HOW HARD COULD IT BE TO MAKE: a few chicken drumsticks or thighs simmered in sauce made mostly of onions and a few spices? And yet, doro wot – sometimes called the national dish of Ethiopia – can make a big difference in a young woman’s life.
Fikerte Kidanemariam was the assistant to the Ethiopian ambassador in Washington, D.C., when I met her during the summer of 2009. I talked with her and other embassy personnel about Ethiopian cuisine, but she was the culinary sage and scholar of the group, and her sister is married to Daniel Mesfin, the author of Exotic Ethiopian Cooking, the very good Ethiopian cookbook.
Doro wot may just look like chicken pieces in a spicy red stew, Fikerte told me that day. But back in the 1960s, when she was a bride, if a woman couldn’t cook doro wot, she wasn’t ready to get married. She had to know how to cut the chicken up into 12 parts – no more, no fewer. “They don’t bother girls so much now,” she told me, “but back then, you had to know how to split the chicken properly.”
We talked about other dishes that day, including duba wot, or pumpkin stew, which some of the men in the room said they didn’t like. But Fikerte interceded: Duba wot cooked well tastes like doro wot. The men didn’t challenge her.
In his 1970 book African Cooking, part of the popular Time-Life Books series, Laurens van der Post shares this anecdote about doro wot that confirms Fikerte’s memories: “When Berhanu Wolde Emanuel, a civil servant in the Ethiopian city of Gondar, was about to marry Lishan Sefu, he made inquiries about the quality of her doro wot, or chicken stew. The report was good; in fact, it turned out that she was something of a perfectionist. For example, she insisted on preparing her own berbere seasoning for her wot, and making berbere is no simple matter.” One presumes that the marriage took place.
Marthe van der Wolf wrote a vivid piece in 2012 for the Mail & Guardian, a South African newspaper, in which she recalled her years of living in Ethiopia, where she learned how to make doro wot from an expert.
“You will never find a husband if you cannot cook doro wot!” My godmother has told me once too often. And she is not alone in this belief. My favourite taxi driver looked appalled when he overheard me telling a friend that I can’t cook any Ethiopian dish. He claims he chose his wife on her doro wot skills. . .Back home in Ethiopia, I am often reminded that a woman should know how to cook. Or, as one friend explained to me: “If you can’t make doro wot, your man will eat it somewhere else. And no woman is going to let a man go just like that after cooking a dish for him that takes all day.”
. . .Traditionally, the chicken is killed at 6 p.m. on the day before Easter. Only men that have been fasting are allowed to cut the throat of the chicken. Killing the chicken goes quickly. Although I find it awful to look at, my desire for doro wot is so great that I can’t feel sorry for the chicken. “I started watching my mother in the kitchen from the age of seven. Only by the time I was thirteen could I prepare it myself,” says Mrs. [Genet] Seifu as she plucks the feathers from the dead chicken that will give us seven good pieces of meat: two legs, breast and thighs, and the back. The wings, neck and kidney’s will also be mixed into the wot. Once the chicken is naked and the head is cut off, she starts blowing through the chicken’s neck to make the skin puff up, something I can’t imagine myself doing as I see the blood around her mouth. She then holds the chicken above a fire to burn off all the remaining hair and dirt. The cleaning process is very important to Mrs. Seifu and she takes her time to wash the naked chicken over and over again after removing its skin.
. . .Mrs. Seifu recommends that one chooses young chickens, as the older ones take longer to cook. “I prefer the younger ones. So when you go out to buy the chicken, closely check the fifth nail. The bigger that nail is, the older the chicken.”
If this dish challenges an Ethiopian woman, just imagine what it can do to an American man. As a graduate student at Stanford University several years ago, Dave Evans was part of a team that developed the Mighty Mitad, a steel band that wraps around a mitad – the traditional clay surface on which Ethiopians make injera – to strengthen it and keep it from breaking.
Evans loves to cook, and during his trips to Ethiopian while developing the Mighty Mitad, he decided to learn how to make Ethiopian food from the best, which was much easier said than done: “As a man,” he says, “I was shoved out of the kitchen.”
But he persisted, setting himself the goal of learning to make doro wot and injera.
The injera, he soon learned, was the easiest thing to fail at making. You have to get it to cook properly, pouring it onto the mitad in a spiral – not too quickly, not too slowly, and from not too high above the cooking surface. Lifting it off the hot mitad was also a challenge. “I probably tried 10 times,” he says, “and I maybe got one piece that they actually let me serve to the family.”
As for the doro wot, it’s not that there’s anything too difficult about the preparation. It’s just that it can take several days.
