IN THE ETHIOPIA OF DANIEL MESFIN’S YOUTH, the kitchen might as well have been a foreign country.
“An Ethiopian man is always the diner, never the cook,” Daniel writes in the preface to his cookbook, Exotic Ethiopian Cooking. “The kitchen is off limits to him. His woman doubles up as cook, servant and waitress. A woman worth her salt values her cooking no less than her looks. In fact, she is more partial to her cooking because she is socially judged by it: An unaccomplished woman makes her husband a laughing stock.”
In traditional Ethiopia, this may still be true, and even in America, many Ethiopian women own restaurants and supervise the cooking – a tribute to their entrepreneurial spirit and success. But the diaspora also has many restaurants owned by men, and those men sometimes also cook. This is true in Ethiopian-American homes as well, although modest husband-chefs will naturally show deference to their wives when it comes to the household culinary skills.
“It is such women who invented the recipes that made Ethiopian food distinctive,” Daniel writes. “But you must be forewarned. No two women – even mother and daughter – ever cook a dish the same way. For it is done by instinct.” He goes on to say that while his book provides measurements of the ingredients, “with time, you will learn to cook by instinct, too. This is your baptism by fire.”
Indeed it is. In fact, I’d recommend that you use instinct from the get-go, for the proportions in some of Daniel’s recipes are a bit too much.
Born in Ethiopia, Daniel lived for many years in the United States. But he retired to Ethiopia a few years ago, and he owns a small restaurant there. His father, Mesfin Selashe, was a famous Ethiopian ras (regional leader or governor), one of his country’s richest men, very close to the emperor, and a hero of the war against the Italians in the 1930s. He was executed in 1974, soon after the brutal communist dictatorship known as the Derg took over. In the 1960s, Mesfin also made Saba Tej, a brand of Ethiopian honey wine that Ethiopian Airlines served on its flights.
Daniel’s book is perhaps the best and certainly the best-known Ethiopian cookbook in circulation. Published in 1990, and revised some years later into an expanded edition, it has “178 tested recipes” along with tables showing the nutritional content of its many and diverse ingredients. There’s a glossary, a table of measurement equivalence, more than 30 pages of introductory material on the history and culture of Ethiopia, and a center section with 15 pages of sharply reproduced color photographs of food, spices and restaurants.
Exotic Ethiopian Cooking has all of the recipes you’ll recognize from eating at an Ethiopian restaurant: There’s doro wot, kitfo, gomen, azifa, misir wot and kik alicha. But the book also offers recipes for many dishes that only Ethiopians know and eat in the homeland, for the cuisine is much more diverse than any Ethio-American restaurant can possibly present on its menu. Many of these dishes come from the various cultures of greater Ethiopia, whereas the dishes served in restaurants come predominantly from Amhara culture.
To add to the delight of the recipes, Daniel’s wrote a lengthy introduction that’s filled with history, anecdotes and insights about Ethiopian life and Ethiopian cuisine. For example: What’s the Amharic word for “wimp”? Daniel writes: “It is often the berbere [red pepper] that tells the story of a wot [spicy stew] and gives away a bad cook. Its importance and potency is so widely recognized that a derogatory phrase, ye’wend alicha, has been coined for a man who displays cowardice. [It] literally means a man who, like alicha [mild stew], has no pepper in him.” In English, that would be a wimp (or worse).
Here, then, are glimpses of the more rare or unusual dishes for which you’ll find full recipes in Ato Daniel’s comprehensive book. As you read them, remember that there’s no standardized way of transliterating Amharic letter into English. So I’ll use Daniel’s spellings from the book when I name each of his entries, even though his spellings often differ from the ones I use myself throughout this site.
♦ Annebabero. Think of this as a sort of Ethiopian pan pizza: It’s full-sized pieces of injera stacked on top of each other, then soaked in niter kibbee (Ethiopian butter) that’s been made hot with berbere. You can buy injera at a market and mix the other ingredients to spread on the pieces, but Daniel’s recipe doesn’t use injera. He teaches you to make a big round pizza dough from scratch. The key to this dish is its layers: You put two or three of the pieces on top of one another, then eat it by cutting off slices. If you just toast some pieces of injera and smear them with niter kibbee and berbere, you’ve made kategna.
♦ Gulban. This dish is so hard to find that Daniel forgot to include it in the index of recipes in the back of the book! But there it is, on page 186: You simmer wheat flour in boiling water for a few hours, then add fava beans and cook until the beans are tender. I’ve never made this dish and probably never will. I’d much rather use my fava beans to make ful, a sort of Ethiopian refried beans.
