A Short “Qurs” on Ethiopian Breakfast

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THE FIRST QUESTION TO ASK about an Ethiopian breakfast is this: On the day after you have a big Ethiopian dinner, will you even be hungry the next morning?

But let’s say you are. What do you eat? What do Ethiopians have for breakfast?

The morning meal is called qurs in Amharic, the state language of Ethiopia. It’s kursi in Tigrinya, ciree in Afaan Oromo, quraac in Somali, teginzir in Gurage, and in Afar, you can call it qeerakalo, quus or miidi. My Mursi dictionary doesn’t have a word for it, but bbhele tila means “morning food,” so I guess that will have to do.

Now that we know what to call it in various parts of Ethiopia, what does it look like and taste like, and how do we make it?

In many ways an Ethiopian breakfast is just like an American breakfast: There are various forms of hot cereal made with a variety of grains, or you can have an omelet or some meat, or even a pancake-like dish or two. But they all have Ethiopian twists – and in some cases, even Ethiopian spices.

For financially secure urban Ethiopians, qurs might be milk, bread, cereal or porridge, and dishes made with eggs, familiar items any morning in America. But the cereal is a little different: It could be kinche, atmit, genfo or a variety of others – more on all of them below. Even beef tibs are not out of the question for breakfast in the way Americans would eat bacon, sausage or ham. Quanta firfir is spicy Ethiopian dried beef (like beef jerky), and there’s also an Ethiopian version of an egg omelet. In northern Ethiopia’s Tigrinya-speaking region, sardines and chopped tomatoes, spiced with a bit of berbere, might be on the table.

Country people eat what they can get or afford. A grittier type of porridge is called bula, made from the enset plant. Be sure to add lots of berbere and kibbee to give it some flavor. An ambasha bread and coffee is another common country breakfast. Or they could have shiro, the tasty ground pea powder that you can make in large quantities and keep for a long time, reconstituting it with water and serving it with injera or bread.

A serving of dulet

A serving of dulet

Here, then, is a closer look at some common Ethiopian breakfast dishes, many of them very easy to make if you have a few special ingredients.

Enqulal Tibs. Simply put, this is scrambled eggs or an egg (enqulal) omelet, the Ethiopian breakfast dish most like what we eat here. Tibs, of course, refers to a dish that’s fried in a pan, usually in niter kibe (Ethiopian spiced butter), and that’s what you do to make enqulal tibs.

Melt some kibe, toss in chopped onions and jalapeños, season it with a touch of cardamom and, to taste, red hot berbere powder, and then, crack a few eggs into the skillet, swirling them around and heating them until the eggs are done to your liking. This is one of the easiest authentic Ethiopian breakfasts to prepare, as long as you have some kibe and berbere.

Breakfast Meat. If you’d rather have beef as your morning protein, you have a few options. For tibs, just prepare them as you would for dinner: onions, niter kibe, berbere, and the siga (beef). Quanta firfir takes a bit more preparation because you first have to have some quanta – that is, dried beef. But if you have it, you prepare it like tibs. The firfir part means that you toss some chopped injera pieces into the stew. I’ve never seen a traditional Ethiopian breakfast with chicken, but I see no reason why you couldn’t make doro tibs if you don’t eat kay siga – that is, red meat.

You might also have dulet for breakfast, although it’s rather rare – a dish served on celebratory occasions, like when you slaughter a lamb. Some restaurants in Ethiopia will only serve it on weekends as a special dish. It’s a finely chopped stew of lamb tripe (stomach), beef and liver (from a lamb or cow). You fry it up in niter kibe with chopped onions, peppers and a variety of spices.

Genfo with ergo

Genfo with ergo

Genfo. This is another easy dish to prepare: It’s a filling porridge made with any of a variety of flours, most commonly prepared as yesinde genfo (with wheat) or yegebs genfo (with barley).

To prepare genfo, mix half a cup of flour with a touch of cardamom, then add the mixture to cup of boiling water (you can increase the quantities proportionally to feed a crowd). Stir it all up, and when it’s smooth, it’s just about ready to eat. Meanwhile, in a small pot or a microwave, melt some niter kibe, then add some berbere, as spicy as you like it. Put the finished genfo on a plate, and form a hole in the middle. Pour the hot kibe into the hole, and with a spoon, take off chunks of the genfo, dip it into the rich spicy liquid, and enjoy. You can also surround the genfo with a ring or just dollops of plain yogurt (ergo).

