Bringing Ethiopia into Israeli cuisine

A new cookbook brings the healthy and spicy cuisine of the African continent home.

Sewesa Desta (photo credit: Courtesy)
Sewesa Desta
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Sewesa Desta recalls being in Washington several years ago and going to Georgetown, the preening suburb of the capital across the Potomac in Virginia and a sort of foodie mecca. Nestled among the shops was an Ethiopian restaurant.
“That one is very nice, because it has a good reception. They make good food; they are not interested only in selling drinks. Here, most of the people who go to the [Ethiopian] restaurants go to drink.”
Desta is the author of From the Ethiopian Kitchen with Love, a cookbook with recipes in Hebrew but names of the foods written out in Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia, and phonetic English. Born in Gondar – an ancient city in the highlands of Ethiopia – in 1951, she made aliya in 2000. A passionate chef, she wants to put Ethiopian food on the Israeli map and hopefully introduce it to the country’s palate.
A Jerusalem resident, she notes that over the last few years shops selling Ethiopian grains and spices have opened in Mahaneh Yehuda, and there are several Ethiopian restaurants in the capital.
“When I came here, I had in mind to open an Ethiopian restaurant. I went to the small business support groups and asked them to help me make a proposal.
They asked me if I wanted to open a restaurant for Ethiopians or Israelis, and they said Israelis don’t know the food. I was shocked. The insinuation was I should open a bar instead.”
She sees it as a cultural disconnect. Most Ethiopians in Israel, of whom there are around 150,000, eat Ethiopian food at home – but few have ventured into the restaurant business. When they want their food, they often eat at home rather than go out. This presents a hurdle for encouraging Israelis to try the food.
Desta acknowledges the challenge: “On the one hand they are right, no one tried to show what we eat or what ingredients we use at home... No one gives an education about it, what we eat. So I decided to write an Ethiopian cookbook, so that people will know what basic things we use – the grains, the spice, how we cook and why sometimes our food has a special aroma, different from Israeli or Western food.”
Israeli cuisine is an invented amalgam of the foods that Diaspora Jews brought to the country. Over the years it has taken on a decidedly Middle Eastern flair, but Israelis have a keen interest in exploring new food groups – as evidenced by the explosion of sushi restaurants in the last few years. So why not Ethiopian food? Desta notes that an Ethiopian woman recently participated on MasterChef. Last summer, during the Season of Culture in Jerusalem, Desta participated by contributing a meat dish called Sega Kai Wot. “In the next generation, I am sure Ethiopian food will be part of the Israeli diet.”
The basis of most Ethiopian dishes is injera bread.
“It is based on natural yeast. You prepare the yeast at home from water and teff [grain]. You leave it until it is fermented, then you prepare the dough. It can take four to five days when it is cold, but in the heat it can be in two to three days,” says Desta. The bread is used to scoop up the various meat and vegetable dishes.
Ethiopian food can be spicy; but it is easy to prepare it more mildly. The cuisine has vegetarian and meat varieties.
Desta observes that many Israelis think it is not kosher, but this is not accurate. Moreover, her book does not include any dishes incorporating dairy.
Misir Alicha
This dish consists of split lentils and is a nice, mild introduction to Ethiopian cuisine.
It can be eaten like a soup, or with a pita.
❖ 500 gr. (1 lb.) split lentils, soaked in water and drained
❖ Two small onions (chopped)
❖ Three cloves garlic (finely chopped)
❖ ½ cup vegetable oil
❖ 2 tbsp. chopped ginger
❖ 1 tsp. turmeric
❖ Salt to taste
❖ Basil to taste
❖ Three cups water
❖ Three spicy green peppers (deseeded) and cut into pieces (optional)
Book the lentils with 2½ cups water, bringing them to a boil, until they are soft and not watery. Then, in a pot, fry the onion with the oil. Add garlic, ginger, turmeric and salt.
When the onions begin to brown, put the lentils in the pot. Add the basil and green peppers, if using.
Shiro Wot
Shiro Wot is a blended stew and a staple of any Ethiopian dining experience. It consists of a mixture of legumes, chickpeas, peas and a variety of other ingredients, including ginger, onion and garlic. Shiro is a packaged ingredient that can be purchased at any Ethiopian food store. Desta notes that “sometimes it will be red or yellow, depending on what you buy. I recommend the yellow (with turmeric); while the red is with hot pepper.”
❖ 100 gr. shiro
❖ 1 onion (chopped)
❖ 3 tbsp. oil
❖ 2 green peppers (chopped)
❖ 1½ cups water
❖ Salt
❖ 1 tomato (finely chopped) (optional)
In a pot, fry the onion in oil until brown, then add the water. When water boils, either insert the shiro directly or mix it with water and add to the boiled water, allowing it to simmer for 10-15 minutes as it reduces.
Add salt, green peppers and tomato (if using).
Sega Wot
There are many flavorful meat dishes, but Sega Wot is unique in its easy preparation and stands above the rest in flavor and taste.
One of the issues, though, is locating Ethiopian spices. Ethiopian “cho,” or Berbere, is a concoction of many spices, including chili, garlic, ginger, dried basil, rue, ajwain, nigella and fenugreek. It is best to go to an Ethiopian store and purchase the premade mixture, rather than trying to concoct it at home.
❖ 1 kg. (a little over 2 lbs.) red meat, chopped into small cubes, rinsed and drained (anything that is not fatty or too tough will do)
❖ Two onions (chopped)
❖ 1 tbsp. garlic (chopped)
❖ ½ cup vegetable oil
❖ 1½ cups hot water
❖ 2 tsp. Berbere spice
❖ 1 tsp. “machalesha,” a mixture of dry spices such as turmeric and caraway
Fry onions in the oil in a pot on medium heat, until golden brown. Add the Berbere and stir frequently, paying attention not to let it burn (reduce flame if need be), then add a little of the water. Add the meat and stir until it is fully cooked, adding small portions of water at the same time.
Add the ginger, garlic and salt, then the machalesha. After three minutes, take off the stove.
Note: Dish can also be cooked longer to give it more flavor. Be careful in adding only hot water; adding cold water will cause the meat will stiffen.