LET’S SAY YOU WANTED to eat Ethiopian food for a full week at all three meals. What would you eat? How would you plan your menu?
Just ask Zewdu Tadese.
In 1963, Zewdu published a book in Ethiopia about nutrition called Megebachin, which means “Our Food,” and at the end of the book, he has a chart that plans your menu for an entire week: breakfast, lunch and dinner, Monday through Sunday.
I found this wonderful book, and many other rare older Ethiopian cookbooks, at the Library of Congress, where they’re housed in the African and Middle Eastern reading room. But Zewdu’s book, along with most of the others I explored this summer, are in Amharic or Tigrinya. So I’ve taken the liberty of translating his week-long daily menu planner.
The book discusses such things as vitamins, proteins, starches and fats that the body needs to thrive, and at the end of each chapter, there’s a set of questions and answers to summarize the information. He seems to have created his menu planner to make sure people eat a set of balanced meals.
Just below is the planner as it appears in the book: You can click the image to make it larger. After the image, I’ll walk you through Zewdu’s mealtime recommendations.
Down the left side of the chart, you’ll see the names for the three meals of the day: qurs, mesa, erat – that is, breakfast, lunch and dinner. Across the top are the seven days of the Ethiopian week: Sanyo (Monday), Maksanyo (Tuesday), Rabu (Wednesday), Hamus (Thursday), Arb (Friday), Qedame (Saturday), Ahud (Sunday). The Ethiopian calendar begins on our Sept. 11, and it’s seven years behind ours on every Ethiopian New Year’s Day. The difference has to do with how Ethiopian Christians – who worship in the Coptic tradition – mark the Annunciation of Jesus. So whereas Zewdu published his book in 1956 on the Ethiopian calendar, that was 1963 on our calendar. The Ethiopian calendar has 12 months of 30 days each, and a 13th month of five or six days to even things out.
But seven days are still seven days, and Ethiopians able to afford it eat three hearty meals a day. In fact, Zewdu certainly wrote his book for such an audience. Literacy there in the 1960s was well below 10 percent, so only educated people would have read his book, and only such people could have afforded to eat as well as he proposes in the daily menu planner.
At the top of the chart, in Amharic, it says: “Yesament Yemegeb Seleda,” which means “Schedule of Meals/Food of the Week.” The menus that follow touch upon all the basic dishes you know from eating Ethiopian food, except perhaps for some of the breakfast entries, but only because Americans rarely eat breakfast at an Ethiopian restaurant (or in the homes of Ethiopian friends). Most days include meat, although two days are vegetarian.
To save a little space below, I’ll note here that every lunch and dinner menu ends with the same word: wuha – that is, water. It’s a great drink, but still, I’d recommend you enjoy your evening meal (or maybe even lunch) with some t’ej, the wonderful Ethiopian honey wine, which you can learn to make by visiting another page on my site.
One more thing to note: Almost all of the lunch and dinner menus include injera, the spongy Ethiopian sourdough flatbread used to scoop up the food. But some of the entries omit injera and just say dabo, the Amharic word for “bread.”
It’s not uncommon for Ethiopians to eat a leavened bread for breakfast: yeferenj dabo, or “foreign bread,” as it’s often referred to. This appears on some of Zewdu’s breakfast offerings, and some Ethiopians even prefer not to have injera for breakfast. But for a meal where you’re eating some kind of wot (stew) or tibs (sort of like stir fry), you need your injera. So I can only assume that the “bread” meant to accompany a lunch and dinner with a wot or tibs on the menu is injera, or else how would you eat the food?
In the menus below, I’ll write what Zewdu wrote: If his menu says dabo, then dabo it is. But I’d recommend you eat with injera if the meal seems to require it.
Here, then, is what you’ll eat if you follow Zewdu’s suggestions.
Monday. For breakfast, the day begins with a combination that you might have in any Western home: dabo (bread), watat (milk) and enqualal tibs (an omelet of eggs, onions, jalapeños and spices). Lunch will be injera, kay siga wot (spicy beef stew) and ferfere (fruit – apparently any kind of your own choosing). Finally, end your day with a hearty meal of merek shorba (a meaty soup) and atkilt wot, a spicy stew of mixed vegetables. You’ll eat the stew with injera.