His lesson began with instructions on how to properly clean the freshly killed chicken, which you must wash “until it stops smelling bad,” his hostess taught him. This means filling buckets with water and then adding lots of salt and lime, then shaking the chicken in the mixture vigorously for five minutes, then doing it again and again, sometimes for six or seven hours. Then, you cook the sauce, which simmers for three or four hours, and then you add the chicken to the sauce – for another few hours,
“It became pretty clear that I wasn’t going to do it in the home kitchen,” he recalls. “The difference between Ethiopian food in the U.S. and Ethiopian food over there is the culture that surrounds it. You can take the time to lovingly prepare it. And of course, it’s fabulous, because you’ve been working on it for two days.”
JUST HOW LONG has doro wot been a part of Ethiopian cuisine? No one knows for sure, and we surely never will know. In her handsome Ethiopian cookbook, The Recipe of Love, Aster Ketsela Belayneh, who owns an Ethiopian restaurant in Toronto, says that the dish “goes back to the days of the Aksumite kingdom,” which existed in the northern part of what’s now Ethiopia from about 200 to 800 A.D. But that’s just lore and cultural pride speaking.
The archaeologist Stuart Munro-Hay says only this on the subject of chicken in the Aksumite diet: “One or two pottery figures of birds exist from Aksumite times, and (with a little imagination) we can perhaps identify chickens and pigeons or doves.” Other scholars have noted the absence of the chicken in rock art of the culture, although some archaeo-zoologists have found what they believe to be chicken bones.
So doro wot may be a more recent addition to the table – and by recent, I mean that it may have arrived 700 or 800 years ago. The word “chicken” appears frequently in the Serata Gebr, a 15th Century document about grand imperial Ethiopian banquets (the name means “The Order of the Feast”). But the document is written in Ge’ez, the ancient language of Ethiopia, and nobody has fully translated it, so we don’t know if it specifically mentions doro wot. It certainly seems likely, though, and because the document refers to feasts of earlier emperors, doro wot probably goes back to at least the 14th Century.
The dish is popular in Eritrea, too, where it’s called derho tsebhi, the latter being the Tigrinya word for wot (a spicy stew). Sometimes you’ll see it called dehro zigni, although zigni is more often the Tigrinya word for a wot of beef or lamb. Writing in Washington City Paper, Tim Carman described the derho tsebhi at Enjera, an Eritrean restaurant in Arlington, Va., as tasting like “the Eritrean version of Oaxacan mole — rich, thick, spicy, tart, even a little sweet.”
And in Afaan Oromo, the language of Ethiopia’s Oromo culture, doro wot is called kochee handaanqoo. The menu at the Oromo-owned African Restaurant in Salt Lake City describes it like this: “Tender chicken legs sauteed in seasoned butter and stewed in barbare sauce with boiled eggs, flavored with onions, garlic and ginger root with a pinch of cardamom and nutmeg and qimamii.” That last item is the Afaan Oromo word for niter kibe, so the description is a bit redundant.
But how different is doro wot from culture to culture in Ethiopia? According to the scholar Abbebe Kifleyesus, not very much at all. “Ethiopia’s fried meats (tibs) served with jellied red peppers (awaze) and mustard (senafich) have regional variants,” he writes in his essay The Construction of Ethiopian National Cuisine, “whereas the ubiquitous chicken stew (doro wot), which is served with injera especially, if not exclusively, during holidays or shared with dear and loved ones, has regional versions tasting almost alike.”
Then there’s doro wot that isn’t really doro wot. The scholar James McCann of Boston University identifies doro fanta, “a common dish served in roadside hotels in southwestern Ethiopia and now more generally even in Addis Ababa. Doro fanta is a southern non-Abyssinian dish. Its name literally means ‘substitute chicken stew,’ an allusion to Ethiopia’s iconic chicken stew, doro wot.” But doro fanta “contains neither the egg nor the chicken,” McCann writes. “This dish is a product of the cultural and economic change of the past quarter century in the wake of Ethiopia’s 1974 revolution; it demonstrates the expansion of a commercial road-hotel economy away from the areas of classic highland Christian culture that was the core of Ethiopia’s national cuisine.”
So just what is doro fanta? It begins with shallots (or onions), berbere and niter kibe, the three main ingredients in the kulet – that is, the thick rich sauce for doro wot. When the kulet is done, McCann tells me, you have a “lovely burgundy-colored rich sauce, but the meat is usually a prime bone from mutton or goat. Doro fanta is quite lovely, since it is the sauce that makes the dish.”
But as much as McCann enjoys doro fanta, it’s not quite the same. “Doro wot served in the home is the real deal,” he says, “sauce served as the first thing ladled out onto the injera, with individual pieces [of chicken] and an egg placed before [people] around the mesob.”
