Pascale's Kitchen: Wonders of Ethiopian cuisine

I dedicate my column this week to the traditional foods eaten by the Ethiopian Jewish community to celebrate Sigd, as well other dishes that are eaten on a daily basis.

The wonders of Ethiopian cuisine (photo credit: PASCALE PEREZ-RUBIN)
The wonders of Ethiopian cuisine
(photo credit: PASCALE PEREZ-RUBIN)
Beta Israel, the Ethiopian community in Israel, will next week celebrate Sigd, which falls 50 days after Yom Kippur and is celebrated with prayers and fasting. The main ceremony is intended to renew the covenant between God and the Jewish people, just as Ezra and Nehemia did following their return to Zion from exile in Babylonia.
Although the vast majority of Ethiopian Jews currently live in Israel, the community still celebrates this holiday. On this day, Kessim (Ethiopian Jewish religious leaders), rabbis and members of the Ethiopian community travel to Jerusalem and recite prayers facing the Temple Mount.
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This holiday serves as a spiritual gathering of the entire Ethiopian community and is an opportunity for them to strengthen their connection with their roots and culture. At the end of the ceremony, they break their fast with dabo, honey bread that is similar to Yemenite Cubana, which women hand out to everyone present. This special holy day has become a way for community leaders to expose young members of the Ethiopian community with a taste of their heritage and tradition. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, this year’s ceremony will held in small groups and broadcasted by Zoom.
In honor of this special day, I decided to dedicate my column this week to the traditional foods eaten by the Ethiopian Jewish community to celebrate Sigd, as well other dishes that are eaten on a daily basis. I was lucky enough to spend time recently with Chana Tamanu, 42, who made aliyah at the age of 14 with her family during Operation Solomon. Having grown up in a rural village, Tamanu learned to read and write only after arriving in Israel, where for the first time in her life she saw a buses and multi-story buildings. Her family lived in absorption centers in Arad, Beersheba and Ofakim.
Tamanu went to live in a dormitory for high school and then continued studying in a two-year mechina program before performing her national service in a kindergarten. Afterwards, she did a university degree in early childhood special education and then began working in that field. Unlike most of her friends from the community, she married only at age 30, and then divorced three years and two kids later. At that point, she decided to follow her lifelong dream of working with food and volunteering.
Tamanu volunteers at the Story of a Journey program, run by the Israel Association of Community Centers (IACC), whose goal is to create a connection to the Zionist story and culture of the Ethiopian Jewish community and to serve as a tool for promoting integration into Israeli society. Tamanu arrived at my home with all of the special tools, costumes and raw materials she usually brings with her when she goes to make her presentation in front of groups. She excitedly showed me all of the items she’d brought with her as she told me lots of personal stories and explained about Ethiopian traditions.
Tamanu also created a catering business after hearing so many Israelis complaining that Ethiopian food was stinky. She didn’t like people talking that way about the food she’d grown up eating, so she set out to teach Israelis about Ethiopian culture by introducing them to Ethiopian cuisine. She would cook dishes at home and then bring the food with her to workshops organized by community centers all around the country. She would offer participants tastes of the food she’d brought as they listened to Tamanu telling her story. Tamanu does all of this as a volunteer and is so happy that she’s been able to introduce Ethiopian flavors to people all over Israel. Slowly, she’s been able to turn this project into a full-blown catering business.
“Although Ethiopian food has a very sour taste, I’ve been able to adjust the flavor slightly so that is it more suitable to the Israeli palate.”
When I asked her how central food is to understanding Ethiopian culture, her eyes lit up and she began to explain excitedly about all the special foods, how they’re made and how they’re served to the table.
It’s important to know, she says, that Ethiopian food is extremely natural and healthy. Ethiopian cuisine uses high-quality natural and organic raw materials that are made at home. There are no appetizers, just a main course. Food is served on a low table called a mosav, which is large straw bowl that is lined with translucent plastic (like a tablecloth). Injera, Ethiopian bread made from teff flour, looks somewhat like Yemenite lahuh, as it is moist and has bubbles in it. It has a tangy, sour taste, which is due to the long fermentation process it undergoes. Teff, a grain that grows in Ethiopia, is full of nutrients and is naturally gluten-free. You use the injera to scoop up the stews that are eaten with it. Tamanu also explained to me how you are supposed to sit around a large platter of spreads and stews that you share with everyone else around the table. Everyone waits for the male head of the family to take the first bit of injera, scoop up some food with it and serve it to his wife as a way of showing his generosity. Then he offers pieces of injera to the other family members. Afterwards, everyone is invited to help themselves to pieces of injera and to scoop up the spreads with them. It’s important to note that each person is expected to eat only from the part of the platter that is nearest to them. If you’ve finished your section, you need to wait patiently until everyone has had their fill.