Oh, and enjoy your milk at breakfast: It’s the only time you’ll have a glass all week if you follow Zewdu’s plan, although you will be allowed some milk in your coffee or tea throughout the week.
Tuesday. Breakfast today is a bit more spare than it was yesterday: just a bowl of qinche (cracked wheat porridge) and a cup of coffee with sugar. For lunch, it’s a spicy yellow pea stew (kay atar kik wot) and some Ethiopian cottage cheese (ayib), along with injera. Dinner will be a meaty broth (yesiga merek), yogurt (ergo) and some bread. There’s no injera on the dinner menu, unless by dabo (“bread”) that’s what Zewdu means. But then you could eat your yesiga merek with a spoon and just have some bread along with it.
Wednesday. Hump day is all vegetarian because Wednesday is a fasting day in Ethiopian Christianity: That means no meat. But the meals are very filling, so you won’t feel hungry. Breakfast is especially starchy and will take a bit of preparation. It begins with a kita made with gebs (barley flour). That’s a personal-sized pizza-like dish, the batter pan cooked and then smeared with berbere-spiced niter kibe, easy to make (see my Recipes page) and delicious. You’ll accompany that with a cup of tea with sugar. Lunch, too, is rather hearty: injera, a spicy vegetable stew (atkilt wot), a potato stew (dinich tibs) and a salad. Dinner is vegetarian as well: a spicy lentil stew (misir kik wot), collard greens (gomen), plus injera, and “one cup of water.” (Oh, go ahead: Splurge and have two!)
Thursday. Today’s breakfast begins with cheko, a spiced barley meal served, more or less, raw (that is, you mix the spices, niter kibe and water into the barley but don’t cook it). To wash it down, enjoy and bercheqo ergo – that is, “one glass of yogurt.”
Then, for lunch, you’ll sort of make up for eating vegetarian cuisine yesterday: The main course is yebeg siga genter, a mildly spiced soupy stew made with meaty lamb bones, along with doro wot (chicken stew) and eggs (a hard-boiled egg traditionally accompanies doro wot) – and then maybe your cholesterol medication! You’ll need some injera to eat it all, and sometimes, the yebeg siga genter is so loose and soupy that it requires fitfit (chopped injera) to soak up the broth. Genter, by the way, is sometimes called kikil (or qeqel), which is how Zewdu refers to it elsewhere on his week-long menu.
Finally, if you’re hungry again by the time of the evening meal, dinner will be bread, a beef stir fry (diblik siga tibs) and a tomato salad, which probably means chopped tomatoes, onions and jalapeños in a light lemony dressing (this is common at Ethiopian restaurants in America).
Friday. It’s another fasting day for Ethiopian Christians, so once again, there’s no meat on the menu – and an unusual vegetable to add some variety. For breakfast, it’s kita again, just like you had on Wednesday. But this time, you’re making it with aja (oats) flour rather than barley. Enjoy it with some sugar in your tea. For lunch, you have three stews, two of them pretty starchy: berbere-spiced vegetables (atkilt wot), fried potatoes (dinich tibs), and godere qeqel (or kikil), a dish of boiled godere, a greenish-purple potato-like root vegetable eaten in parts of Ethiopia. Dinner will be especially filling: bread, a lentil soup (yemisir shorba), plus beets (kay sir, literally “red root”) and a salad.
Saturday. Breakfast begins the day heartily with genfo, a thick porridge-like dish made by mixing flour (often wheat) with water, cooking it until it’s thick and sticky, placing the glob on a plate, and then carving out a hole in the middle into which you pour a spicy mixture of berbere and niter kibe (spiced butter). You then dip bite-sized pieces of the genfo into the liquid in the center. Add a cup of coffee with milk and sugar. For lunch, it’s a spicy beef stew (kay siga wot) and an accompaniment of cottage cheese (ayib), along with injera. Dinner features “bread” (injera is best), the somewhat bland dinich tibs (a potato stew) and a salad.
Sunday. Finally, you’ll get to end the week with some dishes that you haven’t had before. Breakfast is an egg omelet and a cup of tea with milk and sugar. Lunch includes doro wot, the special dish that consists of chicken drumsticks or thighs in a rich spicy stew, along with a hard boiled egg. You’ll scoop it all up with injera, of course. Then, for dinner, enjoy some asa tibs (fried fish), kay siga wot (beef stew), injera, and as always, a cup of water.
