women from two families, the other of the middle-aged groom with the men of the respective families. The parties mix only as the men’s feet start to tap to the music until they can no longer sit still. Traditional dances escalate, accompanied by the band, into a fierce party. Before long, the tiny dance floor in front of the stage and around the table is packed with people dancing – the whole family, from the little children to the grannies with their canes, are letting loose.
The food at Yodi is fantastic – but tiny pubs and straw-roofed rural restaurants serve food that is just as delicious. Dining out is especially easy for vegetarians, as Wednesday and Friday are the Orthodox Christians’ fasting days, and they refrain themselves from all produce of animal origin. As almost half of all Ethiopians are Orthodox, every restaurant has several vegan dishes on their menu all week around. If you order an “Ethiopian fasting dish”, you most certainly will not starve. On the contrary, brace yourself for rolling out after an eight-course vegetarian meal.
A man in the kitchen!
If there’s some aspect of the Ethiopian cuisine that might catch a foreigner off-guard, it’s the sour taste of injera – and the clever ways the Ethiopians manage to smuggle it into every dish. If the only proper hotel in a small town claims to have a “buffet breakfast,” it means a ton of different bakes made of rolled and diced injera.
The average Finn would probably cook rice or potatoes to go with the sauces.
– The moment you leave Ethiopia, you’ll already start missing injera, says Fekadu, 63, who works as a chauffeur.
The man sighs deeply and starts to praise his wife’s and grandmother’s dishes. There is a wistful tone in his voice, as his wife moved to London with their children 18 years ago, and the cooking of his grandmother now exists only in his memory. Fekadu, who now lives alone, claims to dine out more or less every day.
– Once you know the right places, you can get a portion of injera and shiro made of peas for a very small price.
If there’s an opportunity for a feast, Fekadu orders doro fanta with his injera, a spicy stew with both lamb and chicken.
– All the good things in one dish, he smiles.
Fekadu does not admit to spending time in the kitchen, not even behind closed doors.
– A man is not made to cook, he claims bluntly.
– I by no means want to draw borders between men and women, but cooking requires skills and physique that comes more naturally for women, he says, trying to soften his argument.
Then he confesses something.
– When my wife was near her time with our first child, I drove her out of the house to run some errands. Meanwhile, I cooked her spicy lamb tibs. My wife thought it was so delicious, I surprised her again when she was expecting our youngest.
One could wonder whether Fekadu’s wife would have left off for London had her husband visited the kitchen a third time.
An integral part of Ethiopian cooking is the spice blend berbere, which is made of red chilies and 6–12 other spices. These spices usually include at least red onion, garlic, ginger, paprika, cardamom, cilantro, cinnamon, clove, and cumin. The web is full of different variations for creating one’s own spice paste, but you can also take a shortcut and simply season the dish at the beginning with a suitable combination of berbere spices.
If you are feeling lazy, yet in for a treat, Ethiopian food is also sold frozen in Finland. Wulita Bezabeh, a stay-at-home mom from Pietarsaari, Finland, founded her own company called Mama Ethiopia. The company produces preservative- and gluten-free meat and vegetarian dishes, which are sold in southern Finland as well as Osthrobotnia, mainly in larger K-market stores. The chicken stew we tested was just hot enough and worked perfectly well with cooked rice.
The Ethiopians make their injera with teff, a grass related to millet. The nutritional value of teff is excellent: it has loads of protein, iron, fiber and amino acids. As teff is naturally gluten-free, it is also suitable for people with celiac disease. You can buy teff in Finland in larger stores, but you can also prepare injera with a mix of, for example, wheat and rye flour.
It is easy to get hooked on coffee in Ethiopia. It is served everywhere and is always freshly made – and always delicious. Instant coffee is considered tantamount to blasphemy, and no supranational trademarks have taken over the market.
An Ethiopian coffee ceremony is not theater but an integral part of culture and socializing. Women hand-pick the coffee beans and rinse them by hand, roast them on embers, crush them, and finally boil them in a pan into thick, delicious coffee. The coffee is then served from small cups with roasted corn grains. It is an odd combination – but it works amazingly well!
