In the summer of 1998, Ethiopian cuisine broke my heart.
I was a college intern in Washington D.C., working hundreds of miles away from home. Beyond the political climate—heated to the boiling point at the time due to the impeachment hearings—I was mesmerized by all that our nation’s capital had to offer and felt as if I had been dropped from a plane right down into the heart of a new universe.
One of my first experiences was waiting eight hours in the summer heat to see the Van Gogh exhibit at the National Gallery of Art. Glimpsing the legendary paintings up close was a once-in-a-lifetime thrill, but as an Italian girl who grew up surrounded by meatballs and lasagna and chocolate cannoli, what really fascinated me about Washington were the many varieties of unique and delicious food in the city.
I tried Thai cuisine for the first time (coconut milk soup, Pad Thai, and succulent chicken satays) and went to my first open-air farmer’s market, but my greatest regret was that I never visited the neighborhood of Washington called Adams Morgan. While this vibrant nightlife area is teaming with delicious ethnic restaurants from every corner of the planet, like many college students I had little money and had to discipline myself to survive on a thin budget.
On the night of my heartbreak, three of my friends invited me to a popular Ethiopian restaurant that was recommended by one of our favorite teachers. I had wanted to try this type of cuisine since my early teens, but regretfully told my friends to go on without me.
While my friends were gone, I waited patiently, counting the minutes and imagining the good time they were having. As soon as they returned, I listened for what seemed like hours as they described the flavors of the food, how each dish tasted and what the texture felt like with every delicious bite….and I clung to every word as if I were being given the secret to life.
Hearing my friends describe the Ethiopian restaurant made my eyes and mouth water and I went to bed that night with a heavy heart. I made a vow to someday return to Washington and eat at every Ethiopian restaurant in the city and to try every item on every menu, twice. Maybe three times.
Fast forward 12 years (did I really just type that?) and I was at my corporate desk on a Friday afternoon, submerged in data mining and analysis when I received the long-awaited details of my next Project Foodbuzz Challenge.
The assignment was to research and write about a classic dish from an unfamiliar ethnic cuisine, and the memories came rushing back as I thought about that hot summer in Washington and the promise I made to myself.
Ethiopian cooking, we were destined to be together. Let’s fall in love.
As I began my research, I was surprised to discover that aside from being delicious, Ethiopian cuisine has an interesting history as well. Early on, traders traveling from Asia to Europe introduced spices to the region, although Ethiopian cooking has had little influence from other cultures since that time. Spices are essential to Ethiopian culture because they make it possible to preserve meat in a country where few families have access to refrigeration.
Berbere is the traditional, spicy paste that Ethiopians use to preserve and flavor meat. According to Ethiopian tradition, a woman with the best berbere has the best chance of landing a husband.
Besides spices, you won’t find a lot of pork in Ethiopian recipes. Meat is represented in the form of wat (or wot), which is a thick stew on top of injera—a spongelike bread that resembles a crepe and is made with teff. Teff is a gluten-free grain native to Ethiopia that is extremely high in fiber and other minerals. One cup of teff has more calcium than a glass of milk. Injera is the most interesting of the three ingredients. You combine the teff and water a couple of days ahead of time to allow it to ferment, which results in an incredible sourdough taste. For the career-girl version, I recommend this recipe since it's more forgiving and you don't have to let the teff ferment overnight. The traditional injera uses teff flour and water and is left to ferment overnight. Cook the injera like a crepe but not on both sides. The uncooked side will be the side you will pour the wat over. (The extra injera you can roll up and use as a spoon to eat.)
With the excitement of new romance spurring me on, I decided to explore Ethiopian cuisine further by cooking Doro Wat—the classic chicken stew with the traditional flatbread (injera).
To cook this dish authentically I made berbere from scratch by combining the spices together. The negative? It seems like a lot of ingredients and a little overwhelming. The upside? This spice mixture is great as a rub on chicken, beef, and lamb. So mix it together and keep it in an airtight container and use it later.
This traditional Ethiopian meal was zesty, fragrant, and playful. With each bite, I felt as if I was tasting a thousand different colors. The spices were beyond delicious and I loved the spongy injera paired with this stew. I also decided to pair this dinner with a traditional honey wine, also native to Ethiopia.
In every way, Ethiopian cuisine was worth the 12-year wait.
I missed out on that trip to Adams Morgan as a college student, but by cooking a traditional Ethiopian meal in my own kitchen on a Saturday night, I finally mended my broken heart and developed confidence in cooking a new ethnic cuisine outside of my comfort zone.
Best of all, I went to sleep with a satisfied smile, licking my lips and dreaming about all the new recipes I could make for my friends and loved ones in the weeks to come.
Mission accomplished, baby.
3 cups white wine (I used a crisp Chenin Blanc)
3 cups water
6 tbsp honey
Combine all ingredients in a decanter and stir until the honey dissolves. I found it to be better at room temperate.
- 1 1/2 cups ground teff
- 2 cups water
- Salt, to taste
- Vegetable oil, for the skillet
Mix the ground teff and water together in a bowl with salt to taste. Whisk to prevent lumps. Cover and allow to sit out overnight to allow the dough to ferment. This will give it a sourdough/tangy taste. Put a tablespoon of oil to cover your skillet. Pour the batter in the pan like you would a crepe. Only cook on one side. The uncooked side will be the side that will face up on the platter when you put the Doro Wat on top.
Doro Wat (recipe from Epicurious.com)