HOW MANY TIMES has this happened to you?
You’re at an Ethiopian restaurant, surrounded by the awesome aromas of berbere and niter kibbee stewing in the pot, and you’re making your selections: a beef dish for sure – maybe a juicy siga wot – and a veggie combo. The menu has a dozen veggie selections, and you’re allowed to choose five on your beyaynetu. So you pick misir wot, fosolia, butecha, gomen and shiro.
But wait! You can’t choose shiro: It’s not one of the choices permitted on a beyaynetu. It’s a special dish, and you have to order it as a separate entrée.
So it goes at many Ethiopian restaurants around the country, and lucky is the diner who finds the place that lets you pick shiro on your combo.
Shiro – or shuro or sometimes shero – is a delicate blend of powdered legumes and spices, often made gently hot with berbere, and it’s considered by most restaurants to be a delicacy. So, too, do some Ethiopian chefs recognize its special nature.
And yet, in Ethiopia, many people see it as a dish you eat when you don’t have better things – meat especially, but also, heartier vegetable dishes like the ones that most Ethiopian restaurants let you choose on a combination platter.
A 1985 United Nations report says that “for the common families, shiro is the only thing used for making wot every day of the year, with the exception of some important festivals like the New Year, Mesqel, Christmas and Easter, at which every family will slaughter at least a chicken.” There have even been reports of people in Ethiopian prisons being served water, injera and shiro as their only meal.
“Shiro is seen as peasant’s food, a staple,” Tsilat Petros told Westworld, an online Denver publication. “It’s like the less money you have, the more shiro you eat.” But she still loves the dish, even though her grandmother would sometimes serve it three times a day. “Most people eat shiro all throughout the week, but they would rather have meat,” she added. “Some of my friends here say, ‘Yes, I will eat shiro. But only with a side of kitfo.’”
Menkir Tamrat, my shiro sensei, understands that “shiro at times may have been thought of as a poor man’s food, meat and butter being for the rich. But,” he says, “it also holds its place among the rich during Lent periods when simplicity and humility are contemplated. The rich also dress it up at times with butter and meat during the non-Lent days when they might just be tired of the regular carnivore routine.”
Rashad Gaffar of Charlotte, N.C., worked with the Peace Corps in Ethiopia and blogged about his experiences with shiro.
“My host mom FINALLY started serving me more than cold shiro & potatoes for lunch & dinner,” he wrote. “It happened by accident. The last time she served it I ate just a little & told her I wasn’t hungry. She thought I was sick & started preparing different dishes the next day. The meals are still cold, but at least it ain’t shiro.” Not exactly an endorsement for the dish, although who can blame him for getting tired of it day after day, a circumstance that speaks to its ubiquity back home. And The Berbere Diaries, a blog written by an American mother of some adopted Ethiopian children, offers a few reflections on shiro and recipes for making it.
It seems that even honeybees like shiro. In a 2001 report, which calls Ethiopia “a potential beekeeping giant,” an Egyptian scholar found that “in an Ethiopian grain market, many honeybees were observed collecting from open sacks of shiro [chickpeas] as a pollen substitute.” No doubt this was shiro before the addition of berbere and other spices.
Dr. Asqual Getaneh, a professor of medicine at Columbia University, has written about the healthy benefits of shiro, which provides “both macro-and micro-nutrients – a low fat source of protein, carbohydrate, fiber, iron and folate, among numerous other vitamins and minerals.”
On the other hand, two Ethiopian scientists have found that berbere and shiro from markets in Addis Ababa contain aflatoxins, a carcinogenic fungus that finds its way into the foods during drying, storage and transport. In their 1996 paper, Habtamu Fufa and Kelbessa Urga say that although the risk is not widespread – in 60 samples each of berbere and shiro, eight and five, respectively, had aflatoxins – samples from open markets had more toxins compared to samples from government-owned shops. So they concluded that berbere and shiro traded in Addis Ababa are “high-risk commodities for which routine survey of aflatoxins may be necessary.”
And then there’s lathyrism, a neurotoxic disorder caused by “the prolonged over-consumption” of a particular amino acid contained naturally in peas, a team of Ethiopian scientists found in 2005. “For some farmers,” they write, “grass pea is an income-generating cash crop because of its high demand in central Ethiopia as a tasty adulterant for the preparation of shiro, the powdered form of grass pea.” But there’s good news: “It has been found that the small amounts of grass pea used in shiro and consumed in the form of a sauce to be served with injera (unleavened bread) is harmless,” especially if you boil the peas and drain the excess water, a process that “reduces the poison within the seed by 50 percent.”