Genfo, by the way, has sometimes been called the Ethiopian fufu. In the cuisines of many central and western African countries, fufu – which goes by a variety of names across many African cultures – is made with mashed plantains, yams, cassava or other starchy plants, then rolled into a ball and served with a spicy meat or vegetable dish, or even peanut soup (in Nigeria). The fufu itself is rather bland, so when I make it from time to time (using a powdered mix), I create a hole in the middle into which I pour niter kibe spiced with berbere. I call my trans-African hybrid genfufu.

Bula. This dish is the acquired taste of the Ethiopian breakfast. It’s a porridge, more or less, but one unlike anything you’ll find in America.

In Ethiopia, the enset tree – often referred to as the “false banana” – is essential to many cultures. Some call it “the tree against hunger” because it provides so much food to so many people. Enset has no edible fruit: You eat the tree itself by removing the bark and grinding the trunk into a pulp. If you bury the pulp in the ground for a few days or weeks between enset leaves, you end up with a fermented “bread” called qocho that goes well with kitfo, the beloved dish made of raw ground beef.

But for breakfast, you turn enset into bula, a porridge made from enset pulp that’s dried into a flour. The preparation is simple: just boil it in water and add niter kibe. Eating it, however, is another matter: To my mouth, it still tastes like a tree. Qocho, on the other hand, is tart and delicious, a result of the fermentation.

Other Breakfast Porridges. Qinche is a cracked wheat (sinde) or barley (gebs) porridge that looks and tastes a little like grits or cream of wheat. You make it by boiling the sinde or gebs in niter kibe and watat (milk) until it’s soft, and you can add more kibe when it’s done to make it even richer. Or you might eat atmit, a hot cream of aja (oats) cereal, with sugar or honey swirled in. Soak the aja in water until you can remove the husks, then boil them in water until they thicken. Add some honey, serve it in a cup or bowl, and add kibe to make it even richer.

Ful from Ethiopia, with garnishes as sides

Ful from Ethiopia, with garnishes as sides

Ful. This import from Arab culture is a hearty and popular breakfast choice, especially when you serve it with traditional sides. It’s fava beans (bakela) that you cook, mash and season. If you use dried beans, you have to boil them until they’re soft, so you might considered cooked beans from a can.

Heat the beans in a pan until they soften, adding some water to keep them from scorching, or just using the liquid from the can. Mash the beans until they look like Mexican fried beans, then add some oil, a touch of nech shinkurt and tikur azmud (garlic and cumin), and enough berbere to suit your spice level, letting it all heat until it’s blended. When it’s ready, scoop it onto a plate and garnish the top with finely chopped tomatoes (timatim), onions (shinkurt), jalapeños (karya) and even a bit of feta cheese or yogurt. Serve it with a crunchy or crusty bread. Some recipes will have you mix the shinkurt and karya right into the pan, and that’s fine, too. But I prefer those items as garnishes on top or on the side.

Fetira. While we’re on the subject of both eggs and Arab influences, let’s talk about this unusual dish, which I only recently discovered. But I’m not the only one: My friend Menkir Tamrat – born and raised in Ethiopia, and a long-time American – just discovered it as well on a trip home.

Top and bottom  of Menkir's fetira  (click to enlarge)

Top and bottom
of Menkir’s fetira
(click to enlarge)

“I was having breakfast in Dessie,” Menkir tells me, “when I saw a guy at another table helping himself, after pouring a thimble of white honey on it, to what looked like thin flaky wedges. I had never seen it before and ordered it, and it turned out that the dish is known by three names: fetira, melewa and masum y’tmala, the name that appeared on the receipt. To me, all three names suggest the item must have come from across the sea.”

That would seem to be the case. Like ful, fetira clearly comes from Arabic culture across the Red Sea, no doubt having spread from Harar, the Arabic-influenced city in eastern Ethiopia. It’s a flaky puff pastry, sort of like filo dough, combined with an egg in the shape of an omelet. From the pictures I’ve seen, the egg can be on top of the dough, or in the center, or it can be all chopped up and mixed together. You serve it with some honey to drip or dip (see photo).

Kita and Chechebsa. This is one of my favorites. Kita is sometimes called an “Ethiopian pizza,” and if you chop it up into little pieces instead of keeping it round, it becomes chechebsa, which tends to be the Oromo way of doing it. You can use any type of flour, as long as it’s not white flour – which is just plain boring. I use whole wheat, barley or teff. Personally, I prefer chechebsa because it’s more fun to eat, and I recommend making it with teff for the most authentic experience.

The preparation is simple, but it can be a bit tricky. In a bowl, mix the flour and water well, until it forms a rather thick batter. Pour the batter onto a pre-heated non-stick skillet, which you can grease very lightly if you like. Let it cook on one side until you can safely flip it over without it falling apart or running. Then, let it cook on the other side until it’s ready to flip again. Keep flipping until it’s fully cooked, with no moist batter inside. While it’s cooking, melt the niter kibe in a microwave, and add the berbere to the melted butter.

