YOU’VE JUST ENJOYED a generous Ethiopian meal, and yet, you still have room for dessert. But not just any dessert: Naturally, you want an Ethiopian dessert. So you ask for the menu and you see your choices: ice cream, baklava, cheesecake, Napoleon, flourless chocolate espresso torte, honey gelato, and of course, the very Ethiopian – tiramisu (or “teramusso” at one place in Washington, D.C.).
So where are the Ethiopian desserts? Nothing that comes from the homeland? Yes, that’s right: Ethiopia is the land of many things, but dessert simply isn’t one of them.
“By it’s nature,” an Ethiopian friend told me, “our culture doesn’t have desserts.” So sweets after a meal at an Ethiopian home might be cakes and pastries influenced by Italian cuisine, or even more likely, a trip to a bakery or café – of which there are many in Addis Ababa and other cities – where friends will gather for coffee and talk.
There’s no exact word in Amharic that means “dessert,” so the easiest word to use is tafach, which means “sweets.” Matatamiya comes from a word that means “to make balanced” or “to make tasty,” although in context, it could also indicate an appetizer; and the more literal takatay megeb means “meal follower,” or actually, “follower meal” in Amharic word order – or for a more figurative meaning, “palate cleanser.”
Amharic dictionaries variably use matatamiya, tafach or takatay megeb to translate “dessert.” But some feel the need to explain: “Kewana megeb behwula yemikerb tafach megeb,” offers one loquacious dictionary as its first translation of “dessert.” This phrase means, “After the main meal, [you are] served a sweet meal.” This dictionary’s second word for dessert is simply takatay megeb. Matatamiya is something of a new addition to the language, a European concept that’s come into Ethiopian culture. After a spicy Ethiopian meal, a better accompaniment is a sweet honey wine, like t’ej, or some t’alla, the grainy traditional Ethiopian beer.
This lacuna on the Ethiopian table may be because sugar is largely a 20th Century addition to the culture, says Araya Selassie Yibrehu, a pioneering New York restaurateur and t’ej maker. Once sugar caught on, pastry shops of various nationalities – Italian, Greek, Arabic – began to speckle the landscape of cities and towns, especially in Addis Ababa. Sugar has even found its way into Ethiopia’s honey wine, allowing some t’ej makers to sweeten their brew without using quite as much expensive Ethiopian honey. Purists like Araya would never taint their t’ej this way.
Menkir Tamrat, a connoisseur of his native cuisine, says that the “widespread use of refined sugar in Ethiopia didn’t happen until the ’60s with the establishment of Wenji and Metehara sugar processing plants. But I don’t think this means Ethiopians were sugar deficient. It just didn’t come in the form of dessert. Ethiopians got their sugar fix from sucking on some sugar cane or tinkish (part of the sorghum family with a sweet stem), and probably from some fresh fruits as well. Birz [honey water] was also another source of sugar fix, especially for young kids.”
But there’s another issue at the heart of the Ethiopian dessert dilemma.
“A formal meal does not necessarily have to follow the three course approach as in Western cuisine,” Menkir tells me. At the Ethiopian table, “as the cuisine evolved, the standard for an excellent meal was formed as having some kind of wot, alicha and some t’ibs when not fasting – no dessert. Elaborate plant-based dishes are served during t’som [fasting] time instead of the meat/dairy routine.”
So Ethiopians have simply never evolved a tradition of after-dinner sweets, which can even ruin the pleasure of the food you’ve just eaten.
“The sweetness in desserts takes away the lingering warm feeling that normally remains in one’s mouth after eating a traditional Abesha [Ethiopian] meal,” Menkir says. “I understand some cuisines mix heat and sweet, but that would be a no-no in Ethiopian cuisine. My taste buds won’t allow me to eat something sweet after an Abesha meal – I don’t know why. The implied cultural whisper has always been that spicy/hot dishes [wots] are the stars of the cuisine, whereas alitcha [non-spicy] dishes are for virgins, wimps or people on medication. I suspect the concept of dessert falls in the later category at best. If dessert was meant to be part of Ethiopian cuisine, we would have had an Amharic word for it.”
Still, the long-time American doesn’t always eat Ethiopian food, which creates a dilemma for him: “One down side to having an Abesha taste bud,” Menkir adds, “is forgetting to leave space for dessert when having a Western meal.”
One sweet treat enjoyed by Ethiopians is pasti, a pastry made of fried dough that looks a bit like a contorted donut without a hole, sometimes sprinkled with powdered sugar. It’s Italian in origin, but it’s become a part of Ethiopia’s dessert-less indigenous culture. It’s often sold at a pasti bet (house), and you’ll especially find such shops near schools (including colleges) because young people love the treat, so much so that an Ethiopian R&B artist wrote a song about the dessert and featured an Addis Ababa pasti bet in the video.
