I Don’t Speak Ethiopian (but now I can cook it!)

takeaway gomen
gomen (collard greens) and injera from habesha

S and C (of New Year’s feast fame) and I have been trying to get out to an Ethiopian meal for ages. Yesterday we finally made it.

On a lazy Saturday afternoon at Habesha, we were nearly the only diners out and about — all the better as the lone waitress was able to shower us with attention. Smiling kindly, she expertly answered our questions about the menu. When she brought out the meal, she patiently explained everything on the edible tablecloth. When we couldn’t eat another bite, she didn’t mind our little quibble over who would bring home the leftovers. Once that was settled, she even indulged us by bringing over the entire selection of Ethiopian bottled beer for our perusing pleasure (six varieties — who knew!). That’s five-star service!

S and I are neophytes; C is well-versed in the wonders of Ethiopian dining so we relied on her advice. Along with her food recommendations, she suggested the t’ej — honey wine.

Drinking it, I felt a kinship with the ancient gods, upon whom this slightly sweet adult beverage made such an impression. It had a heady, lip-smacking quality that made me feel I was truly tasting nectar. It was the perfect complement to the (mildly) spicy portion of our meal. I can see where it would be an excellent foil for these dishes when they’re spiced up to par and not moderated for the American palate.

Aside: is it me, or does that down-spicing often happen at ethnic restaurants?
Not at the H Mart food court, it doesn’t! I dare you to try the soondubu! πŸ˜‰
Yep, that’s on my to-do list in the near future.

But I digress…

We didn’t eat at a mesob, for which I was grateful. When I clumsily fumbled the first few bites of stew-laden injera, the regular table was there to catch the drips. The injera was layered on an enormous tray, and this injera was the real deal. None of that white-flour injera here, but the greyish spongy bread made from teff — one of the smallest grains in the world and very nutritious. Now grown in the US, it is more readily available here (Bob’s Red Mill sells it in grain and flour form; someone was kind enough to track it down for me so I have some waiting, to try making injera on my own {and oh my! see the afterward for still more teff!}).

Upon our injera was the artfully arranged Habesha Special — from their menu:

“Split peas, lentil, spinach, cabbage, potato, green beans, salad, doro wot”.

The simplicity of this menu description belies the amazing complexity of flavors that awaits. Hearty green beans mingled with sweet carrots. Fresh salad, tangy with vinegar, sat alongside mellow cabbage with just a hint of spice. Yellow split peas were cooked to a creamy mash and lightly spiced with garlic. Spinach was in fact, I believe, collard greens, but without that harsh brassica taste — rather, a melt-in-the-mouth concoction, glistening with a healthy dose of spiced clarified butter.

All of this and more gave way to the irresistible doro wot, a rich dark-red chicken dish redolent with slow-cooked onion, garlic and berbere.

When my friend S called ahead to check the open hours for our little luncheon foray, she sent an amusing note stating that there had been a slight communication gap; she did not speak Ethiopian. Yesterday I learned that the official language of Ethiopia is Amharic. I don’t speak Amharic, but the universal language of good food shared with good friends is alive and well in New England.

The whole experience was fabulous — if you’ve never gone out for Ethiopian, give it a try! I loved it so much, I had to bring home an order of gomen (greens) for supper. From that moment, I knew I was treading on dangerous ground; I could sense a new obsession coming on and sure enough, when I got home, I started googling. I may have to wait awhile for authentic berbere, but there were several dishes easily made with things on hand (as it happened, I didn’t have to wait long at all — see afterward).

For the two dishes I cooked last night, I used olive or canola oil and reduced their quantity considerably. I did use a little ghee for the veggie stew. Other than that I pretty much followed the linked recipes. I’m very new to this cuisine so I don’t know how authentic these were, but they seemed like good candidates for a beginner.

veggies
freshly blanched veggies

Yataklete Kilkil (Ethiopian vegetable stew) with modification — I used half ghee and half oil, and seasoned this with ground cardamom and nutmeg before sauteeing onions, green pepper, and chiles.

creamy yellow split peas
creamy yellow split pea stew

I also made this very mild, yet aromatic stew with yellow split peas.