Kita (left) and Chechebsa

Kita (left) and Chechebsa

If you’re using a lighter-colored flour, like barley or whole wheat, let it brown just a bit. Teff flour will be darker, so you won’t really see it browning as it cooks. When the batter is fully cooked: For kita, smear the berbere-spiced kibe on top; for chechebsa, break it up into bite-sized pieces, and toss the pieces in a bowl with the kibe.

Tip #1: If you’re making kita, and it breaks into pieces when you flip it, no problem – just turn it into chechebsa when it’s done. Tip #2: If you prefer your chechebsa pieces crispy, throw them back onto the hot skillet after you’ve tossed them in the spicy niter kibe.

Beso. This is another porridge, but you can also turn it into an Ethiopian “power shake.” For the porridge version, you toast some gebs (barley) flour in a pan, add a few spices, then niter kibe and berbere, and then water. When it’s thick and ready, roll it in to small balls and serve it that way. But if you want to make a shake out of it, add more water and some honey, mix it well, and serve it in a tall glass. In fact, an Ethiopian businessman recently launched a beso truck in Addis Ababa.

Injera Anababero

Injera Anababero

Anababero. This isn’t a typical breakfast meal, but it uses a lot of the other ingredients of breakfast, and it’s a great way to serve a crowd. Quite simply, anababero is a sort of injera pie: Smear a piece of injera with niter kibe spiced with berbere, lay another injera on top, smear it with more of the mixture, and then layer it once again with injera (or even with a fourth layer if you like). A finished anababero is moist and red from the kibe and berbere – a rich, spicy, filling morning meal. You can even make anababero from scratch with wheat flour, creating big round injera substitutes using a pizza-sized pan that you layer with pancake-like batter and bake in the oven.

There are certainly other things you can make for breakfast in Ethiopia, but this covers the most common and popular dishes. If you want to try any of them yourself, I’d recommend starting with enqulal tibs, and then moving on to genfo, and finally, a kita or some chechebsa. Of course, you’ll need kibe and berbere to do it most authentically. But berbere is easy to find online – Whole Foods even makes a version now – and if necessity demands it, you can always use Indian ghee as a kibe substitute. Isn’t the most important meal of the day worth a little effort?

Harry Kloman
University of Pittsburgh

Watch a video about how to make atmit:

 

And here’s a simple way to make genfo:

 

Here’s a recipe for quinche:

 

And here, you can learn to make enqulal firfir, an Ethiopian omelet:

 

And here you can learn to make kita:

The Art of the Meal

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SOMETIMES AN ETHIOPIAN MEAL can become a work of art.

That’s because artists in Ethiopia – and in other cultures, too, of course – like to memorialize their cuisine with paintings. In the case of Ethiopia, these folk artists often create their paintings on parchment made of tanned animal hides, usually in the familiar style of Ethiopian traditional art. The images tend to depict country ways of cooking and eating rather than the way people eat in a modern urban setting. Some of the images even go back a few millennia.

I own a few such paintings, and you can find many more for sale on Ebay and around the internet. I’ve decided to do a largely visual post here and collect some images. The paintings usually have a few words in Amharic describing what they depict, and I’ll translate those words, which are sometimes small and hard to read.

So here’s a look at the art of Ethiopian cuisine, with captions every few images that describe what the artists depict. You can click on each image to make it larger.

baltena

Women Cooking (Baltena)

womencooking

baltena3

THESE FOUR IMAGES are a great place to begin: Women are the cooks in most Ethiopian homes, and here, we see scenes of women making injera, cooking wot and, in the second image, grinding grain as well. In Amharic, the word baltena refers to household skills, and two of the painting have this word: The top image says ye’setoch baltena, or “the household skills of women,” and the middle one merely says baltena.

The bottom image shows women baking bread – the word dabo is barely visible in the corner – using two mitads with a fire above and below, and with the dough inside wrapped in the leaves of the enset plant. This cooking takes place in the lower left corner of the image, and the finished bread is called difo dabo.

cooking

AS A WOMAN COOKS, a group of hungry friends and family await their meal. Or perhaps she’s the community’s master chef, giving baltena lessons to her neighbors. We know she’s cooking wot because the tiny word is visible at the bottom of the image. In the background, a mesob awaits the finished meal.

