THE COOKS AT ETHIOPIAN RESTAURANTS in America prepare your food in pots and pans like the ones you use at home – industrial-sized perhaps, but still made of a durable metal that cleans up easily.
That’s not always how it’s done in traditional Ethiopia, where hand-made clay pots often stock the kitchen shelves (if these are even shelves to stock). The most common type is called a shakla dist, and some Ethiopians will swear that the food tastes better when it simmers in earthenware.
The word shakla means “clay” in Amharic, and shakla dist is the name for a clay pot used for cooking stews (spicy wots and milder alichas). The plural of dist is distoch, which I’ll use here when necessary. There are many varieties of Ethiopian clay pots made in all shapes and sizes, and each shape has its own name. The term shakla dist refers to the kind pictured just below: round pots of various sizes and with lids, usually with handles on the side of the pot and on the top of the lid, and sometimes with a design carved into the clay. A very large shakla dist, used to make big portions of food, is called a setate.
Many cultures in Ethiopia make clay pottery, but the Beta Israel – that is, the Ethiopian Jews – and especially Beta Israel women, who pass the craft from one generation of women to the next – have long been acknowledged and revered as gifted craftmakers. Most of the Beta Israel lived in and around the northwestern city of Gondar, which served as Ethiopia’s capital for several hundred years until the late 19th Century. The skill of making pottery brought low status but a stable income, and tourists would even visit the region to see and buy the pottery.
Then, in 1980s and 1990s, two airlifts swept most of Ethiopia’s Beta Israel people, who felt marginalized and even persecuted, to a new home in Israel, and they took with them a skill that sustained the kitchens of the non-Jews lucky enough to own their pottery.
But many other Ethiopian cultures still make shakla distoch and similar forms of pottery, like the very important jebena (coffee pot), the genbo (a clay jar with a round bottom), the general-purpose masaro, and the taba (a small serving plate). There’s even a special design for a taba used to serve kitfo, the popular dish of raw seasoned ground meat. (See photo below.)
The March 1937 issue of the British Museum Quarterly describes some newly acquired pottery from Ethiopia. “The pottery, consisting mostly of cooking-vessels, drinking-cups, and other domestic ware, is made of a comparatively thick, coarse paste burnished black,” the journal says. “In form, certain of the vessels suggest survivals from a more primitive phase, when the potters’ art was not so widespread as it is today.”
The Ari people of the Omo region in southwestern Ethiopia identify at least 60 different varieties of pots, the scholar Morie Kaneko found in studying the culture. Based on the shapes of the pots, the Ari women who make pottery have four categories: tila, with a wide round bottom and mouth at the top, used for steaming root crops, carrying water and making alcoholic drinks (like t’alla, the traditional Ethiopian beer); aksh, round and flat, for roasting coffee and making injera; disti, that is, the shakla dist; and jebena, the coffee pot.
Kaneko found that “Ari pottery makers exhibit 20 patterns of common finger movements, and they follow four stages in making pots. [They] may invent new finger movement processes to create new sizes and shapes for pots to accommodate orders.”
In other parts of western and southwestern Ethiopia, many cultures make pottery: the Oromo, the Gamo, the Berta, the Gumuz and more. Bula Wayessa has studied these cultures and found differences in the styles and techniques of the craftmakers.
“Gamo potters use different fabrication practices than the Wallaga,” Bula wrote in a 2011 essay. “They form the top half of the cooking jars using drawing and coiling techniques. Once the upper body is formed, the jar is turned upside down on the rim and the bottom of the vessel is finished using coiling and scraping with an elongated piece of bamboo.”
Bula also found that “the major shaping technique among the Berta people is drawing from a lump. Once the walls have risen sufficiently, potters build up rims with the fingers and finish the rims with a piece of calabash. To form a vessel, Gumuz potters dig a mold in the ground and line it with clay. This mold supports the vessel during construction. When the vessel is leather-hard, it is removed from the mold.”