James McCann of Boston University has studied Ethiopian cuisine and culture for decades and has spent long stretches of his academic career living in Ethiopia. He tells me that shiro “has so many variations that are changing almost daily. Now feses shiro has to be differentiated from tegabino and bozena, and different places make it differently. But it is clearly now the national dish in terms of what everyone eats on a daily basis.” (More on these shiro varieties below.)
In Stirring the Pot, his book about numerous African cuisines and their cultural history, McCann says this: “The staple fare of the 1630s was a simple dish, shiro wet, common to diets of all economic classes and increasingly popular among urban populations of the twenty-first century: then as now, this was a simple dish of the poor, but much appreciated as well by the affluent.” McCann then offers a cookbook version of shiro, followed by a description of its preparation by an Ethiopian woman skilled in the art of her native cuisine.
“The simplicity of [her] preparation of this dish belies the astonishing geography of its ingredients and the complexity of its constituent flavors,” McCann writes about the woman’s detailed missive. “She uses onomatopoeia (tuk tuk) to suggest the sound made by the bubbling stew when it reached its proper consistency. She uses her hands to indicate amounts and how to stir or to taste. Written words convey little of the true sense of how to cook shiro wet sauce. Even a simple dish loses in the translation.”
Of course, there’s simple – and there’s simple. Here’s a list of the ingredients in one chef’s version of shiro: powdered legumes (peas, lentils, broad beans, chickpeas), berbere, chopped garlic, shallots, rue, basil, oregano, ginger, fenugreek, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, bishop’s weed, coriander and salt. You bake the legumes, grind them into a powder as fine as flour, add the spices, then bake them and grind them up some more. Then, when you’re ready to eat some shiro, you reconstitute the flour in water – about one tablespoon for every half cup – add a touch of vegetable oil, and heat it slowly, slowly, slowly until it thickens. Some Ethiopians like to make it richer by adding some niter kibbee just when it’s ready.
In Ethiopia, McCann says, cooks will listen for tuk tuk silo, that is, “when it says tuk tuk,” to determine when the shiro has reached its proper consistency.
I’ve never made shiro from scratch: I buy shiro powder in Ethiopian markets. Prices range from $6 a pound to $15 a pound or more, depending upon the “brand” and the market. Some markets in the U.S. import pre-packaged shiro from an Ethiopian company called Selam Baltena, and some simply buy it in large sacks from people they know back home, then re-package it in small plastic containers for sale at their stores. Shiro powder stays fresh for a long time, especially if you refrigerate it, so if you’re ever in a city with an Ethiopian market, you can buy as much as you like.
BEFORE YOU CAN FULLY understand shiro – the name used generically by many people for the powder or the finished dish – a vocabulary lesson is in order. As with all matters of Ethiopian cuisine, there are nuances.
Let’s begin with a question that’s impossible to answer: Where does the word shiro come from, and why is this the word for what it names? Linguists can trace words back to their first appearance, and they can show how words and languages evolve, but they can never know for certain why we call things what we call them. Simply put: Nobody knows why a nose is called a nose.
Ethiopian dictionaries define the word as the dish itself: for example, an online Amharic dictionary defines the word as “mixture of peas and beans,” and in Wolf Leslau’s definitive tome, it’s the terribly appetizing “mush made of peas.” This is certainly interesting, even amusing, but it’s no help in learning how the word shiro came to represent this dish.
Amharic, the state language of Ethiopia, is a Semitic language (like Hebrew and Arabic), and shiro is an Amharic word. Afaan Oromo, another widely spoken language in Ethiopia, is in the Cushitic language family, as is the well-known language Somali and the less widely spoken Agaw. The Amhara and Oromo people of Ethiopia are often at odds politically, and the Somali people of Ethiopia believe their region should reunite with neighboring Somalia. So language in Ethiopia (and elsewhere) is political.
In that context, the eminent UCLA scholar Christopher Ehret contends that the Amharic word shiro comes from “a very old Cushitic noun root,” soor, meaning porridge. Long story short: By way of an early form of the Agaw language, that old Cushitic “oo” vowel sound morphed into “shiro,” which means, in linguistic terms, that shiro in Amharic is a “loan word” from proto-Cushitic.
And the linguist Grover Hudson of Michigan State University suggests that shimbra, the Amharic word for chickpea, could be an antecedent of shiro. The “b” in the word is a later addition, so the word might have evolved from shimra to shimbra. “But shimra must’ve had a variant with o, shimro, which became (by not uncommon phonological process) shiro,” he posits. Shiro, of course, is sometimes made with chickpeas.
