Grand Ole Ethiopian: A Road Trip to Nashville (with stops along the way)

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AFTER A DAY OF FIDDLIN’ AROUND IN NASHVILLE, taking in some country music at the heart of it all, why not visit an Ethiopian restaurant? Or better yet, go to one of the city’s well-stocked Ethiopian markets and cook a meal for yourself.

Nashville has a diverse Ethiopian population and the businesses that go with it. There’s even an Ethiopian Community Association, created in 2001, and run by Yirga Alem Belachew, a retired registered nurse who now devotes her time to promoting Ethiopian culture in her adopted city. And there’s a lot to promote: five restaurants, each with its own character, and three markets with everything you can find in the big Washington, D.C., community.

Awash Nashville

Yirga recalls that Nashville’s first Ethiopian restaurant, Addis Abebe, opened in 1998 and was owned by two men, Gizachew and Esayas. Mesay Andaregie bought it from them some years later and renamed it Gojo, which still exists in Nashville, but with a new owner. The city’s second restaurant was Awash, opened by the husband-and-wife team of Gezahegne and Tsige. There’s still an Awash in Nashville, but it has a different owner.

So let’s begin our tour with Awash, the smallest and oldest of the city’s restaurants, now owned by Jemal Jemahussein, a Moslem from Tigray in northern Ethiopia. When I visited Awash, I talked with Zewditu Dullo, a Gurage who cooks at the restaurant – and who naturally boasts about her kitfo, the raw beef dish that entered the cuisine from the southern Gurage culture. For most customers, she uses already-ground meat for her kitfo, but when Gurage people come to Awash, she chops the meat fresh because that’s how it’s done back home.

For a tiny subsistence restaurant – Zewditu and I conducted our conversation over the blare of the TV, its volume much too loud for the space – Awash gets great reviews online. Zewditu has lived in America for about eight years, and her cousin owns Abyssinia, the restaurant just down the road. Both restaurants also offer catering.

Awash sits among a small block of businesses, across from a Taco Bell, that includes African Fashions, a Somali-owned clothing shop run by women with covered heads. These two neighboring cultures don’t always co-habitate peacefully on the Horn of Africa, but “in America, no problem,” Zewditu told me.

Abyssinia's Amharic Menu

Abyssinia’s Amharic Menu

Just down the road, at Abyssinia, its owner, Kebebush, is proud of her “100” inspection rating (I saw some 85s around town, but not at any Ethiopian place). This may be the city’s most “authentic” restaurant: The menu is in English on one side and in Amharic on the other.

The restaurant offers all of the familiar dishes, along with lamb dulet (tripe) and firfir (chopped injera) that you can have blended with oil or kibe (Ethiopian spiced butter). It seats about 20, but its tables spread out around the large dining room. At 2 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon, four Ethiopian men were enjoying a meal and some beer (Heineken, Corona, Beck’s – nothing from Ethiopia). Kebebush was busy serving them and didn’t have a lot of time to chat.

Slightly fancier is Goha, owned by Debere Getahun, and in business for about eight years. It’s located in a house that’s been converted into a restaurant, with a porch and tables still there in front of the building. The front dining room seats 16 around a collection of mesobs and one table, and there’s a private dining room off to the side that seats 20 more. A setup in the front room offers a coffee ceremony.

Goha also has a small market in the back of its building, and it sells everything from spices and legumes to jebenas (coffee pots), biret mitads (used for roasting coffee beans) and shakla dists (Ethiopian clay cooking pots). There was also some Ambo, a brand of bottled water from Ethiopia. But the market was dark when I visited, so I suspect it’s not the restaurant’s mainstay.

When I arrived in Nashville, I stopped for a meal at Gojo, which has a wonderful lunch buffet that the city seems to have discovered: The place was packed, with everyone enjoying all they could eat of misir wot, kik alicha, tikil gomen, kay wot (a beef dish, with the meat on the bone), rice, injera, a tossed green salad, and a fruit mix for dessert.

gojonashville

The restaurant put out lots of injera, but also offered silverware, and that’s what most of the lunchers used to eat their food. The patrons included a table of 10 businessmen, name tags dangling from their belts, five women ranging in ages from 30s to 60s, four Indian men, two African-American women, a couple in their 30s, and a man with an array of vivid tattoos. There was also a 20-something American-born Indian couple, both Nashville natives, the guy a Vanderbilt University graduate now living in Boston, the gal in medical school in Nashville.