There’s also the chornaki, another deep-fried, lightly sweetened pasty, crispy hard on the outside, chewy soft in the middle, and about the size of a baseball. So far no one has sung about it. But Menkir remembers eating them when he grew up in Ethiopia. A local market sold them using the name biskut, and “some days, if you missed cafeteria food,” Menkir recalls, “you would get one or two of these things and a hard boiled egg, crack the biskut open, remove some of the soft dough in the center and stuff the egg in. I think we even sprinkled some mitmita on the egg. But I don’t remember it being sweet. There could be sweet and savory variations.”
I found a sweet treat in Hirut Campbell’s cookbook, Traditional Ethiopian Cuisine, that I’ve come to enjoy. It’s made with shembra – that is, chick peas – and she calls it shembra nefro, which means “boiled chickpeas.” But the chick peas are roasted, not boiled, so shembra kolo is a better name for it. Just plain kolo is roasted barley, a very popular crunchy (but not sweet) Ethiopian snack, and the name comes from the verb kola (or qola), which means “to roast.”
Shembra kolo is very easy to make. Begin with a can of chick peas – I use a no-salt-added variety – and drain the liquid from the can. Mix an egg white with one tablespoon of water, and toss the chick peas in the liquid to coat them. Roll the moist chick peas in a bowl containing a quarter cup of sugar and two teaspoons of cinnamon (or more if you like, to taste). Finally, put some aluminum foil on a roasting pan, apply a little no-stick spray, and roast the sugar-coated shembra in a 375-degree oven, turning them every 15 minutes. After about 45 minutes, they should be ready: crunchy and coated with dark caramelized sugar. Cool them, refrigerate them, and munch them cold. But be careful: They’re addictive!
Ras Dashen, an Ethiopian restaurant in Chicago, serves an injera bread pudding created by its proprietress/chef, Zenash Beyene. You won’t find it in Ethiopia, but it’s certainly a dessert based on something uniquely Ethiopian. A few blocks up the street, Chicago’s Ethiopian Diamond served a chocolate injera crêpe cake for a special event in 2010. Diamond’s regular dessert menu offers destaya, an Amharic word translated as “my happiness.” It’s a treat made of “thin dough shells stuffed with dried red and white raisins, pistachios, split almonds, shredded coconut and cardamom powder.”
But just because there aren’t Ethiopian desserts doesn’t mean there aren’t Ethiopian pastry chefs. In big cities across the country, you’ll occasionally find a bakery or pastry shop owned by an Ethiopian.
The dean of this rare type of Ethiopian chef is Almaz Dama, who has co-owned Dama in Arlington, Va., with her family for many years. It’s four places in one: a restaurant, banquet hall, catering business and bakery, with Almaz serving as its top chef. Most of the pastries are Western-style, but Almaz does makes a tall, moist, creamy, fruity teff cake that brightens any table lucky enough to host it.
Almaz earned a diploma at the Bethesda, Md., campus of the French L’Academie de Cuisine, where her teacher was Roland Mesnier, who served as a White House pastry chef for 25 years. And while most of her baked goods lean toward the continental, she does offer a few Ethiopian-tinged desserts.
Almaz came to America at age 19, earned a degree in nutrition at Howard University, and opened a restaurant called Dama on North Capital Street in Washington in 1983 with her sister. Business wasn’t so great, and that enterprise closed four years later. She spent the next decade cooking at other places and learning other chefs’ secrets. Then, in 1999, she opened the new Dama with her relatives – two sisters, a brother, and a cousin – and between them they now manage the side-by-side quartet, as well as a Silver Spring, Md., restaurant called Bete that sells Almaz’s baked goods in a café alongside a small restaurant.
In her work as a pastry chef, Almaz distinguishes between European-influenced “cake” and Ethiopian “pastry.” Because Ethiopians don’t have a cultural tradition of sweet baked goods, her bakery’s homeland treats are often fried and not always sweet.
For example, there’s sambussa, a triangular fried shell of dough stuffed with spicy lentils or beef, served at many restaurants as an appetizer. One of Almaz’s Italian-influenced treats is a bombolino, which she refers to as an “Ethiopian doughnut.” It’s dark brown and deep-fried, chewy in the middle and peppered with effervescent cumin seeds, denser than an American doughnut, and prepared with much less sugar.