And in the big city of Addis Ababa, you’ll find the Kechene Women’s Pottery Collective, which helps improve the lives of women – so much so that an Ethiopian scholar, Mulu Yeneabat, wrote a dissertation on it. “Pottery is one of the strategies adopted by families to support themselves and build on their assets,” Mulu writes. Yet despite the importance of craftsmanship both to the people who make the crafts and the people who use them, “traditional handicrafts production and marketing are decentralized and unorganized sectors of the Ethiopian economy, [and] the handicrafts sector and the craftspeople in Ethiopia were given little focus.”
Potters make their wares using a variety of clay soils, small sand stones and even ground-up pieces of broken pottery, very often from a mitad, the large flat round clay surface used to bake injera. A mitad is prone to breakage in rural Ethiopian homes, so much so that a team of graduate student engineers from Stanford University have devised the Mighty Mitad, a simple and inexpensive metal band that wraps around the rim of the mitad to fortify it.
The lesson here is clear: Centuries and generations of skill and knowledge go into making shakla distoch in Ethiopia, and then more skill goes into preparing a meal in them – which we’ll get to in a moment.
BEFORE YOU CAN USE a traditional dist to cook a meal, you have to condition or cure it to make it waterproof and heatproof. There are many methods out there for conditioning a dist (as well as a mitad or jebena), some traditional, some more contemporary to suit the needs of westerners, and they all suffice.
The verb memwashet refers to the traditional process of treating and tempering a shakla dist with oil seed before using it, and the Ethiopian scholar James McCann of Boston University calls the process “a distinctive skill that may have been lost. But now,” he adds, “I think that the pots may be treated before they are shipped, since there is now a market for the ones used for cooking and not just as decorative memorabilia.” In fact, in big cities with Ethiopian markets, you can buy distoch of all sizes and use them on your range top.
Simon Messing’s 1957 article in the journal American Anthropologist describes two traditional methods of what he refers to as “waterproofing” a piece of pottery before using it. He’s referring to the process of treating and tempering the dist.
The first method calls for heating the finished pot for half an hour on the cooking hearth, “which consists of three one-foot-high rocks.” You then place the dist on the ground, pour cold milk into it quickly, and rapidly swish it around until the pot cools. “This is considered the best method by the craftswomen,” he writes. “Yeast may be used in place of milk, but this is not considered as good.”
The second method is “resin coating” using the leaves of the ketketa bush, which grows on the high plateau of Ethiopia. At lower altitudes, where ketketa doesn’t grow, Ethiopians use resin from the euphorbia. “To heighten the effect of the resin method,” Messing advises, “it is sometimes preceded by burnishing the pottery with an oily cake that remains after the oil from the nug seed has been pressed out for use in the diet.”
Messing concludes: “These methods make the most of what nature provides readily and seem adequate to the rural people.”
In his 2011 article in African Archaeological Review, Bula Weyessa explains how the Wolega culture of southern Ethiopia treats a dist before cooking in it. What he describes is the more common method used by Ethiopians today.
“The potters stated that these treatments are intended to seal vessel surfaces by decreasing permeability,” Bula writes, “increasing vessel strength, and by making vessel surfaces smooth. Post-firing treatments can be undertaken either by the potters or consumers.”
The process begins by placing the newly made dist on an open hearth, filling it with water, and bringing the water to a boil. You then add flour – millet, sorghum, teff – to the pot and keep boiling “until the mixture comes to the pot’s rim through boiling. Then the pots are put aside and the hot mixture is splashed on the vessel’s exterior surface. The potters believe that this seals fine holes in the vessel walls and ensures its proper function in cooking.”
Bula next describes the process of curing the cooking surface of a clay griddle, and Ethiopians commonly perform this oil seed treatment on the final step of curing a shakla dist: “Powdered mustard seeds, nug (niger seed), cottonseed, or beeswax is placed on the well-heated griddle. As soon as the substance becomes hot, a woman rubs it exhaustively on the griddle with pieces of the cotton cloth, and this is done repeatedly until the surface of the griddle becomes shiny black.”