Ahmed and Shemsia Maregn, Moslems from Addis Ababa, and Oromo by culture, opened Gojo in 2008. Nashville has two types of restaurants, Ahmed told me: the bigger ones, which focus on food; and some smaller ones, frequented mostly by Ethiopians. He doesn’t sell alcohol, although not because he’s Moslem, but rather because if he did, Ethiopian men would sit around for hours drinking and socializing, and he wants to focus on his food.

Gojo has two rooms, with tables and booths in both of them, and with lots of wall art like paintings, photos, baskets and cultural artifacts. The restaurant caters for several groups at Vanderbilt, about four miles away, and clients pick up their food in large foils containers. Ahmed came to U.S. in 2004, living first in Washington, and then moving to Nashville, where he had some family members.

He’s one of several Ethiopian Moslems who own food establishments in the city, which has an Ethiopian population that represents various cultures and religions. This, he says, can influence what you eat, depending upon where you eat.

Yirga Belachew

Yirga Belachew

“Ethiopian food is not standardized,” Ahmed told me. “With Ethiopian dishes, it depends on where you are, what your ethnicity is, what region you come from.” In U.S., filet mignon is all the same from place to place, but with Ethiopian cooking, spices and preparations can differ. “The one who cooks, if he or she has a specialty, you get that,” he said. “The best cooks are the ones who learned from their moms.”

I also had a very enjoyable lunch with Yirga at Mesob, where we talked about her life in America, and during our meal, her son-in-law happened by. Mesob has a big wide open dining room, a catering business, and right next door, Mesob International Market and Butcher Shop, which sells all sorts of Ethiopian foods, spices and cooking items, along with foods from a few other cultures, plus fresh meat at the butcher shop in the back. I couldn’t resist treating myself to some pottery: two tabas (small clay dishes), one for serving anything, and one traditionally used to serve kitfo.

The city has two more well-stocked market. At Merkato, you’ll find spices and legumes, including Indian chick peas, along with coffee and general convenience store stuff, like phone cards, luggage and detergent. The store also sells Ethiopian treats like kibe, awaze (a spicy simmer sauce), ambasha (a leavened bread), and kaka (a sweet fried doughy treat from southern Ethiopia), all of them made by Ethiopian women in Nashville for sale in local markets.

Goha's Market

Goha’s Market

The city also has a few Ethiopian woman who make injera for sale around town. Not far from Merkato is Hlina’s Home Cooking, a tiny cafeteria-style takeout restaurant that serves fried fish and chicken, with sides like mashed potatoes and vegetables. The owner is Ethiopian, and he makes injera for local markets. So does Zemzem Injera, where the proprietress has converted her residential garage into a professional kitchen.

Abdul Boulett, who owns Merkato, is a Harari Moslem who speaks Adere, Tigrinya, Amharic and a little Somali. He told me that Nashville has six mosques, and Ethiopian Moslems go to all of them because there’s no mosque just for the city’s Ethio-Moslem community. He’s lived in the city for 19 years, and before that, he lived for a while in San Jose, Calif., where he ran Abadir grocery. He left Ethiopia seeking greater freedom, traveling first to Somalia, then to Italy, and finally to the U.S., where he sought political asylum in 1994.

During our conversation, we were joined by Daniel Muleta, an Ethiopian Christian who shops at Merkato. A doctor in Ethiopia, he got his master’s in public health at Boston University in 1999, returned to Ethiopian for a while, and has lived here permanently since 2008. His father is Oromo, his mother is Amhara, and his presence at Merkato was further evidence that Ethiopia’s many cultures, often in conflict back home, can mix comfortably in the U.S.

Finally, there’s the charming Ibex Market, which bills itself as Ethiopian and West African. Owned by Ethiopians, it offers an array of Ethiopian items – all sort of spices and legumes, shakla dists, beret mitads, electric mitads (for making injera), rekebots (the traditional coffee ceremony table) and injera under its own label. The market also sells West African items like prepared fufu and cassava roots, plus CDs, DVDs, phone cards and convenience store items.