♦ Hibist. This is literally a heavenly dish: hibist is the word for “manna” in Ge’ez, the ancient (now liturgical) language of Ethiopia. Although injera is the mainstay bread across almost every culture in Ethiopia, the country’s various cooking traditions have numerous leavened breads as well. This one, like most of them, is pretty simple: flour, yeast, a few spices (bishop’s weed and nutmeg for Daniel), oil and water. Perhaps the most common leavened bread is the ambasha or hambasha, a big round thick bread with a design carved in the top, and often with berbere-spiced niter kibbee smeared on top after it’s cooked.
♦ T’ihlo. This dish comes to Ethiopia from northern Tigrayan culture. It’s barley flour boiled in water and rolled into balls. You can eat them plain, but most people will spear them with a long wooden two-pronged “fork” and dip them into a spicy wot.
♦ Iskunfur. If you’re not big on tripe, then how about trying this “stuffed tripe stew,” as Daniel calls it in English. It’s made with tripe, berbere, onions, cooked rice, cardamom, ginger, garlic, black pepper and niter kibbee. The stuffing is made with the onion, rice and spices, and you have to put it inside some squares of tripe and then “sew them up with needle and thread” before stewing them in water along with an onion-berbere sauce (i.e., a wot). Daniel calls the finished dish “a delicious sauce prepared for special occasions.”
♦ Yeqarya Sinnig. This is a delicious and fiery way to use a jalapeño pepper (karya). You simply clean out the middle, then stuff it with a mixture of chopped onions and oil, adding a touch of salt and pepper if you like. Sinnig makes a great appetizer, side dish or garnish at an Ethiopian meal. I like to stuff mine with ayib, the Ethiopian cheese that’s easy to make at home.
♦ Ye’qoch’o Minchet Abish. In Ethiopia, the enset plant – sometimes called the false banana – is a very important food crop to many cultures, especially in the south of Ethiopia. These cultures use it to make qocho, a chewy, fermented, bread-like dish, and they use the powdered form to make a gummy porridge called bula.
The dish ye’qoch’o minchet abish might more accurately be called ye’bula minchet abish: It’s made by sifting bula powder, which you can get in many Ethiopian markets, into fully prepared minchet abish, a dish of ground beef simmered in onions, berbere, t’ej and spices. I’m not sure why you’d want to ruin some perfecty good minchet abish with bula, but there you have it.
By the way, a few Ethiopian restaurants in the U.S. import fully cooked, ready-to-reheat-and-eat qocho from Ethiopia, and I wrote a piece about this most authentic Ethiopian dish after discovering it in Washington, D.C.
♦ Samma We’t. What a surprise to find this dish in a cookbook! In Ethiopia, the unappetizing samma, a species of the prickly nettle plant, has some elements that can give you a rash if you touch them, so you have to cut those parts away before cooking. Daniel makes his by blending the chopped leaves with barley flour and garlic, then stewing them while stirring frequently to prevent lumping. You then pour it into a bowl, add salt, and cook it all again before serving. Ethiopians usually only eat this dish during t’som (fasting) season to add variety at a time that forbids the consumption of meat.
♦ Ilbet. Daniel lists this dish under the “Legumes” section, but it seems more like an appetizer. The ingredients are few: fava beans, sunflower seeds, oil, garlic and ginger. You must boil the seeds and pound them into submission in water, then strain off the seeds and keep the water, which you mix with the cooked fava beans and spices. It’s served cold.
♦ Hulbet Merekh. This tasty, spicy dish comes to the table from the Moslem-influenced Ethiopian city of Harar. You can make it with beef, but Daniel’s recipe uses tripe and tongue as the meaty elements that you mix with hulbet (what we call fenugreek), onions, niter kibbee and several spices. To serve the liquidy stew, you mix in chopped injera or rice. I discovered this dish at two restaurants in Toronto and wrote a piece about the experience. At Haneed House in Toronto, they serve it with a garnish of lettuce and tomato and with a chunk of potato (see picture above).
♦ Yehodiqa T’ibs. This is the meat dish for the meat lover who just can’t stand to throw away any part of the animal: It’s a stew of beef or lamb kidney, liver, intestines and stomach (tripe). The other ingredients are niter kibbee, onion, cardamom, garlic and black pepper. With yehodiqa t’ibs on the table, it’s definitely what’s for supper.
