If you have ever been to an Ethiopian restaurant the beautiful tray covered with the large, sour pancake dotted with brightly colored stews is a delight to see and even more to taste. It makes you want to try to do this yourself. While many of the Ethiopian dishes appear to be simple, with only a few ingredients, you discover hidden complexities. Many of the ingredients in Ethiopian cooking turn out to have their own complex recipes.
In the realm of cooking aesthetics, there are two camps. There are some cuisines that favor flavor over appearance (“Who cares what it looks like as long as the stew tastes good.”) Last week’s Jambalaya where almost everything went into the same pot and was cooked together is a good example of this. There are other cuisines where it does not matter what it tastes like as long as it is beautifully presented (This idea has been carried to the extreme in some of the royal court dishes of several countries). Ethiopian Cuisine falls between these extremes. Some of the individual stews may be cooked down to a paste, but others are rich and chunky. When the many stews are brought together in an array of contrasting colors and textures it makes a beautiful presentation.
Variety is the key to their aesthetic, but this leaves a lot of work for the person who has to cook. A typical a family-size Ethiopian platter in a restaurant usually consists of 5-8 dishes placed on a sheet of injera: 1-2 meat stews (made of chicken, beef or lamb), 1-2 lentil/legume dishes (such as Mesir Wat), 1-2 cooked vegetables (including yellow peas, mixed vegetable stews and collard greens), 1 raw vegetable dish (usually a simple lettuce or tomato based salad) and Ayib (fresh Ethiopian cheese).
Injera is not just a pancake that you whip up and pour on the griddle. Made properly, it takes days to prepare, because it is a sourdough that takes three days to ferment. It is made with special flour, Teff, which may be hard to get if you do not have a Whole Foods nearby. In an Ethiopian household I am sure that they do not wait three days to make their bread. There is most likely a pot of injera batter fermenting at all times. Once they have made the injera for the meal, more water and teff are added so it will be ready for the next meal.
There are many “mock” injera recipes out there, some add just a touch of Teff for the flavor, other recipes eliminate the Teff altogether and use seltzer water or yeast to make the bubbles. I have had both and they are not a replacement for the 100% real thing. I am including a recipe by Heather U. below and a link to tips by Nourishing Journeys that help to make them come out right. There is definitely a trick to it. Do not use too much oil, and there is this wrist-thing you have to do to get the batter just so.
The recipe below calls for Niter Kibbeh, Berbere, and Mekelesha. These are not so much ingredients as recipes in themselves. Niter Kibbehis is a spiced clarified butter. Berbere is an Ethiopian spice blend that you add near the beginning of making many Ethiopian stews. Mekeleshais a aromatic spice blend that is added at the end of cooking. What is sold as Berbere in America commercially is really a combination of these two spice blends.
Doro wot (Red Chicken Stew) is an iconic Ethiopian dish and it will be the meat stew for my Ethiopian Feast. My legume dish will be Shiro Wat. My vegetable dishes will be Abesha Gomen (Ethiopian Collard Greens) and Timitam Salata (Ethiopian Tomato Salad). If I try to make these dishes again someday I will try to add the Ayib.
One interesting note: The Ethiopians really seem to like their red onions. Almost every recipe I have looked at in the past week, both cold and cooked, has included onions. Sometimes just a little and for other recipes a whole lot (like 6 of cups onions to one pound of chicken). If the recipe was written by an actual Ethiopian, they also specify that you should use red onions.
After Dinner Notes:
1) This meal was a lot of work and took some fancy timing. Have all of your ingredients prep-ed and laid out before you start cooking. When you have four dishes cooking at the same time there is no time to do that last bit of prep.
2) While everybody loved all of the dishes, the Shiro Wat was the sleeper hit of the night. It may have looked like a paste, but it had a fantastic taste, especially with the Ingera.
3) An after picture is worth a thousand words. When I first put the serving platter out I had only put as much of the stews as would fit on my biggest platter. As people ate I replenished the stews from the cooking pots and there was very little left when we were done. After 30 minutes the platter looked like this…
Karl’s Doro Wot (Ethiopian Red Chicken Stew)
2 pounds of chicken boneless breast and thighs
4-5 hard-boiled eggs
3 large red onions, fine chopped
¼ cup Karl’s Niter Kibbeh
5 cloves garlic
1 tsp. ginger, minced
5 Tbs. Karl’s Berbere
2 cups chicken or vegetable broth
2 Tbs. lemon juice
½ tsp. salt (to taste)
2 tsp. Karl’s Mekelesha
1. Cut the chicken in to large pieces (breasts into 3-4 pieces, thighs in half) and reserve, covered, in the refrigerator.
2. Boil peel and reserve the eggs
3. Fry the onions in a dry pan over a medium high heat, until they have released most of their liquid. This dry frying causes the onions to break down more rapidly into a sauce and is a key cooking technique in Ethiopian cuisine.
Tip: Some of the recipes I have read take the shortcut of blending the onions into a paste before cooking. This might cut the cooking time but I think you might lose some of the caramelization from frying the onions.
4. Add the Niter Kibbeh and sauté until the onions are fairly well browned.
Short Cut Tip: I am making three stews that all start: “dry fry onions and then add Niter Kibbeh and sauté…” Why not do this in one big pot at the same time and then portion out the sautéed onions out to their separate stew pots?
5. Add the garlic and ginger and stir-fry with the onions for a few minutes more.
Tip: Turn on the vent fan and hold your breath as you…
6. Stir in the Berbere and cook for 30 seconds.
7. Add the broth and lemon juice. Simmer, uncovered, for about 15-20 minutes. Stir occasionally.
Tip: Add more broth as needed to avoid sticking or if the stew seems too thick.
8. Add the chicken and continue simmering until chicken is almost done (about 15 minutes).
9. Gently stir in the salt and Mekelesha (be careful not to break up the chicken pieces).
10. Lightly score the eggs (make 4 or 5 shallow cuts from top to bottom, but not so deep that they fall apart) and submerge them into the stew. Continue simmering for 5 minutes.
11. Serve hot with Injera.
Authentic Injera (aka Ethiopian Flat Bread)
By Heather U. on Food.com
1½ cups ground teff (180 g)
2 cups water
salt, to taste
vegetable oil, for the skillet
1. Mix ground teff with the water and let stand in a bowl covered with a dish towel at room temperature until it bubbles and has turned sour; This may take as long as 3 days, although I had success with an overnight fermentation; The fermenting mixture should be the consistency of a very thin pancake batter.
2. Stir in the salt, a little at a time, until you can barely detect its taste.
3. Lightly oil an 8 or 9 inch skillet (or a larger one if you like); Heat over medium heat.
4. Pour in enough batter to cover the bottom of the skillet; About 1/4 cup will make a thin pancake covering the surface of an 8 inch skillet if you spread the batter around immediately by turning and rotating the skillet in the air; This is the classic French method for very thin crepes; Injera is not supposed to be paper thin so you should use a bit more batter than you would for crepes, but less than you would for a flapjack pancakes.
5. Cook briefly, until holes form in the injera and the edges lift from the pan; Do not let it brown, and don’t flip it over as it is only supposed to be cooked on one side.
6. Remove and let cool. Place plastic wrap or foil between successive pieces so they don’t stick together.
7. To serve, lay one injera on a plate and ladle your chosen dishes on top (e.g., a lovely doro wat or alicha). Serve additional injera on the side. Guests can be instructed to eat their meal without utensils, instead using the injera to scoop up their food.
Note: Another blog, Nourishing Journeys, give more detailed instructions on how to make your injera come out “right.”