And for a special treat, there’s difo dabo, a leavened Ethiopian bread wrapped in koba kitel – that is, enset leaves, which add flavor to the bread. You can enjoy it with several brands of Ethiopian teas, like Wush Wush – all of which makes Nashville the best town for Ethiopian food and supplies between Chicago and Atlanta.

 

ON THE WAY TO NASHVILLE, I stopped for an afternoon in Louisville, Ky., to visit the city’s three Ethiopian restaurants, each one just a little different in style from the other.

I arrived at Addis Grill at 4 p.m. on a Wednesday to find a sign in the window saying that the restaurant was closed for the day because it had run out of food. That speaks well of the chef, but perhaps not the restaurant’s business plan.

AddisGrill

I knocked on the door, and a fellow inside told me that the owner wasn’t there. It took a little prodding, but I finally got him to talk with me. And talk he did – with more of a political edge than his Nashville counterparts. He was much less sanguine about cultural unity among Ethiopians, and he wouldn’t tell me his name, so I’ll call him Ato M., where “M” stands for “mestirawi” (ምስጢራዊ) – which is, my dictionary tells me, the Amharic word for “mysterious.” “Ato” just means Mr.

Addis Grill is located downtown, surrounded by businesses, near the county courthouse, and not far from the University of Kentucky, and Ato M. told me that the restaurant often runs out of food.

Ato M. came to America 12 years ago from Enderta, a province near Lalibela in the southeast portion of Tigray, which is a northern region in Ethiopia. The restaurant serves Mediterranean-inspired dishes as well, although Ato M. told me that they’re not really as Mediterranean as they may seem. These are dishes eaten in Ethiopia, he said, using ingredients that we think of as Mediterranean. But it’s really just another Ethiopian way of eating.

“We have dominant ethnic groups,” Ato M. explained, “so everything that belonged to them is by default Ethiopian.” He was talking about the Amhara and Tigrayan cultures that created the “national cuisine” known to outsiders. But there’s a lot of food eaten by the many other cultures that nobody knows, he told me, and lots of dishes eaten only in certain areas. The restaurant’s Mediterranean dishes come from northern Ethiopia, and people eat them for reasons of custom and affordability.

For example, there’s mundi, stewed goat or lamb, not known all around the country, but eaten in the north. People in Endarta, the Afar region, and southern Arabia know this dish. The average Ethiopian does not.

Still, the restaurant’s menu has plenty of dishes familiar to anyone who likes Mediterranean food: hummus, baba ganoush, falafel, tzatziki, and lots of kabobs – all dishes so “American” now that I won’t bother to italicize them. The Ethiopian offerings are fewer but more than adequate: a veggie combo, kitfo, and a variety of chicken, beef and lamb tibs. You can also order burritos or quesadillas – not exactly Ethiopian by any estimation.

A “professional” Ethiopian restaurant, Ato M. explained, has mostly non-Ethiopian customers and makes its dishes to order with different spice levels. But at a restaurant frequented mostly by Ethiopians – in Washington, D.C., for example – there’s just one level of spice. In these smaller restaurants that serve mostly Ethiopians, customers tend to be of a particular culture, and they patronize the restaurant run by people of their culture. A lot of components of a dish can be missing in the big restaurants with non-Ethiopian customers.

queenshebalouisville

“Everyone knows his own mom’s flavors,” Ato M. said, and every family may make a dish differently. So restaurants make it consistent for Americans.

Queen of Sheba, the city’s first and oldest Ethiopian restaurant, has been around for a decade and has had several locations throughout the years. One of those locations was downtown on 5th Street, just a block from Abyssinia, the city’s newest Ethiopian restaurant. In fact, Queen of Sheba once called itself Abyssinia, but they changed it, fearing it would be too hard for people to pronounce. The restaurant’s manager is from Nepal – there are no Nepalese restaurants in Louisville – and when I passed through Queen of Sheba, I chatted briefly with her husband, who also worked there.

Finally, there’s Abyssinia, whose owner, Mike Reda, comes from Tigray in northern Ethiopia. Tigrinya is his first language, so his menu says both timtimo and misir wot, the Tigrinya and Amharic names, respectively, for the popular spicy red lentil dish.