If you’re planning on taking some coffee with you back home, you ought to buy it from the capital, at Tomoka Coffee House. You can also have a taste of different varieties and roasts.
Tomoka Coffee House, Winston Churchill Road, Addis Abeba.
Recipies (By Maija Koski)
An Ethiopian dinner
Red lentil stew
Fried tibs meat
Allicha, a vegetarian stew
Tangy tomato salad
Place a small portion of each dish on the injera and eat one mouthful at a time rolled in the injera. The recipe is for four persons.
Fried tibs meat
Cooking time: 30 minutes
400g beef or lamb joint
1 large onion
2 cloves of garlic
2ts. freshly grated ginger
1dl red or white wine
Fresh chili, according to taste
Cut the meat into thin slices. Peel and slice the onion into long strips and mince the garlic cloves. Quickly fry the meat in a pan in butter and set aside on a plate. Add the onion and garlic into the butter and sauté them for a while. Add the ginger, salt, and cardamom and continue frying for five minutes. Add the meat and wine to the pan and let it simmer without a lid for about 15 minutes, until the fluid has evaporated and the meat is tender. Remove the seeds from the chili and chop it. Add to the meat or serve separately.
4 portions (12 pcs)
Cooking time: the batter and cooking the injera: 30 minutes + the batter needs to sit for a day.
12.5g fresh yeast
3dl lukewarm water
5.5dl all purpose flour (or teff)
2dl rye flour (or teff)
2.5dl cold water
2.5dl boiling water
Prepare the batter: Dissolve the yeast into lukewarm water in a large bowl. Add the flour and thoroughly work the batter until firm. Cover the bowl tightly with a lid and let it sit in room temperature for at least 24 hours.
The next day, work in 2dl of cold water. Then add 2dl of boiling hot water and whisk the batter until it is even in texture. Cover the bowl tightly again with a lid and allow to sit in room temperature for at least two hours.
Frying: Mix the batter once more, and only at this point add the salt. Heat up a clean, dry non-stick pan smoking hot on the stove. Then lift it up from the stove with one hand and, with your other hand, pour around 1dl of batter on the pan, from the edges toward the center. Turn the pan so that the batter spreads evenly across it as a thin layer. Place the pan back on the stove and wait until the injera is bubbly with tiny ‘eyes’. It takes about half a minute.
The injera is fried only on one side. Once the batter has set, lift the injera with a spatula on a clean cloth and leave it to cool. Fry all the injera one at a time in the same manner.
Don’t place the injera on a serving plate before it has cooled down, otherwise they might stick to each other.
! In real Ethiopian injera they use teff flour. You can substitute a part of the flour or all of it with teff.
Allicha, a vegetarian stew
Cooking time: 60 minutes
2 cloves of garlic
1Tb. freshly grated ginger
About 3dl water
2 green chilies
Peel and slice the onion and the garlic cloves. Peel the carrots and cut them julienne-style. Peel the potatoes and dice them into 1.5cm cubes. Slice the cabbage. Sauté the onion and garlic in oil in a saucepan for a few minutes. Add the ginger and turmeric and continue frying for a moment. Add the cabbage and fry the mix until the cabbage softens a bit. Add the carrots, salt, and half of the water, mix and let simmer under a lid for about 10 minutes. Add the potatoes and let them boil under a lid for another 20 minutes. Add water as needed. When the vegetables are fully cooked, there should be no excess water left in the pan. Remove the seeds from the chilies and chop them. Mix in the vegetable stew.
Red lentil stew
Cooking time: 45 minutes
2.5dl red lentils
2 cloves of garlic
0.5ts. ground cumin
0.5ts. ground cilantro
1ts. freshly grated ginger
About 8dl water
About 0.5ts. salt
Rinse the lentils. Peel and slice the onion and the garlic cloves and sauté them in oil in a sauce pan for a while. Add the cumin, cilantro, paprika and ginger and continue frying for a few minutes. Add the lentils and fry them for a while. Add the water and salt. Let simmer under a lid for 15 minutes and then another 15 minutes with the lid off. The stew will be mildly runny when cooked.
A tangy tomato salad
Chop up tomatoes, red onions and green chilies according to taste. Mix them in a bowl. Season with lemon juice, oil, and salt.