♦ Chi’kko. This shows one of the many ways that Ethiopians have found to use grains. Quite simply, you mix barley flour with niter kibbee, berbere and spices to make a paste, then put it in the refrigerator to cool and thicken. You serve it in small pieces. You can make chi’kko bemar by mixing the flour with honey instead of the other ingredients. Or you can make yeqwant’a chi’kko by drying some meat (like beef jerky), pounding it into a powder, and then mixing it with the barley flour and some spices. Of course, you could also just eat the qwant’a (dried meat) by itself.
A FEW YEARS AGO, when I was writing my book, Mesob Across America: Ethiopian Food in the U.S.A., I spent an afternoon at the Ethiopian embassy in Washington, D.C., talking with diplomats and employees there about Ethiopian cuisine. Fikerte Kidanemariam was the culinary sage and scholar of the group, the assistant to the ambassador since 1999, the mother of two daughters who came to America before she did, and the grandmother of an 18-year-old grandson born in Dallas.
So imagine my delight and surprise when I learned that her sister is married to Daniel Mesfin. She shared anecdotes and cooking tips that afternoon, and I’m now convinced that what Fikerte doesn’t know about Ethiopian food and cooking probably isn’t knowable.
Amharic uses the same word, duba, to mean pumpkin and squash. So how does a woman indicate the difference if, for example, she sends her daughter to the market to buy one or the other? Before Fikerte could answer, three Ethiopian men at the table said there is no squash in Ethiopia, just pumpkin. Fikerte coolly set them straight, to their great surprise: There certainly is squash, and it’s served steamed, but it’s never used to make duba wot, which requires pumpkin. If Fikerte wants a pumpkin duba, as opposed to a squash duba, she asks for the “big one.” The men then said that they didn’t like duba wot all that much, but Fikerte again interceded: Duba wot cooked well tastes like doro wot. The men didn’t challenge her.
There really are no secret ingredients in Ethiopian dishes, and the difference between one cook’s version of doro wot and another cook’s version comes down mostly to the quantities of ingredients and the forms in which they’re used.
For example, some cooks use more butter than others, or they put the ingredients into the pot in a different order. Some use more onions, and some cook the onions until they’re browned before adding the next few ingredients. Do you chop your garlic, or do you use whole cloves?
“You have to take your time to cook it properly,” Fikerte says. “Some people just use a few minutes to cook food. But even when people use the same ingredients, it tastes different.”
Fikerte told me that she hasn’t shopped in an Ethiopian market in the U.S. in her 10-plus years here. Her friends and family bring spices and supplies from home. When she lived in Ethiopia, she even made her own shiro and berbere powders, but she no longer has the time – nor, one senses, the strong desire – to do it here.
The familiar dish doro wot may just look like a chicken leg in a spicy red stew, but preparing it well could change the course of a woman’s life. Back in the 1960s, when Fikerte 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 says, “but back then, you had to know how to split the chicken properly.” (Fikerte may have been away from home for too long: Now they hold competitions to see who can cut up a chicken most quickly.)
In Exotic Ethiopian Cooking, Daniel has no recipe for duba wot, but he does have one for the unusual yedubba qwant’a we’t. This is, more or less, duba jerky: qwant’a is spicy dried beef, and this pumpkin recipe is for spicy dried pumpkin stew. It begins by cutting the pumpkin into small cubes and putting them in the sun or a dehydrator to dry them. Then, you “remove any pieces that become moldy” and move on to the cooking steps. The final result is a juicy wot, although I’m not sure why you would bother drying the pumpkin if you finally plan to make it into a stew.
His book has many other such unusual entries, and for the home Ethiopian cook, it’s an invaluable resource. You’ll find copies for sale on Ebay and AbeBooks, among other online sites, but they tend to sell for exorbitant prices. The best price I’ve found is at Mereb, an online bookstore and marketplace in Addis Ababa that looks and operates exactly like Amazon.com. They list the book for $25.70, but even with secure registered air mail postage, it’ll cost much less than the copies listed with American booksellers.
You can also visit my Cookbooks link for a list of other Ethiopian cookbooks – some readily available, some very hard to find. Or if you want to save yourself a few birrs, just visit my Recipes page for some of my favorite preparations that I’ve adapted from various cookbooks, among them Daniel’s Exotic Ethiopian Cooking.
University of Pittsburgh