Some of the different stews that are served on the tray are: Mesir Wat (spicy orange lentils); Danchi Alcha Wat (potatoes with carrots); Keisar (beets); and Doro Wat (chicken with hardboiled eggs). Dabo, which is similar to jahnun, is prepared on Shabbat, holidays and festive occasions.
Some of the customary dishes eaten on Shabbat include Agot, which is made from homemade cheese made from cream, cheese and milk that are cooked for two or three hours over a low flame. This is eaten with dabo and a chopped vegetable salad and sprinkled with the berbere spice. On Shabbat, instead of eating chicken and meat, injera is served with homemade goat and cow cheese.
It’s important to note that the older generation of Ethiopians do not buy beef or milk products at stores. Instead, they purchase them only from kessim (spiritual leaders), and make everything themselves. Younger Ethiopians do not follow this custom and purchase products from grocery stores.
Traditional Ethiopian cuisine relies heavily on a spice blend that is composed of cardamom, turmeric, dried garlic, dried onion, coriander, fenugreek, ginger and black pepper. Sometimes recipes call for berbere, which is very spicy, or for alicha, which is used for non-spicy dishes.
After meals, it is customary to drink tea sweetened with honey or a special honey brew that is fermented for more than a week. Other popular drinks include tej, a honey liqueur, an ancient tradition that is passed down from mother to daughter; black coffee that is made from beans that are roasted at home.
Makes 6-8 servings.
Tamanu prefers to leave the injera dough to ferment for two and not four days as is customary, so that it will be less tangy and have a more refined taste. Injera is meant to be cooked on a large ceramic or iron electric pan called a mogogo, but you can also use a 30 cm. Teflon pan. Coat the pan with some ground sesame or flaxseed. Alternatively, you can use oil.
2 kg teff flour
1 liter water
Oil for coating mogogo or Teflon pan
Place the flour in a large bowl and gradually add water while stirring. Knead dough until it’s soft. Transfer dough to a container that can be hermetically closed and let it sit to ferment for two days.
After two days, add a little more cold water and knead dough. Separate into two sections. Cover one section with plastic wrap and place in the fridge. Slowly add two cups of boiling water, plus a little from the tap, to the second section while kneading. It should look similar to pancake batter at this point. Cover the bowl and let it sit for two more hours until it bubbles and has a beer-like froth on top.
Heat the mogogo or Teflon pan over a high flame. Oil the pan or add the ground sesame or flaxseed. Transfer the batter to a pitcher and pour onto the pan so that it forms a circle on the pan that is ½ cm. high (should look like a big pancake).
Cook the injera until it starts to bubble and then cover it for one minute. When the injera is cooked, remove it and place on a serving plate made from straw. Put the plate in a mosav, which is a large straw bowl that is lined with translucent plastic (like a tablecloth). The plastic helps keep the injera moist and prevents it from spoiling. Continue preparing the injera in this fashion until you’ve used up all of the batter.
Injera (Pascale Perez-Rubin)Injera (Pascale Perez-Rubin)
Makes 6-8 servings.
Shabbat morning breakfast includes dabo, a special bread similar to Yemenite jahnun, served with homemade cheese and salad. Sometimes dabo is made with nigella cardamom or fenugreek seeds.
Dabo can be made with whole wheat, semolina or teff flour. Each village in Ethiopia made dabo in its own special shape, size and in a variety of colors (depending on which spices they added). Regardless of its shape, dabo is always served with homemade cheese and a small bowl of berbere spices. Pieces of the dabo are used to make a sandwich with the cheese and then spices are sprinkled on top; this is served with salad.
