Wednesday night, I decided to try a family experiment. I love “ethnic food,” but my family has a very “American” palette. That’s not to say that they are the stereotypical American’s who love fast food and junk, but they are most comfortable with American and Southern classics. World food for them is usually Tex Mex and MSG laden Chinese. My tastes run to more varied flavors: I love Thai and Indian and Lebanese and Turkish and Moroccan and Spanish and on and on.
One of my favorite meals is Ethiopian wats (spicy stews). Whenever I’m in a good food city, I try to find an Ethiopian restaurant to grab dinner at. I can’t handle the full spice effect, but the milder flavors are just perfect for my taste buds.
I’m always trying to find ways to broaden my family’s tastes, so I figured the best plan of attack was to try my hand at making Ethiopian food myself and force them to eat it! Handy dandy “What’s Cooking” material! For this special dinner I decided to make some of my favorites Ethiopian staples and to make something I’d never had before.
There are some important vocabulary words to know when discussing Ethiopian food.
- berbere: A paste, composed of hot spices, used to season many foods.
- injera: Spongy, fermented bread that tastes similar to sourdough bread and resembles a large flour tortilla or large, thin pancakes
- wat/wot and alecha: Stews. If a dish has “wat/wot” in its name, it will be made with berbere and be hot, while “alecha” means mild.
All of the following recipes should feed 6-8 people.
Injera (Image by artnoose via Flickr)
First up, we had to have the ubiquitous injera. Injera is eaten with almost every meal in Ethiopia (and neighboring Eritrea), but this is not just any bread. It is serving platter, utensil, and meal, all in one.
Injera is typically made with teff flour. Teff is an annual grass, a species of lovegrass native to the northern Ethiopian Highlands. It is believed to have originated in Ethiopia between 4000 BC and 1000 BC. According to Wikipedia
Teff (Image via Wikipedia)
the grain is gluten-free and has a high concentration of different nutrients, a very high calcium content, and significant levels of the minerals phosphorus, magnesium, aluminum, iron, copper, zinc, boron, barium, and thiamin. Teff is high in protein. It is considered to have an excellent amino acid composition (including all 8 essential amino acids for humans) and has lysine levels higher than wheat or barley. Teff is high in carbohydrates and fiber.
Therefore, injera made from teff flour is an excellent nutritional staple and has the added benefit of being quite filling and extremely handy.
Because teff flour is very low in gluten, it isn’t suited to types of bread that rise; instead, it is fried much like crepes or pancakes. Typically, injera dough is left to sit for a few days to allow it to ferment. In this way, it acquires a slightly sour taste similar to sourdough.
Since teff flour is still fairly hard to find outside of Africa (and because I didn’t want to wait a few days while the dough fermented) I used a recipe modified by Ethiopians living in North America. This recipe can be found in Extending the Table: A World Community Cookbook.
- 3 cups of self-rising flour
- 1/2 cup of whole wheat flour
- 1/2 cup of cornmeal or masa harina
- 1 tablespoon active dry yeast
- 3 1/2 cups of warm water
Let the mix set in a large bowl, covered, an hour or longer, until the batter rises and becomes stretchy. It can sit as long as 3-6 hours. When ready, stir the batter if liquid has settled on the bottom, then whip in blender, 2 cups of batter at a time, thinning it with 1/2 to 3/4 of a cup of water. The batter will be quite thin.
Cook in a nonstick frypan without oil over medium or medium-high heat. Use 1/2 cup of batter per injera for a 12-inch pan or 1/3 cup of batter per injera for a 10-inch pan. Pour the batter into the heated pan and quickly swirl the pan to spread the batter as thin as possible. The batter should be no thicker than 1/8 inch. Do not turn. Injera does not easily stick or burn. It is cooked through when bubbles appear all over the top.
Lay each injera on a clean towel for a minute or two, then stack in a covered dish to keep warm. Finished injera will be thicker than a crepe but thinner than a pancake.
- Alecha (Image from katyabaxter.com)
Stews form the basis of most of Ethiopian cuisine and alechas are the milder version, usually made with vegetables but they can also contain meat. I made a basic vegetarian alecha to cool our mouths.
In a large saucepan, combine:
- 2 tablespoons of oil or niter kibbeh
- 1 clove of garlic, chopped
- 1 red onion, chopped
Sauté until the onions are soft, but do not brown.
- 1/2 cup of water
- 3 medium potatoes, chopped in large pieces
- 2-3 carrots, chopped
- 1/2 teaspoon of salt
- 1/2 teaspoon of ground ginger
- 1/2 teaspoon of ground turmeric
- 1/4 teaspoon of pepper
Cook about 10 minutes until the potatoes and carrots begin to soften.
- 1 pound of cabbage, chopped
- 1/2 cup of water
- 1/4 teaspoon of salt
- 1 green chili pepper, seeded and quartered (optional, for extra kick)
Cook until the vegetables are tender. Stir gently to combine, taking care not to mash the vegetables
Sik Sik Wat and Beg Wat
Wat (Image via Wikipedia)
The basis of all wats, the spicy stews, is berbere. You must first make your berbere paste, but then you can add the meats you prefer to the berbere base. I simplified the berbere a bit since some of the spices are expensive (and not typically used in my kitchen) and because I was trying to ease the family’s taste buds into submission.
To make a simple, less spicy, berbere, in a heavy saucepan heat on low:
- 1/4 cup of oil or niter kibbeh
- 2 large red onions, finely chopped
- 2 cloves of garlic, minced
Cook gently until the onions are soft, but do not brown.
- 1/2 tablespoon of crushed red pepper (traditional wats call for a LOT more red pepper)
- 2 1/2 tablespoons of paprika (this is to maintain the rich red color the berbere looses as you omit red pepper)
- 3/4 teaspoon of pepper
- 3/8 teaspoon of ground ginger
- 3/8 teaspoon of ground cloves
- 3/4 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
- 3/8 teaspoon of cardamom
Simmer for 1-2 minutes. This is your berbere base!
To the berbere, add:
- 2 pounds of your preferred meat, chopped in approximately ½-inch squares (for Sik Sik Wat, add beef tenderloin, boneless sirloin, or stewing beef; for Beg Wat, add boneless lamb shoulder)
- 1/2 teaspoon of salt
Simmer about 30 minutes until the meat is tender and the flavors are well absorbed.
Typical Ethiopian platter (Image via Wikipedia)
Typically, Ethiopian food is served communally: injera is placed on a large platter and the food is placed on the injera. Everyone sits around the platter to share the meal. Diners tear off a piece of injera and scoop up food.
Sadly, neither our platters nor our kitchen table are really designed for this type of communal dining, so we did the next best thing: we actually sat at the table as a family and ate, something we rarely get around to these days.
The verdict was that it was still too spicy for most, even though I SERIOUSLY cut back on the pepper. Other than that, everyone really enjoyed it. The alecha was a big hit and everyone actually tried everything (I’m the only one who really likes lamb, so even that was a stretch). They all said they would gladly eat the meal again, with a little less kick of course!
So, yay me! I didn’t ruin any of it. That’s one international cuisine under my belt… which one will be next?
Note: I had to use free license pictures in this post for two main reasons. Firstly, because my camera is currently not working. And secondly, because I spent the better portion of the day on my feet on a hard tile floor slaving over this lovely meal and by the time it was ready I was too tired and hungry to remember to ask my dad to take pictures. Next time I’ll be sure to get some.