disciples

apostles2

CHRISTIANITY ARRIVED IN ETHIOPIA in the fourth century, and religious art has long been a cultural tradition. Here, two artists show Jesus and the 12 apostles eating around three mesobs – which almost certainly did not exist in his time. The inscription on the top image says: Christos b’elete-hamus erat abela, which means “Christ hosted dinner on the day of Thursday.” I guess you could call that the next to the last supper.

bigmeal

meal

AN ETHIOPIAN MEAL is always communal, and in these paintings, large groups dine together and enjoy plenty of t’ej (honey wine) from traditional bereles. Mehaberawi means a collective or association, although at the dinner table, it refers to sharing a meal. The words on the top image say mehaberawi gebzia, which means, more or less, “sharing a feast.” The bottom image says erat sibelu, which means “as they eat dinner,” and in this painting, you can see a woman pouring coffee.

yellowmeal

diners

HERE ARE THREE MORE INTIMATE MEALS, with a yellow palette dominating the work. The golden t’ej stands out in each image, so the artists seem to have made the injera and the mesob yellow as well. The wot on the injera is red, just as it should be. The inscription on the top image says, megeb siblu, which means “as they eat food,” and the bottom two simply say siblu, or “when they are eating.”

gursha

AND TALK ABOUT INTIMATE: Here’s a feast where one celebrant give gursha to another. That’s the communal act of placing a morsel of food in someone’s mouth, a favor that’s immediately returned. The word gursha means “mouthful.”

gershopounding

FOR THE MOST PART, making the delectable Ethiopian honey wine t’ej isn’t a lot of work: You mix honey and water, add gesho, and let it ferment. But if you use the leaf of the gesho rather than the stick, you have to pound it into a powder. That’s what the women here are doing. The inscription is the same on each painting: gesho siwaqata, which means “pounding gesho.” Ethiopians also use the powdered leaf of the gesho to make t’alla, a traditional beer.

roundtej

mealwithspoon

tej2

drinking tej

tejgroup

WHEN THE T’EJ IS READY, Ethiopians often drink it from a berele, a round-bottom flask with a small opening at the top over which you can place your thumb to keep insects from getting into the sweet liquid. Some people will drink t’ej with a meal, but very often, it comes after the meal (center right), perhaps because it’s safer to imbibe on a full stomach. The revelers on the bottom seem to be so far gone that they’ve spilled some of their t’ej. The second and third photos above says megeb simegebu, which means “as they eat the meal.” In the paired imaged, the left image says, once again, erat siblu, or “as they eat dinner,” and the right image says megeb baletewe t’ej sitetu, or “drinking t’ej after a meal.

coffeemaking

buna

ETHIOPIANS GAVE COFFEE TO THE WORLD, and they cherish this fact as a cultural touchstone. In fact, you don’t just serve coffee in Ethiopia: You prepare it in a ceremony that involves grinding the beans, roasting them as you socialize with your guests – letting the aroma circulate – then drinking three cups with crunchy or grainy snacks. Each of these paintings contains the word buna, which is coffee in Amharic, and the top image says buna sitetu, which means “drinking coffee.” A full coffee ceremony, and its accompanying social time when the coffee is ready, can consume three hours or more.

cookinggroup

IT’S BACK TO THE BALTENA for this busy tableau of women. The cook on the left grinds grain, two of the women are sifting something, two work together pounding gesho to make t’ej, and the woman in the middle prepares to serve a meal, probably to a table surrounded by their hungry husbands, children and other relatives.

A grand Ethiopian gebr (banquet). Click the image to get a closer look.

A grand Ethiopian gebr (banquet). Click the image to get a closer look.

THIS MAGNIFICENT PANORAMA shows many aspects of an Ethiopian gebr (banquet or feast). In the center, three men eat their meal from a mesob, while nearby others eat on the ground and enjoy some golden t’ej, which servants (bottom left) draw from an ensera. A server with a small pitcher (lower right) walks around filling people’s bereles.

On the right, in the bottom corner, a man prepares brindo – that is, raw meat (tere siga) – cutting off chunks to present to the revelers. Sometimes he’ll serve it in long strips, and at the table, you cut off bite-sized pieces yourself. This ritual is called qurt, and the people sitting on the ground have knives and chunks of tere siga in front of them.

Just to the right of the men around the mesob, there’s entertainment: a woman performing the traditional eskista dance, and a man playing what appears to be a masenqo, a one-stringed Ethiopian instrument. A krar has five or six strings, and a begena has 10 strings.

Note the three men in black at the center of the painting: The word above them is papas, which means pope, so they might be there to represent the trinity. And sitting on the lion-skin throw at the top of the painting is Tewodros II, a great Ethiopian emperor who met a tragic end of his own making in 1868. (Click the image to get a closer look at all of the details.)

Harry Kloman

University of Pittsburgh

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