1 ½ kg. flour, sifted
1 tsp. dry yeast
1 Tbsp. salt
2 Tbsp. sugar
1 Tbsp. mixture of ground nigella, cardamom and fenugreek seeds
3½ cups water at room temperature
Round pot with a thick bottom or an iron pan with a 26cm diameter
Add all the ingredients to the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a dough attachment. Slowly add the liquid while mixing until the dough falls away from the edge of the bowl. Cover the bowl and let it sit in a warm place until the dough doubles in volume.
Knead the dough until all the air pockets are gone. Form into a ball. Grease the pot and line it with baking paper. Put the ball of dough in the pot and cover with another sheet of baking paper. Let it rise another 30 minutes. Bake in an oven that has been heated to 130°-150° for 90-120 minutes until a toothpick comes out dry.
Dabo |(Pascale Perez-Rubin)Dabo |(Pascale Perez-Rubin)
Doro Wat (spicy Ethiopian chicken stew)
Makes 10-12 servings.
16 chicken drumsticks without skin
Juice from one lemon
1 Tbsp. salt
5 large eggs, chopped
¾ cup canola oil
2 Tbsp. garlic, crushed
2 Tbsp. fresh ginger, crushed
2 Tbsp. mixture of nigella seeds, turmeric, coriander and cardamom
4 heaping Tbsp. berbere (a traditional Ethiopian spice blend composed of chiles, garlic, fenugreek, allspice and cinnamon)
2 Tbsp. salt
12 hardboiled eggs, peeled
Place the chicken drumsticks in a bowl and add the lemon juice and salt. Mix well. Place aside and let sit for 30 minutes, then rise well.
Heat a large pot with a thick bottom over a medium flame. Add the onion and sauté for a minute or two. Add the oil and garlic and continue sautéing until the onion begins to turn brown. Add the ginger, berbere and salt and mix well. Add ¼ cup of boiling water. Continue cooking over a medium/low flame until ingredients have mixed well and you see oil floating on top. Add more water if needed.
Add the chicken drumsticks and mix so that all of the chicken is covered with sauce. Cover to pot.
Cook for 30 minutes over a low flame. Add another cup of water and cook for another 15-20 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning. Make a few cuts in the hardboiled eggs and then add them to the pot and cover. Cook for another 10 minutes so that the hardboiled eggs can absorb the flavor of the sauce. Serve hot or cold with injera.
Doro wat (Pascale Perez-Rubin)Doro wat (Pascale Perez-Rubin)
Mesir Wat (orange lentil stew)
Makes 10-12 servings.
4 onions, chopped finely
7 Tbsp. oil
3 heaping Tbsp. berbere
1 kg orange lentils, rinse and soaked in water for 30 minutes
4 Tbsp. garlic, crushed
1 Tbsp. salt
In a pot with a thick bottom, sauté onions over a medium flame until they lose all their liquid and begin to brown. Add the berbere and continue to sauté for 20 minutes. You can add 2-3 tablespoons of water if needed so that it doesn’t dry out. Add the rinsed lentils and stir. Cook for another 10 minutes.
Add the hot water, stir and bring back to a boil. Add the garlic and salt. Mix and then cover the pot. Cook over a low flame for 15 minutes. Stir gently. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Mesir wat (Pascale Perez-Rubin)Mesir wat (Pascale Perez-Rubin)
Atar Keek (split pea stew)
Makes 4-6 servings.
1 ½ cups orange split peas cooked with 5 cups of water until soft
2 large onions, chopped
¼ cup oil
5 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 Tbsp. alicha spice mix (turmeric, cardamom and white pepper)
1 tsp. salt, or according to taste
Heat a large pot over a medium flame. Sauté onion until it begins to brown. Add the cooked peas with a little bit of the cooking liquid. Add the spices and salt. Stir and cook over a low flame for 20 minutes. Stir every once in a while to prevent clumps from forming.
Kesir (beets)
Makes 4-6 servings.
2 large onions, chopped finely
¼ cup oil
2 large beets, peeled and grated coarsely
5 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
1 tsp. salt
Heat a pot over medium flame. Sauté onions until they begin to brown. Add the grated beets, garlic and salt. Cook for 30 minutes over a low flame, stirring every so often. Serve warm.
Agot (homemade cheese)
Makes 6-8 servings.
8 containers (200 g. each) of 15% cream cheese
2 containers of 5% labaneh
1 cup milk
Place all ingredients in a large pot and mix. Cook over a low flame for two hours until the texture becomes like Tsfat cheese, with a little liquid.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.