And the scholar Adamu Zegeye has studied whether doro wot tastes better with injera made from teff, sorghum, maize or barley. Everyone knows that pure teff injera is the most prized variety in Ethiopia, but the data from Adamu’s “sensory panel” revealed that “sorghum injera can best be used as a substitute for teff injera without affecting the acceptability of taste in combination with doro wot.”
After visiting Ethiopia, the Georgian-born physician and researcher Paul Merab, writing in the 1920s, once observed: “With doro wot, you judge the degree of the friendship of the one who invites you. The reason is that in the horribly complicated cuisine of the Ethiopians, chicken demands even more time and complex care than mutton or beef.”
This remains true in Ethiopian homes today, where “the smell of doro wot signifies that a guest is expected,” Daniel writes in Exotic Ethiopian Cooking. “The cook takes great pains to make it savory – ij yemiyasme’ti’t (a dish that makes you lick your fingers). But this only tells you how good it is, as to lick your finders is a social gaffe.”
What may be the earliest reference to doro wot in an American newspaper appears in an Oct. 26, 1966, article in The Los Angeles Times that rounds up the ways different cultures prepare chicken. “Then off to Africa for a hot taste treat in a chicken with hot sauce called Doro-Weutt,” says the article, which includes the recipe. “The spicy chili-flavored sauce is poured generously over the chicken when it is served, with some sauce served separately for dipping.” The spelling of the dish may be a bit unconventional, but this certainly sounds like how it’s done.
What Evans learned was doro wot in the extreme, the way traditionalist make it when their primary responsibility is cooking and taking care of a household. At home, the process is simpler but still rather labor intensive – that is, you can’t just throw things into a pot and let them stew.
The first challenge comes in preparing and cooking the onions or (if you really want to be authentic) shallots. You must chop them very finely because that makes cooking them much more easily. Some recipes say to cook the onions for 10 minutes – clearly not adequate. Some say to cook them for 60 to 90 minutes, stirring occasionally, which seems like a long time.
In truth, how long you cook the onions depends on how much onion you’re cooking. If you’re making a feast for a big group and you’ve chopped seven or eight onions, then plan on at least 30 or 40 minutes for cooking and browning them, adding a little liquid now and then to make sure they don’t. For smaller quantities, cut the cooking time accordingly.
This recipe is for the American kitchen, and I’m sure my Ethiopian friends and readers are appalled right now at my haste. But I’ve found that if you tend to the onions relentlessly and add the ingredients carefully, about half an hour or so of cooking them works well enough to get you a tasty doro wot.
Some recipes include tomato paste, but that’s a modern addition, not at all traditional. I don’t recommend it for that reason alone, plus there’s really no need for it. T’ej or wine will add a hint or sweetness to the dish, so you don’t need to adulterate it with an invasive species of vegetable (which is actually a fruit).
Or if you want an unusual variation on the dish, try celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson’s doro wot tacos: You make it just as you would doro wot (well, sort of), then you shred the chicken and serve it inside a tortilla. It’s not too traditional, but then, Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia, raised in Sweden, and now lives in New York City.
As for a wine to enjoy with your doro wot, the Canadian wine writer Natalie MacLean recommends an oak chardonnay or a syrah, depending upon whether you prefer red or white. “These deep, voluptuous wines will marry nicely with the richness of the dish,” she told the Chicago Tribune.
But that’s only if you don’t have any t’ej.
SO HERE’S YOUR BASIC doro wot preparation, with a video at the end of this page to show you what it all looks like.
Begin by marinating the skinless chicken pieces – six thighs or drumsticks – in lemon juice, and let them marinate while you prepare the onions. I also shorten the bone of the drumsticks somewhat, both to make more room in the pot, and because that part of the drumstick isn’t necessary anyway. You can cut off the lower bony portion with a good sharp knife.
Then, chop the onions finely. Ethiopians do this with a knife, but I cheat and use a food processor. If you’re making doro wot with, say, six pieces of chicken, enough to feed three people (with two or three vegetable side dishes), three cups of finely chopped onions should be enough to make a thick and generous kulet. But you can’t have too much kulet, and you can even eat the kulet with injera as a meal by itself, so always feel free to make more, increasing other proportions accordingly.
In a large pot, begin to cook the onions without adding any niter kibe (Ethiopian spiced butter). Stir them constantly to keep them from burning. When they begin to get a bit dry, add a little water to moisten them. Keep doing this as they cook.