Almaz’s original creation is a tall round cake made of teff and other flours. She uses a blend because teff has no gluten, and the cake “needs something to hold it together.” It’s light brown inside, just like teff, with thin layers of pastry cream throughout, and with chunks of glazed peaches, strawberries and kiwi on top.
It’s delicious, and not too sweet. Almaz has altered her recipes over the years to cut down on the sugar because her Ethiopian customers have suggested it. She also uses less cream in her cakes and cookies than an American baker would use, another concession to her clients.
Not far away, in Falls Church, Va., you’ll find the young Ethiopian pastry chef Kidist Assefa and her Flavor Cake and Pastry, a unique feature at the wonderful Skyline Plaza, a strip mall lined with Ethiopian restaurants and businesses.
Flavor is the only bakery on the strip, and Kidist has a degree from Baltimore’s International Culinary College. She came to America just after high school, about 18 years ago, and her café offers a variety of pastries and coffees.
But Kidist doesn’t make any uniquely Ethiopian pastries – at least, not yet. “The consistency of the pastries are different when you make them with teff,” she says. “But I have a plan to make something yummy.” She would say no more.
And then there’s Giordana, an Ethiopian-American chef who host Giordana’s Kitchen Show on EBS, which broadcasts Amharic-language programs from its office in Silver Spring, Md. She’s produced about half a dozen videos that air on EBS and the internet, and in one of them, she bakes a cake.
In 2011, Mesob Ethiopian Restaurant in Montclair, N.J., introduced a line of non-dairy chocolates in four flavors, two of them Ethiopian-inspired: berbere, guava-ginger, raspberry-rosewater, and t’ej. I can’t say what a berbere-hot piece of chocolate might taste like, but I suspect a piece with a touch of t’ej would be delicious. The restaurant’s other desserts include crème brûlée, almond cake with berry sauce, and “halewa sesame paste with pistachios.”
Abay in Pittsburgh varies its dessert specials, and sometimes it serves a pumpkin-filled sambussa, the doughy fried triangular dish often filled with lentils and served as an appetizer at Ethiopian restaurants. And at Uchenna in Colorado Spring, Colo., there’s baklava, strudel (apple, blueberry or strawberry), French chocolate cake, and two variations of baklava: cataif (“almonds and honey wrapped in shredded wheat”), and saragli (“pistachios, almonds and honey in a filo pastry, drizzled with chocolate”).
Of course, if you’re making an Ethiopian meal, and you want an “Ethiopian” dessert, you can always improvise, just as Zenash does at Ras Dashen with her injera bread pudding. My friend Wilhelmine Stordiau, who makes Begena Tedj in Frankfurt, Germany, and who was born and raised in Ethiopia, makes a sweet treat that uses injera as a sort of crêpe.
Like all good Ethiopian cooks, Wilma doesn’t have set proportions. She just lets her eye and her instinct tell her how much of everything to use. So here’s how to make it, although you may have to improvise a little:
Take a piece of ginger, about an inch or so long, and peel it, then put it into a food processor with half a cup of water. When it’s processed, strain the water and set it aside. Then, in a pan, cook a little bit of sugar and some fresh orange juice until the sugar melts, then add the ginger water and let it cook until it forms a syrup. Finally, add a little bit of honey – and, if you like, a touch of t’ej. When it’s ready, take an injera and use it like a crêpe, smearing it with the syrup and rolling it up. Cut it in the middle, decorate with orange slices, and (Wilma recommends) “serve with a little bit of crème Chantilly.”
Finally, you can always turn to an Ethiopian cookbook, although the desserts won’t be Ethiopian. Some cookbooks in Amharic have recipes for Western desserts – under sections headings like “Cake,” “Cookies,” “Pudding,” “Tarts” – and I know of at least one cookbook, called Modern Cake and Bread Preparation, that’s filled with dessert recipes. But it’s in Amharic, so your best bet for dessert after an Ethiopian meal might be a nice slice of tiramisu, or a little injera dipped in Ethiopian honey.
Of course, the most authentic Ethiopian dessert is no dessert at all, and Ethiopians will usually tell you that their cuisine is so delectable that you simply don’t need one.
“There’s an old tale about a man who was treated to an excellent meal of doro wot,” Menkir recalls. “After finishing his meal, he politely declined to wash his hands. When asked by his hosts why he would do such a thing, his response was: Why wash away so quickly such intoxicating flavors when I can just take a whiff of my fingers the rest of the day and remember this great meal.”
University of Pittsburgh
Visit Almaz Dama at her bakery and restaurant.
Ethiopian-American TV host Giordana shows how to bake a cake.