THIS MENU TOUCHES UPON all of the most basic and familiar dishes of Ethiopian cuisine, and you can get almost everything here at an Ethiopian restaurant in America. Still, a few of my favorite vegetable dishes are missing. I especially enjoy tikil gomen, a dish of cabbage and carrots, and duba wot, a rich pumpkin stew. I wouldn’t expect to see inguday wot, or mushroom stew, a less common offering at U.S. restaurants. And how about a nice hearty besso (barley flour) shake?
On the beefy side of things, I can’t say I miss dulet, a dish made of beef, liver and tripe (i.e., stomach), but I am a little surprised that Zewdu doesn’t offer it. He might also have suggested goden tibs (Ethiopian short ribs) or a dish made with quanta, which is Ethiopian beef jerky, sometimes served in a spicy wot sauce. Nor does he offer any dishes made with tere siga – that is, raw meat, an Ethiopian delicacy. There’s no kitfo, no gored gored, and no qurt. All of this is fine with me – I’m not a fan of raw meat – but some Ethiopians might miss the options.
But the most surprising omission of all is shiro, the delectable dish made from chick pea or yellow pea flour, richly spiced and cooked in water until it thickens into a creamy stew. (I enjoy shiro so much that I did an entire piece about it.) Some Ethiopians consider it to be a delicacy, but others consider it to be a peasant dish, and I’ve heard stories of poor families who eat it day after day because it’s all they can afford.
Perhaps Zewdu’s opinion of shiro falls into the latter category and he decided not to include it. Of course, there’s certainly no reason why you can’t go off-menu and add it a few times a week to top off your meal.
SO WHO WAS ZEWDU TADESE, and how did he come to write this book? That second question may remain a mystery, but thanks to a stroke of kismet, I can answer the first one.
During my visit to the Library of Congress in August, I scanned Zewdu’s book so I could explore it more closely at my leisure. I sent a copy to my friend Menkir Tamrat, who lives in northern California, where he makes Yamatt Tej and grows various kinds of Ethiopian vegetables for his nascent enterprise to make more authentic Ethiopian food products (spices and such) in the United States.
Menkir knows a lot about Ethiopian food, but I couldn’t possibly have imagined that he knew Zewdu. And he didn’t just know him: The men are brothers.
A journalist and writer in several genres, Zewdu died around 2000 in Cologne, Germany, where he had lived for many years, working for a time for the Amharic branch of German radio. He published another book, called Tenachin (“Our Health”), as well as numerous articles.
Menkir remembers his older brother as a generous, eloquent, opinionated fellow and a sharp dresser who once took second place in a dance competition – and was disappointed that he didn’t win.
“He had taught himself how to cook over the years,” Menkir recalls, “living abroad and all, and had become quite a good cook. His daughter Esther reminded me of a misir alicha [lentil stew] he made for me once when I was visiting them in Cologne. Once in a while he enjoyed some tere siga [raw meat], and he knew how to pick the perfect cuts at the lukanda [butcher shop]. He was also very generous, almost to a fault. When in high school, it’s customary to hit upon your working relatives for a little extra movie money on pay days. I made sure I looked him up during those days.”
Now we all can share in Zewdu’s generosity, although we’ll have to do the cooking ourselves.
University of Pittsburgh
A FOOTNOTE: Just below is another daily menu planner, from the 1980 cookbook Ethiopian Traditional Recipes, published by the Ethiopian Nutrition Institute of the country’s Ministry of Health. The names of the dishes are written in English, so you’ll know the main meat or vegetable ingredient of most dishes. For things like firfir, fitfit, chechebsa, besso and dulet, you can learn about them above (except for siljo, a bean dish not unlike shiro). You can also click the image of the menu to get a closer look. As with Zewdu’s menu planner, you’ll find no beef, chicken or lamb on Wednesday and Friday. But you will find fish, which some Ethiopians don’t consider to be meat for the purpose of religious fasting days.
And in the 2009 Amharic book Megeb Medhanite, which means “Food Medicine,” there’s a week-long, all-vegetarian, macro-diet menu planner. You can view or download it now as a PDF, and in the coming months, I’ll translate the menu and present it on my site. It offers such treats as soybean soup, red sorghum and carrots, oat porridge, onions with garden cress, and lots of black tea with no sugar.