When the onions begin to brown, add some niter kibe, then a little more water, then a little more kibe. Keep doing this until you’ve added all of the kibe. And how much should you use? That depends on how rich and buttery you want it to be. I use about one tablespoon for every cup of onions. But feel free to use much, much more if you like.
When that’s all cooking nicely, add some t’ej – about a quarter to a half of a cup, again depending upon how sweet you want it to be. I’d error on the side of caution and use less because the flavor of the t’ej really comes through in the finished dish.
Now it’s time to add the spices: some berbere, perhaps a tablespoon, depending upon how hot you want it to be, along with about a quarter teaspoon each of powdered fenugreek, cardamom and black pepper, then half a teaspoon of ginger. You can add salt to taste, but I don’t use any salt. I prefer that my food taste like the other spices, and to my taste buds at least, salt tends to overwhelm them all.
After you add the spices, you’ll need to add more water to keep it from burning and to increase the volume into a saucy stew. Let these spices cook in the water and onion for 10 minutes, adding more water if it begins to get too dry. Now you have your kulet: the thick onion-based wot sauce before you’ve added the meat.
Next, it’s time to add the doro (chicken). Place the pieces into the bubbling stew, add enough water to cover them, and let it all simmer. You should stir and turn the pieces from time to time to keep them from burning and to help them cook evenly. If the water begins to disappear too quickly, just add more. Test the chicken with a fork now and then to see if it’s tender and cooked through. You’ll need to cook the chicken for at least 45 minutes (and probably longer) to get it very tender.
Finally, toss in a few eggs: hard boiled, and added to the stew about 10 minutes before it’s done. This is a traditional element of doro wot. I won’t bother here with instructions on hard boiling an egg, but before you put the eggs into the stew, cut a few slits in them so the sauce can seep in.
When your doro wot is done, serve it on injera with the vegetable side dishes of your choice. Be sure to scoop a lot of the kulet onto the chicken and injera: It will be rich, spicy and delicious, practically a meal in itself.
In some homes, it’s the custom for each person to have his own piece of doro wot in front of him on the large round shared plate at the center of the table, and then everyone eats the accompanying vegetable dishes communally. This makes a lot of sense: It’s a bit of challenge pulling the meat from the bone with your injera, and you certainly don’t want to pick the bone up and just chomp the meat off of it.
And by the way, if you are starting from scratch, slaughtering your own chicken and cutting it up, your 12 parts will be two breasts, two thighs, two legs, the back, the neck, and the wings divided to create two parts from each.
Natasha Gregory, who teaches geography at George Washington University, notes that because the observant Ethiopian Christians follows Biblical dietary laws, men traditionally slaughter the chicken and drain the blood just as Jews or Moslems would for kosher or halal cooking. Women will then clean the chicken in boiling water, remove the feathers by hand, remove the fat, cut it into 12 parts and start the cooking process. Gregory says that women sometimes massage shiro – the delicious dish made from spiced pea powder – “over the whole bird, into every tiny crevasse, to remove any nodule of fat or left over imperfection.”
MY FRIEND MENKIR TAMRAT is one of the most committed enthusiasts for his native cuisine that I know, and his affection for doro wot is both lively and insightful.
“Doro wot is the ultimate expression of highland Ethiopian cuisine in its most complex form,” he tells me. “Many talented cooks don’t take it lightly because they know if they do it right – any shortcut will show in the end product – they can establish a sort of bragging rights in their circle. The amount of attention given to the preparation of a good doro wot is always self evident for the person eating it. You just can’t fake it with a Crock Pot.”
Doro wot is a popular dish in Ethiopian restaurants, especially when diners realize its importance to the culture. Still, when ordering the dish, you need to be on guard.
“I know the American consumer of Ethiopian food loves doro wot,” Menkir says, “but few restaurants do justice to it. It’s also not an easy task for Ethiopian restaurant owners to communicate to the customer the value of what separates a great doro wot – with just a couple pieces of meat and a boiled egg – from half a side of chicken with a tangy barbeque sauce and corn bread.”
Menkir knows restaurateurs who say that doro wot takes 24 to 48 hours to prepare, but he doesn’t think that’s necessary. “My wife’s Easter doro wot takes her about five hours to prepare,” he says, “and the end product is fit for royalty, just like my mother’s. Except my mother had enough help to delegate parts of the process, so it didn’t take her as long – if you don’t include the time it took to chase down the chicken around the yard. I have participated in the chase as a kid.”
And he adds: ”Don’t forget, doro wot tastes better the next day.”
Of course, I can’t imagine there ever being any leftovers.
University of Pittsburgh
Watch my video of cooking doro wot in a shakla dist.
Here’s an Ethiopian hip-hop music video all about doro wot.