Iconic Ethiopian food in 5 recipes

September 26, 2018
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Mesir wot (lentils). This recipe and more on page C3.

I still remember the first time I ever had Ethiopian food. It was at Mama Desta’s Red Sea restaurant in Chicago, where I took an ex-flame that I was desperately trying to rekindle.

I don’t remember what we ate, but I was blown away by the expert melding of flavors and textures in the stewed meats, the rugged earthiness of the cooked vegetables and what at the time was the novelty of the spongy flat bread that tied it all together.

The impressions of that meal lasted longer than the young woman in question.

Ethiopia has been in the news recently, having successfully achieved a peace agreement with neighboring Eritrea, with which it had been in a conflict for two decades. The countries have opened embassies in each other’s capitals, and air travel has been restored.

What better time, then, to take a look at Ethiopian cuisine? The food that first thrilled me more than 30 years ago is as marvelous as it ever was — and you can make it at home. After all, they do in Ethiopia.

It takes time

But I have to admit, Ethiopian food can take a while to make. And before you start, you may have to make a couple of essentials that all Ethiopians keep in their kitchens.

Still, the magical melange of flavors that can only be created through this time and effort are well worth the trouble.

One more caveat: You are going to have to go to an international market, or a specialty store at the very least, to do it right. There is really no way around it.

I decided to make three of Ethiopia’s most iconic dishes: the chicken stew called Doro Wot, which is sometimes called the national dish of Ethiopia; a vegetarian lentil stew called Mesir Wot; and the ubiquitous bread you use to eat both dishes and most Ethiopian food, Injera.

First, however, I had to make a couple of ingredients that would be used in the wots (stews).

Berbere is a blend of spices — the version I made had 14 ingredients in it — that is essential to many Ethiopian recipes. It is like the country’s approach to cooking in miniature: It blends a great many ingredients into a holistic, robust combination that is better than the sum of its parts.

I also made Nit’r Qibe, a spiced, clarified butter. Again, this version had 14 ingredients, but they all come together to make something quite unlike anything else I’ve ever had. It’s the flavor of Ethiopia.


Although whipping up a batch of Berbere or Nit’r Qibe will leave you with more spices or spiced butter than you need for the immediate recipes, you can save them both for so many other uses. Eggs, grilled meat, baked chicken — you can even use the Berbere as a rub for barbecue, if you like it spicy.

Berbere is an integral part of the Doro Wot, and Nit’r Qibe is used in it, too. But mostly, it’s onions. Lots and lots of onions. I used five, and you could make a case for more. They are cooked and cooked and cooked until they are nothing more than caramelized texture.

Garlic and ginger go in the pot, too, along with a healthy dose of Berbere. You cook that down even more before you add an also-healthy dose of Nit’r Qibe. Only then do you add the chicken. And only when the chicken is finally done do you add hard-cooked eggs, which should finally answer the question about which came first.

Mesir Wot also makes considerable use of Berbere, but the resulting flavor is completely different. While the chicken stew, Doro Wot, is rich and earthy, the lentil dish, Mesir Wot, is almost sweet; the fragrant cardamom, which is sometimes used in desserts, really comes through.

Both are fairly spicy, though. If you want to tone down the heat, you could just use less cayenne pepper in the Berbere mix. That’s one advantage over buying it at the store, if you could find it.

Although Injera bread is a vital part of Ethiopian cuisine, a lot of Americans find it does not suit their palate. The texture is thin and spongy — all the better for sopping up the delicious Ethiopian sauces — and it seems to expand in your stomach. And when made right, the taste is a little sour, a little tangy.

I didn’t make mine right. To make true Injera, you let the batter ferment for a full three days. You also use teff, a grass-based grain that grows extensively throughout Ethiopia and Eritrea.

I wanted to keep it simple, so I used millet flour instead. You can find millet at larger grocery stores, in the alternative flours section, though teff is available at some international markets. Another advantage of millet is that you only let it ferment for one day.

It will lose the distinctive tang that way, but the texture will be perfect.

There is a definite art to cooking Injera, which I discerned after a few attempts. Be sure to use a nonstick pan, and if your nonstick pan is kind of sticky, as mine is, be sure to spray or oil it lightly. The pan should be hot, and don’t forget to cover it while the thin bread cooks. It only takes a couple of minutes.

If you are tempted to use a spatula to remove the Injera, don’t yield to it. I had much better success inverting the pan onto a plate, as you would with a cake. And don’t stack them on top of each other until they are completely cooled; otherwise, they will stick to each other.

To eat it, tear off pieces and use them to bring the other food to your mouth. It’s like spongy, edible silverware, and it’s part of the whole Ethiopian experience.

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