So that’s the best we can do to say why the word shiro describes what it does. I might guess that shiro comes from shorba, the Amharic word for soup. But Ehret has disabused me of such layman speculation: “It is certainly not from the shorba root,” he says, “which derives from the proto-Semitic verb for ‘to drink.’”
With that out of the way, here’s a glossary of important shiro terms.
♦ Shiro. Strictly speaking, this word means an unseasoned legume powder made from yellow peas, although increasingly, chickpeas have become popular as well. Some shiro blends use both, and some even add lentils or broad beans (fava beans). You may sometimes see the phrase shiro duket, which simply means shiro powder. Simple shiro is often eaten in Ethiopia by people who can’t afford the spices to make a more complex blend. Restaurant menus often use the word shiro to refer to the finished stew, but there are more precise words for that, as well as for the powder itself.
♦ Mitin Shiro. This is the good stuff: the powder with spices added. Each chef has her (or his) own recipe, but in the many cookbooks that I own, the most popular spices seem to be ginger, cardamon and garlic. The most important one, though, is berbere, the Ethiopian red pepper powder. This gives mitin shiro its kick. The word mitin, by the way, means “measured.”
The next two are a little tricky – semantic variations of mitin shiro.
♦ Nech Mitin Shiro. The word nech is Amharic for “white,” and this is a blend of mitin shiro without berbere, made for people who can’t stand the heat (kids, for example).
♦ Kay Mitin Shiro. The word kay is Amharic for “red,” so this is mitin shiro with berbere, which makes it look redder and taste hotter. When you order shiro wot in a restaurant, this is almost certainly what you’re getting.
♦ Shiro Wot. This is the finished dish: the powder reconstituted in water (plus a touch of oil), then slowly cooked until it thickens. Some cooks add more spices or even more berbere when they prepare the dish, or they may add chopped onions or even chopped tomatoes. You can finish your shiro wot (or wat or wet) by dissolving a dollop of niter kibbee in the stew just before you serve it.
♦ Bozena Shiro. For a more balanced meal, add beef to the shiro wot to create this variation. This can be cubes of beef or ground beef. Some restaurants even serve shiro be kitfo – that is, shiro with raw seasoned ground beef.
♦ Shakla Dest. Literally, Amharic for “clay pot” – a traditional item used to serve tikus (piping hot) shiro wot.
♦ Tegamino. This is the Italian word for a small frying pan (called tegame in Amharic), and in some parts of Ethiopia, cooks will prepare their mitin shiro in such a pan and serve it from the pan. This variation is called tegamino (or sometimes spelled tegabino), although in restaurants today, the word is generally used (wrongly) to mean simmering shiro wot served in a shakla dest.
♦ Doke. This is an Amharic term for an especially thick shiro wot. Thomas Leiper Kane’s Amharic dictionary defines it as “a low-grade sauce, pea flour porridge.”
♦ Feses. This Amharic word means “it flows,” and McCann says it refers to a very thin shiro wot commonly found in Ethiopia.
♦ Guagola. A verb that means “to be lumpy,” just what you don’t want your shiro to be. The related meguagel also describes this culinary faux pas.
♦ Kochee Shiro. This is the Afaan Oromo word for the dish, where kochee is the word for stew.
♦ Atar, shimbra, baqela/bakela. These are the Amharic names for the legumes most commonly used to make shiro powder: peas, chickpeas, fava beans, respectively. Lentils are called misir.
Finally, a few words about helbet and siljo, two legume powders that you might call first cousins (once removed) to shiro.
During religious fasting seasons, Ethiopians eat no meat, and the price of shiro rises, so they often like more vegetable selections. Preparations of helbet and siljo powders can vary, but helbet is generally made from misir and baqela, then spiced with fenugreek; and siljo is made from baqela, then seasoned with garlic, senafitch (Ethiopian mustard) and sunflower seed paste. Like shiro, each powder is reconstituted in water and stewed until it’s thick, although helbet is generally runnier than shiro, and siljo is usually thicker and sometimes fermented for a few days before consumption.
These dishes are more common in northern Ethiopian cultures. In fact, helbet (or hilbet) is the Tigrinya word for that dish. It’s called elbet in Amharic. And in the Moslem culture of Harar, they have a dish called hulbat marahk, a spicy stew of hulbat sauce with chunks of meat and injera.