Now your dist is ready to use over an open hearth.
Of course, if you don’t have the goods to employ these traditional methods, and you plan to use your shakla dist over the flame of your gas range, there are some modern options.
Brundo, an Ethiopian market in Oakland, Calif., sells shakla distoch on its website and offers this curing method:
“Luke warm tap water filled half way, boil water over low heat with one quarter cup of oil to coat the inside of the clay pot. Let boil with the top constantly covered for about two hours, adding water as needed, to finalize the curing process. Remove dist from burners, let cool to room temperature, discard content. Wash with dish soap and rinse carefully and store for 48 hours before usage.”
You can also buy a dist from Ethiopia Crafts Market, an Ebay seller who offers curing instructions with echoes of Messing’s 1957 article. You must heat the dist, including the top, in a warm oven (250 degrees) for about an hour. But don’t pre-heat the oven: The pot must warm slowly. After the heating process, warm 10 ounces of water in the dist and add eight tablespoons of flour. Stir the flour against the walls of the dist using a wooden spatula, a process that helps to eliminate the odor of the clay. Finally, empty the dist, let it cool, and hand wash it with soap and water. Never put your dist in a dishwasher.
I split the difference on these two modern methods: I filled my dist about half way with water, added some oil, turned the oven on to 250 degrees, and let the filled dist heat in the oven for two hours. I then took it out, let it cool, spilled out the liquid and washed the inside with soap and water. It worked fine.
NOW IT’S TIME to start cooking. But really, cooking in a shakla dist is like cooking in your factory-made pots and pans. It just looks and feels more authentic – and the dist doesn’t come with a no-stick surface of fluorocarbon polymers or aluminum anodized with acetone.
Purists will tell you that cooking your Ethiopian food in a shakla dist changes the taste of the food and tinges it with the flavor of the clay. I can confirm this, although the difference is subtle, and you may detect it more strongly during the process of cooking, where you can smell the dist as well as the food. In fact, when I approach the shelf where I keep my three distoch, I can smell them even when they’re not heated and bubbling with ingredients.
An Ethiopian friend once told me an anecdote that brings the point home. He was raised in Gondar, loving his mother’s cooking, and after he left for America, he always looked forward to trips home. He especially remembered her delicious shiro. But years later, it somehow didn’t taste the same, and his mother told him that she no longer made shiro in a dist: After the Beta Israel emigrated in 1984 and 1991, she said, she couldn’t get shakla distoch any more and had to resort to cooking with conventional kitchenware.
I had no trouble finding them in the Washington, D.C., area last summer, when I bought three distoch (pictured above) at well-stocked Ethiopian markets in the Virginia cities of Falls Church and Alexandria. The smallest, four inches in diameter with the lid off, holds a little more than a cup of water, so I can only cook a small portion of shiro in it. My mid-sized five-inch dist allows me to cook enough wot or shiro to serve several people. The largest of my three is seven inches in diameter, and I could probably cook a horse in it – if there were such a dish as yefaras wot. Some distoch are even a bit larger, but of course, if it’s huge, then it’s a setate.
In my first cooking experiment with a dist – after curing them, of course – I prepared shiro in my mid-sized model. Things couldn’t have gone better: The shiro was delicious, with a slightly smokey taste from the effect of the dist. I noticed that the water and oil took a little longer to come to a boil than when I mix the same ingredients in a metal pot, probably because of the thickness of the clay, and the shiro took just a little longer to thicken.
The dist cleaned up well, although I did soak it a while in hot water to soften the bits of shiro stuck to the sides of the pot. I didn’t want to have to scrub too hard, and when I did, I used a moist soapy paper towel rather than a rougher pad. It looked like new when I finished the cleanup. (See my video below to watch the step-by-step cooking process.)
A few weeks later, I went all the way: a three-course meal using all of my distoch. The menu: duba wot (pumpkin) in the largest dist, doro tibs wot (chicken stew) in the middle, and a small portion of shiro in my baby dist.
