AN ETHIOPIAN WOMAN may be the queen of her kitchen, but she serves an indispensable king.
“Onions have a regal place in all Ethiopian cooking,” Daniel Mesfin says in his book, Exotic Ethiopian Cooking. In fact, he calls it King Onion, and he highly recommends “the oval, deep purplish and mild Italian bulb which is also excellent for salads.” Dalo’s Kitchen, an Ethiopian restaurant in Portland, Ore., says it offers a “variety of vegetables cooked in mild caramelized onion sauce.” That’s a good way to describe the foundation of Ethiopian dishes.
Lena Deresse, in her loving little book, Cooking with Imaye – that is, her mother – remembers a childhood spent watching her mother go through “the pain-staking labor of peeling and chopping what was often an enormous bag of onions. It was not uncommon for my mom to go through 15 to 20 pounds of onions in a single day when cooking.”
Virtually every Ethiopian dish requires at least some onions, and most require a lot of them. You can even prepare an Ethiopian dabo (bread) packed with onions cooked in spicy berbere powder and kibe (rich Ethiopian butter). In America, most cooks use red onions, and nowadays, that’s what many Ethiopians use back home as well. But for the most authentic cooking, many Ethiopians say, you need to use shallots, that little brother to the larger onions that we most commonly use in the United States.
The Amharic word for onion is shinkurt, the Tigrinya word is shigurti, and in Afaan Oromo, it’s called shinkurtti or qullubbi diimaa. That single Afaan Oromo word sounds very much like shinkurt, but the two-word phrase for onion translates literally as “garlic red.” Interestingly, the Amharic term for garlic is nech shinkurt, or literally, “white onion.” And it’s the same principle in Tigrinya: garlic is called shigurti ts’ada, or “onion white.” So all three of these Ethiopian languages equate onions with garlic.
In America, Ethiopian cooks will almost always use red onions, unless they have the time and patience to use shallots: The former is large, and you have to peel and chop less to get more; the latter is small and much more labor intensive. In Ethiopia, too, the red onion has become common. But for many, the shallot is still prized.
“Although bulb onions can be grown in the tropics, farmers in tropical countries prefer shallots for their ability to propagate vegetatively,” Kebede Woldetsadik writes in his 2003 thesis at Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. “Shallots are also preferred for their shorter growth cycle, better tolerance to disease and drought stresses and longer storage life than the common onion and for their distinct flavor that persists after cooking.” He notes that “shallots in particular are widely cultivated as a source of income by peasant farmers in many parts of the country.”
Yenus Ousman Kemal says that “since it has strong pungency and longer life of stew prepared with it, shallot is preferred to onions for flavoring of the local stew wot to be used in daily meals of many houses in Ethiopia.” The scholar Dessie Getahun concurs that the shallot is “preferred by most Ethiopians for its strong pungent culinary value.”
A 2009 report from the Ethiopian agricultural ministry says that “the shallot is believed to have come from Western Asia [and] has been in cultivation from a remote period” – that is, for a long, long time. Onions, the report says, are “considerably important in the daily Ethiopian diet. All the plant parts are edible, but the bulbs and the lower stems sections are the most popular as seasonings or as vegetables in stews.” This is interesting, for it positions the onion – which is newer to Ethiopian agriculture – and not the shallot, as a key ingredient in cooking.
Ethiopian cookbooks today all include red onions in their list of ingredients. But in the early 1970s, the Ethiopian American Cook Book has “shallots” in every recipe that calls for onions. The book presents its recipes in Amharic on one side and in English on the other, so we read kay shinkurt on the left and “shallots” on the right. But kay shinkurt translates literally as “red onion.” There is, in fact, no separate word for “shallot” in Amharic: Where kay shinkurt used to mean shallots, now it can mean shallots or red onions.
Shallots have a short growing season – just three months, which means more yields per year in a tropical climate. But the plant requires a lot of water, so it can only grow well in the Ethiopian highlands, although irrigation has brought shallot production a wider range in the country.
Scientifically, there’s little difference between the common cooking onion and the shallot: The former is called Allium cepa L., the latter Allium cepa L. var. ascalonicum. And garlic, or “white onion” in Amharic, is Allium sativum. So all three come from the same genus.