mini feast on injera
a miniature ethiopian feast ~ vegetable stew and yellow split peas by me, gomen (greens) and injera by Habesha

~~~~~

Afterward:

I had occasion to pass through Boston today, and made a special detour to the South End Food Emporium. This is an expanded convenience store with a nice produce section; not unlike many in the city but with one important difference: tucked away in a corner is a little wooden shelf chock full of homemade and authentic Ethiopian spices.

With a hot cup of coffee in one hand and a bag of teff flour on my arm, I stared in wide-eyed wonder at the colorful selection packed into deli containers. A few of the names I recognized from my brief research, but others escaped me. The friendly proprietor saw me looking a little like a deer in the headlights, and came to my rescue. Relieving me of the bag of teff, he asked what I wished to cook. “Doro wot!” said I, and he handed me a container of berbere — the essential spice blend for Ethiopian stews (wots). “You’re here at the right time”, he said enthusiastically, “this is a fresh batch! It’s handmade by my aunt in her own kitchen and sent to us specially — eight different spices!”.

He mentioned that his aunt is 93 years old.
Seriously, could I be any luckier!?!

He went on to detail just how to cook the wot so it would taste best — type of ingredients, when to add them, method and so forth. He explained that I needed the more colorful mitin shiro, not the plain — that’s for children and not spiced at all. I could get by without Ethiopian black pepper — but the cardamom was worth purchasing because it’s not the same as the Indian varieties I have.

“Will you be buying the injera”? he asked — will I be buying the injera!? You have fresh injera!??! Of course!! But I said only, “yes” as if I had known about this all along. He told me to sprinkle the injera with mitmita and roll it up with cooked veggies or salad.

I’ve tried to write everything down before I forget, including the recipe tips so I can share them when I attempt doro wot.

After further discussion, I left smiling at my good fortune; happily laden with the makings of a little Ethiopian pantry and some invaluable guidance from a kind soul to boot. This should be fun!

injera from sbfe
injera from south end food emporium

authentic ethiopian spices
authentic ethiopian spices!

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5 Comments »

  1. indosungod said

    That story made want to try an Ethiopian meal again. After our first one i was obsessed with buying berbere and making some of their delectable red chicken but forgot after a while.

    This post has reminded me of the mission again. And you are lucky to get hold of an Ehtiopian grandmother’s special spices.

    That’s how I felt this weekend ISG — obsessed. And fortunate. Now I just have to get some chicken and get cooking! πŸ™‚

  2. shammi said

    Hiiiiiiiiiiii! It’s so LOVELY to have you back – it’s been too long, Linda! Your blog doesnt look right without regular updates πŸ™‚ Welcome back!

    Never tried Ethiopian food, but that’s because Ethiopian food is very far from where I live. Not, I grant you, as far away as Ethiopia, but far enough πŸ™‚ But if I ever get the chance to try it…

    helloooooo shyamala!!! Thank you for the kind greeting — I’ve missed you πŸ™‚

    Ethiopian food is not too far from your kitchen I imagine, if you get ahold of a few recipes. Loving spice the way you do, I imagine you’d really enjoy the berbere. Let me know if you can’t find it and want to try — I have a little stash now πŸ˜‰

  3. BongMom said

    I have never cooked Ethiopian but love their food. used to frequent an Ethiopian restaurant here, awesome food.
    Where have you been ? Did you move to Michigan ?

    No move yet, Sandeepa — a few unexpected snags along the way! I’ve read that the Ethiopian restaurants are excellent down your way. You could cook any of this easily I am sure. Glad to see you! πŸ™‚

  4. mandira said

    this does look delicious. We recently tried making mesir wat at home.

    I have to go peek at how you did that if you posted it — I made the doro wot the other night and will get a pic up before it’s all gone — recipe made ALOT πŸ˜‰ I want to try the lentils with same spice, next.

  5. Nupur said

    Hi Linda- what a great post! I can’t wait to see all the Ethiopian dishes you will be churning out.

    I was thinking of taking my sister out for Ethiopian food while she’s visiting us, and reading this post is making me think I should do that sooner rather than later.

    No time like the present, Nupur! Maybe you’ll find a fabulous place and take us on a virtual tour πŸ˜‰ Or better yet, cook up some more of your own. I still remember your mesir wot, yum!

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