A FEW YEARS AGO, I gave up on making shiro wot. Mine just never turned out right. But then I asked Menkir for advice on how to make it, and since then, it’s been perfect every time.
The key, Menkir taught me, is patience: You have to let it simmer down very slowly from a runny liquid into a creamy stew. I was also using too much mitin shiro and adding the powder to the water too soon.
For the best results when you make your shiro, use one tablespoon of powder for every four ounces of water, and perhaps a tablespoon or two of oil for every 12 to 16 ounces of water. But bring the water and oil to a boil first, then turn down the heat, slowly stir in the powder, and let it cook for up to 45 minutes, stirring every now and then. I’ll add a tip of my own to this: When you stir, use a wire whisk rather than a spoon.
Some cooks will add chopped onions to the stew, and some even add finely chopped tomatoes, but Menkir says that tomatoes in Ethiopian cooking “came directly from Asmara [Eritrea] and the Italian influence. You don’t find it once you leave the main roads.” There are no different names for shiro wot that has onions or tomatoes in it.
Menkir is a man who knows his shiro – so well, in fact, that he makes it himself from scratch and sells it to restaurants through his new company Timeless Harvest.
“I feel that authentic, consistent and sustainably produced shiro should be available in North America,” he says. “We can’t wait for the container to unload our shiro at the port of Oakland, or for a friend or relative to bring a Ziplock bag of shiro on a visit to America. I started Timeless Harvest to do just this, among other things.” He sells it now exclusively to Finfiné Ethiopian Restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., and has plans to widen his market in the next phase of his enterprise.
Menkir says his children enjoy shiro, but he admits that when he was their age, he didn’t like it all that much. But from listening to him tell stories about life back home, the loss was clearly his.
“As a kid,” he recalls, “I watched my mother go through the whole shiro powder preparations meticulously. Unfortunately that was never documented. She made some of the best shiro: She had special small dists [pot] made for some occasions when she served shiro b’kibbee for breakfast. It will come to the table, still bubbling, in the same dist it was made. I guess shiro, in a way, is part of who I am.”
He’s since come home to shiro, and he now appreciates it for the “flavorful presentation” of its nutritional legumes, and for its sheer convenience. “It’s a pre-cooked product that can quickly be turned into a nice warm dish very simply,” he says, adding with a smile: “It will fit well into Rachel Ray’s 30-minute meals very easily. If you can boil water, then you can make shiro.”
He notes that shiro powder has typically been cooked twice by the time it gets to you: The whole legumes are parboiled to remove the outer skin, and they’re lightly roasted to allow them to dehydrate before being milled into a powder. “So when you make your shiro at home,” he says, “it’s cooking for the third time. We have one over re-fried beans.”
Menkir has met people who register surprise when he tells them that all shiro isn’t necessarily the spicy kay mitin shiro. “Netch shiro is not nearly as common as kay shiro,” he says. “It’s generally made for folks on medication and kids who can’t quite handle the berbere in kay shiro yet.”
But he prefers the spicy stuff, both for its flavor and its convenience. “All the aromatics, herbs and spices that one usually adds when making wot are incorporated with the legumes during the drying and milling,” he says, “precisely to make the product the closest thing to an MRE – meals ready to eat, as they say in the U.S. Army.”
Leyou Tameru, an Ethiopian lawyer and writer, grew up loving shiro made by her mother and grandmother. “The one thing I know about shiro,” she tells me, “is that everybody eats it, but it’s the most difficult thing to make. It tests your cooking capacity. In Ethiopia, if a woman makes good shiro, then she’s a good cook.”
But she’s especially fond of some regional varieties. In the northern city of Mekele, “they make amazing shiro with butter. They put some meat in it sometimes, and they are popular for making the best shiro.” And in Bahir Dar, a city on the southern shore of Lake Tana, the shiro is thicker, “almost powdery, like mashed potatoes, or even denser,” Leyou says. “They don’t put as much water in it, and they use more kibbee.”
McCann, too, has encountered this variety, “a lump in the shape of a half football served without the clay pot – strange and heavily garlicked.” A restaurant he visited recently in Bahir Dar calls it tegabino on its menu, which also offers the thinner feses variety of shiro.
University of Pittsburgh
Watch a video of an Ethiopian cook making shiro wot (in Amharic, with subtitles in 12 languages).
Here’s a step-by-step recipe that includes onions, tomatoes and garlic.
Here’s some doke shiro making the tuk tuk sound as it cooks.
And finally, Chef Asmerom brings some humor to making shiro – in Amharic.