Think of them, then, as mutually intelligible dialects of the same language. Onions and shallots differ slightly in some chemical properties, and that could account for why some cooks say they taste different when used in an Ethiopian dish, although it may take an especially sensitive palate to detect the difference. Garlic, of course, differs even further from its genetic kin, and it’s used more sparingly in cooking.
Onions are also a good source of antioxidants: Studies have found that a white onion has an antioxidant value of 85, and the purple onion 143, just a little less than spinach and green peppers. It’s also a rich source of flavonoids, the consumption of which “has been associated with a reduced risk of cancer, heart disease and diabetes,” the Ethiopian scientist Yemane Kahsay wrote in 2013. “In addition, it is known for anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-allergenic and anti-inflammatory potential.”
In fact, Yemane has written several papers about the most efficient way to plant onions to get higher yields out of a crop. He found that “lack of improved varieties and production practices have been the major bottlenecks of onion production and productivity,” and that the average bulb weight increased when farmers use a particular method of “intra-row spacing.”
Making a spicy Ethiopian wot or a milder alicha begins with onions, and you have to cook them thoroughly and watchfully.
“One of the things that I had the most trouble with is sautéing the onions,” Lena writes in her book. “When making the base for the wot, it is very important that one slow cooks the onions until they reach a paste-like consistency. In the process, one has to constantly stir in order to avoid burning the onions. Many a time, I’ve ruined a perfectly good batch of chopped onions because I stepped away from the stove for too long. Back to the peeling and dicing I would go, and the tedious work would start all over.”
I can attest to the authenticity of Lena’s account: You have to stand by your onions the way you would a child crossing a busy city street. With a dish like doro wot, for example, you need to cook and cook the onions until they dry and thicken, adding bits of water when necessary to keep them from burning – to “bring them back from the edge,” as my friend Menkir Tamrat puts it. When you serve the wot, he adds, you “don’t want the onions looking back at you.”
It’s a lot of work, but if you do it right, you’ll be glad you did: The kulet – that is, the sauce – of a well-prepared doro wot is a deep dark red – almost black – and it’s rich with the flavor of onions, niter kibe, berbere and a touch of t’ej.
For other wots and alichas, I’ve found, you don’t have to give your life over to the onions for quite as long a time. But you do have to cook them well, and you have to chop them finely before you begin to cook. For years, I did this with a hand chopper, which worked well enough. But lately, I’ve compromised, and now I use a food processor to prepare my onions for cooking. I felt guilty about this until an Ethiopian friend confessed that he, too, sometimes does the same.
And there are ways to feel even guiltier. At Black Lion Market in Washington, D.C., I found boxes of chopped onions for sale – a great time saver for Ethiopian chefs. But what if you want freshly chopped onions for your wot that you didn’t have to chop yourself? For that, you need to employ the services of Ashenafi Bekele, a resident of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, who launched an onion-chopping business in 2012. He invented his own machine to do the job, and he charges one birr (about five cents) per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of onions. His clients are largely restaurants that need a lot of chopped onions each day.
Then there are the dishes for which you only need to slice the onions: For tibs – or meat fried in butter – just cut the onions into bite-sized pieces and toss them into the meat along with spices and maybe some karya (jalapeño pepper). You’ll see the onion on the injera, but that’s how it’s supposed to be for these dishes.
Onions are so important to the culture that Ethiopian scholars have written dissertations about growing and harvesting them. Tadesse Mihiretu wrote a master’s thesis about Ethiopian farmers’ efforts to adopt improved ways to produce and package onions. He concluded that the government must better educate farmers and help them financially to improve onion yields. Adugna Teka’s master’s thesis looked at ways to improve markets for onion, tomato and papaya in the northern Tigray region of Ethiopia. Several things hamper the marketing of onions, among them poor irrigation, “weight cheating,” and “unfair pricing of products by wholesalers.” And in 2015, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences published a book-length study of the onion value chain in Ethiopia.
There is at least one exception to the “onion in every pot” rule of Ethiopian cuisine. Although the Gurage people make up only about 2.5 percent of the Ethiopian population, they’re well known in food circles for having contributed kitfo, the popular dish of raw meat that has been chopped – or ground, in western parlance – and mixed with niter kibe, mitmita and cardamon. You’ll find it on the menu of almost every Ethiopian restaurant, and it’s ubiquitous in Ethiopia as well.