It all went without incident – well, almost. I turned the heat up too high on the shiro at the beginning of the process, so it bubbled over. I caught it right away, cleaned up the mess, and set the heat as low as I could to let it cook more slowly. Lesson learned: Shiro needs a little room to expand, and I can’t overfill my small dist if I want to cook with it. I doubt I could make stew of either meat or vegetables in such a small vessel: You just can’t get enough chunks of food in it.
In my largest dist, the duba wot cooked beautifully. This dish begins by simmering onions in oil, and again, it took a little longer for the pot to get hot. Once the onions began to glisten, I added some berbere and water to make the wot, followed by the duba and more water. Then, I just let it cook until it thickened nicely.
With those two dishes cooking, I started the doro tibs wot: cook the onions in the dist, with a bit of water to keep them from scorching; add niter kibe (spiced butter) and let it simmer; add berbere to make a thick spicy wot; then add the chicken and jalapeños. Cooking several dishes, of course, requires timing: You must know when one dish is far enough along to start the next one. I’m happy to say that all three dishes were ready at just about the same time, the shiro taking the longest of the three to mature. (See my video below.)
When everything was ready to eat, I scooped out portions onto my injera and put the leftovers into storage containers. I did this right away so I could begin soaking the distoch while I ate. As it turned out, I needn’t have bothered: Because the doro and duba were prepared in generous amounts of fat (butter for the former, oil for the latter), nothing stuck to the bottom of those two distoch, and they cleaned up as if they were non-stick modern cookery. The shiro pot again required a bit of soaking.
I noticed that the top edges of the distoch got hot, but not as hot as a metal pot might. Still, I used oven mitts to take the smallest dist off the stovetop to spoon the shiro onto the injera. For the other dishes, I held my platter over the distoch on the stove and scooped out my portions. But relatively soon after I had turned off the heat, the distoch were safe enough to touch and pick up by their handles and edges.
I also noticed that the dishes continued to bubble and simmer for three or four minutes after I had turned off the flames beneath them. Once again, I’m sure this has to do with the way the distoch conduct and retain heat.
When I dried my distoch after soaking and cleaning them, I found that the bottoms of the two larger ones now have some spots where the rough black clay has begun to turn brick red. This, it seems, is something that happens to a dist over time when it’s exposed to the intense heat of the flame. An Ethiopian friend tells me that he’s seen this happen with distoch that he’s owned. But these items are pretty sturdy (as long as you don’t drop them), and he even continued to use his after hairline cracks began to appear in the bottom.
A few weeks after these nascent efforts with my distoch, I went for the big one: doro wot, sometimes called “the national dish of Ethiopia.” Served at festivals and holiday celebrations, it’s a chicken stew (usually drumsticks) in a rich spicy wot sauce, and cooking it in a dist felt just right.
Things went well: I cooked the onions – a lot of them, as the dish requires – for longer than usual in the dist, then added kibe, t’ej and the spices, and then five chicken drumsticks, shortened a bit to fit (I chopped off the boney, meatless part at the end of each piece). Doro wot requires a lot of attention, especially during the onion stage. But cooking it in a dist was no harder than cooking it in a modern pot. Once again, after the meal, the dist cleaned up easily.
I’m sure I’ll continue to use my distoch to make Ethiopian food, although only on occasion: They’re certainly much more fragile than commercial cookware, so I don’t want to test their limits. And perhaps my tongue just isn’t sensitive enough to taste a big difference anyway. Still, I’m glad I have them, and I look forward to using them again.
University of Pittsburgh
Watch my video of cooking a three-course Ethiopian meal – doro tibs wot, duba wot, shiro – in shakla distoch.
Watch my video of cooking doro wot in a shakla dist.
Watch my detailed video of cooking shiro in a shakla dist.
And here’s my video of cooking siga wot (beef stew) and diblik atakilt (veggie stew) in a shakla dist.
Watch a video of an Ethiopian woman making a shakla dist from scratch.