Before moving to Louisville to seek new business opportunities, he owned Axum restaurant for two years in Denver, a city with a lot of Ethiopian restaurants. His stylish Louisville place, with an adjoining bar, is located just a block from one of Queen of Sheba’s former location. In fact, Sheba’s sign is still on the side of its old building, sharing space with Shanghia Chinese Restaurant, which is still open, next to Sheba’s empty former storefront.

 

A FEW YEARS AGO, I passed through Cincinnati and had a meal at Emanu, the city’s well-established Ethiopian (well, actually, Eritrean) restaurant and chatted with the owner. So naturally, I wanted to visit Habesha, Cincinnati’s new place, and I stopped for lunch on my way to Nashville via Louisville.

Owner Bethlehem Tesfamariam is the mother of three, including a 3-week-old. And yet, she was on the job the day I visited, although only for a few hours because she needed to get home to her infant. Her daughter Blaine is 16 and in 10th grade, and she wants to be a doctor. She’s lived in America for four years, but she went to a school in Ethiopia that taught English, and she speaks her second language with no accent. The family comes from Addis Ababa, and they lived in Washington, D.C., for a while. But that was too expensive. So they settled in Cincinnati.

Habesha's beyeyanetu

Habesha’s yetsom beyeyanetu

Habesha is a roomy restaurant, with three wall-mounted TVs, one tuned to ETV (an Ethiopian television network), and two showing football (that is, soccer), a beloved sport in Ethiopia. The restaurant’s yetsom beyeyanetu was tasty and generous in its many vegetarian selections: fosolia, misir wot, kik alicha, gomen, salad, ayib (Ethiopian cheese), tikil gomen. Bethlehem makes her ayib with buttermilk (just like I do), although ayib on a “fasting” (tsom) platter, which is supposed to contain no animal products, is rather unusual. On weekends, the restaurant offers a full Ethiopian coffee ceremony. Habesha has a small bar with six seats around it. The place only sold liquor when I visited and was waiting for a beer and wine license from the state.

The competing Emanu is owned by an Eritrean couple and calls itself East African on its business card. I noticed that Habesha bills itself as offering “Ethiopian and East African” cuisine. This was certainly to keep up with the competition, although Blaine offered a more generous explanation: “The culture is the same, so that’s why we try to include everyone.”

Harry Kloman
University of Pittsburgh

Visit Gojo Ethiopian Restaurant in Nashville:

 

Meet Ma’aza, an Ethiopian baker in Nashville:

Exploring Doro Wot

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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 cooking in a shakla dist,  a traditional Ethiopian clay pot

Doro wot cooking in a shakla dist,
a traditional Ethiopian clay pot

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.

Doro wot, duba wot, inguday wot

Doro wot, duba wot, inguday wot

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.

Chicken drumsticks for doro wot  just beginning to cook

Chicken drumsticks for doro wot
just beginning to cook

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 word wot appears only once, and it’s written in its ancient form, wäsheh, and described as “one large bowl of turmeric sauce.” Today, of course, using turmeric rather than berbere would make the dish the milder doro alicha, not doro wot. But back then, Ethiopians hadn’t yet created berbere.

“It is in fact astonishing that the word [wot] does not turn up more often,” says the German scholar Manfred Kropp, who has translated portions of the valuable ancient document, “but I have the suspicion that the real thing is designated by other words in the text.” 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.

Doro wot served with azifa,  ayib and shiro on teff injera

Doro wot served with azifa,
ayib and shiro on teff injera

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.”

A doro wot cooking contest in Ethiopia

A doro wot cooking contest in Ethiopia

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.

Doro wot in Ethiopia

Doro wot in Ethiopia

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.

A concise doro wot recipe  from Ebony magazine (1976)  (click to enlarge)

A concise doro wot recipe
from Ebony magazine (1976)
(click to enlarge)

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.

Cooking doro wot in Ethiopia

Cooking doro wot in Ethiopia

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.

A drawing of doro wot  in a cookbook from Ethiopia

A drawing of doro wot
in a cookbook from Ethiopia

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 shirothe 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.”

Menkir recalls an old tale about a man who has just enjoyed an excellent meal of doro wot. “After finishing his meal,” the story goes, “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.”

And he adds: ”Don’t forget, doro wot tastes better the next day.”

Of course, I can’t imagine there ever being any leftovers.

Harry Kloman
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.


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