Kitfo is that rare Ethiopian dish that doesn’t call for onions, and when Gurages make dishes that are part of the national cuisine – that is, the food we know from Ethiopian restaurants – they do prepare them with onions. But Gurages prepare a variety of dishes unique in various ways to their culture, the absence of onions being their most distinguishing feature.
So whereas the national dish called gomen consists of collard greens stewed in oil, onions and spices, the Gurage have many gomen preparations that eschew onions. There’s even a dish called gomen kitfo that uses the generic meaning of kitfo, which comes from the verb katafa, meaning to mince or chop.
As I flip through the many recipes in my Gurage cookbook, I find no recipe with onion (shinkurt), and also none with garlic (nech shinkurt). In fact, an Ethiopian friend tells me that when preparing a Gurage kitfo (chopped) dish, the chef must wash the utensils to make sure they haven’t been “contaminated” by onions. There’s also no berbere in Gurage cuisine, perhaps because it has onions in it, and instead, Gurages use the much hotter mitmita in a recipe that calls for heat.
Still, I have encountered a few mentions of onions in Gurage cooking.
The anthropologist William Shack is one of the foremost authorities on Gurage culture, and in his 1977 article, “Cooking in the Garden of Ensete,” co-authored with his wife, Dorothy, he ends with some recipes. The vegetable dishes – gomen and misir wot – that would normally have onions in highland cuisine have none here. But Shack’s recipe for niter kibe calls for “one medium-sized onion.” He says that the vegetable dishes are “prepared in the form of a hash,” and he uses the word kәtfwä to describe them. They are, in other words, minced or chopped, so this is kitfo in the general sense of the word.
I also learned about a Gurage dish called oqut from Assefa Delil, a Gurage man who worked at the Ethiopian embassy in Washington, D.C., in 2009 when I visited there. It’s made from young pumpkin leaves that you boil until the upper part separates from the lower part, and then you mix it with onion, garlic and a lot of niter kibe and ayib (Ethiopian cheese). This Gurage dish has never become part of the national cuisine like kitfo has.
At the embassy, I also met Fikerte Kidanemariam, who had served as the ambassador’s assistant since 1999. She isn’t a cook by profession — Kebebush Demissie prepared meals at the time for the ambassador and his family at their home two miles away — but she was the embassy’s unofficial chief consultant on cuisine.
Fikerte agreed that there are few, if any secret ingredients in Ethiopian cooking. It’s all about technique, and to some degree, predilection. As for onions, you do have to use just the right quantity, and you have to cook them for the proper length of time: until they brown, for a dark spicy wot, but not so long for a milder, lighter alicha.
“You have to take your time and cook it properly,” Fikerte told me. “Some people just use a few minutes to cook food.” Still, she acknowledges that “even when people use the same ingredients,” one woman’s wot can taste different than her sister’s version.
Kebebush was so good that her colleagues at the embassy claimed she once won a cooking competition against Marcus Samuelsson, the Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised New York City celebrity chef and restaurateur. They say she even chopped onions faster than he did.
Carl and Pat Templin, a retired Pittsburgh couple, lived in Ethiopia as newlyweds in the 1970s, and they still maintain a love for the culture decades later.
To keep close to a place that’s been so important in their lives, the Templins enjoy meeting Ethiopians who move to Pittsburgh or who just live there temporarily. They assembled a gathering of Ethiopian friends at their home in May 2009: Each woman brought a wot to share, and Pat made a few herself.
About 15 years ago, they hosted a dinner at their home in Pittsburgh for some Ethiopian women attending a city college. The visiting women cooked in the truest tradition of their national cuisine, with lots of onions in their wots. Like the food itself, it’s a memory that lingers, and these many years later, Carl recalls: “The onion smell in the house for weeks was wonderful.”
University of Pittsburgh
Here’s a video, in Amharic, about bringing onions to market in Ethiopia:
Preparing onions for wot at an Ethiopian restaurant:
Here’s a look at an Ethiopian onion farm.
And here. on the lighter side, are the Onion Boys, two Ethiopian guys preparing onions to make wot: