Saturday, December 04, 2010

Ethiopian memory lane.

In 2005, I was amazingly lucky enough to travel to Ethiopia. It wasn't a place I had ever considered visiting, but when the offer presented itself, I couldn't get it out of my head. It wasn't just that it was a free trip, paid for through a travel grant from my undergrad university, which was won by my Ethiopian-raised but 20 years American sociology professor.  It was the mystique of the place - I knew almost nothing about it.  I'd never eaten the food, never heard the language, never seen the flag.  I set about learning as much about Ethiopia as I could, through history books, mainly, because the internet didn't have much to offer about the country when I was looking.  Still, I was surprised and awed the whole trip.

From the capital city, Addis Abeba -- which means 'new flower', and is between 2300 and 3000 meters (that's up to 9,800 feet) above sea level, and packed with both shanty towns and flash new developments...

And where thick traffic, spewing black exhaust which coats your face, competes with animals for right-of-way...

 To the country-side, where the noise comes from birds (and mosquitoes!), and the slippery-feeling water of the volcanic Lake Langano washed all our city-stress away...
 And the beauty of the Great Rift Valley took our breath away. 
We were fortunate in our timing, as the little rainy season (as contrasted to the much rainer "big rainy season", later in the year) had just ended, leaving everything lush and green.  Less fortunate about our timing was that Lent had recently ended.  During Lent, the largely Orthodox Christian population of Ethiopia observes fasting rules which means that they eat an almost vegan diet.  Afterwards, they gorge themselves on animal products for a few months, striking their veggie dishes from restaurant menus and home kitchens alike.  But wherever we went, they were able to rustle up some veggies, legumes, and injera, and I fell in love with Ethiopian cuisine.  Different customs left us eating lots -- I grew up learning that you need to clear your plate before the meal is finished, but in Ethiopia a clear plate is a sign of an un-generous host.  Every time I cleared, more food appeared.  As a result, I ate lots and gained weight (the many beers we drank probably didn't help this, either).

This trip was more than five years ago now, but my love of Ethiopian food is forever.  But, a severe lack of Ethiopian restaurants in North Queensland has led me to create my own versions of the delicious meals I ate far too much of in my month in Ethiopia.
This is mesir wat, or Ethiopian Red Lentil Stew, served with Ethiopian spiced vegetables from Fat Free Vegan.  The rice and tortilla are a poor substitute for injera, the slightly-sour, spongy flat bread that normally accompanies Ethiopian meals.  But the mesir wat tastes as good as I remember, thanks to a slightly complex recipe involving a homemade spice mix, and homemade spiced oil.  If you refrigerate this stew, it gets very thick and wonderful, and the flavours develop even further, so I recommend cooking a day early and then re-heating. But if you don't have the forethought, or patience, or whatever else is required for this, it is still very delicious on the day it's made.

Mesir Wat

1 c. red lentils
1/4 c. netir kibbeh (or vegetable oil, but the spiced oil makes a big difference)
1 small onion, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 T. berbere, separated
1 small tomato, cored and chopped
4 c. water
salt to taste

Rinse and drain the lentils.  Heat netir kibbeh in a medium saucepan over medium heat.  Cook the onions until they go golden brown.  Add garlic and stir for about 30 seconds.  Then add lentils, 1 T. berbere, tomato, and water.  Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until stew is thick and lentils are tender, about 45 to 50 minutes.  Add remaining berbere, season with salt, and serve hot.

Netir Kibbeh

3/4 c. ricebran oil (or other un-flavourful oil)
4 cardomom pods, seeds removed from husks
1 tsp fenugreek seeds
1 tsp nigella seeds

In a mortar&pestle, spice grinder, or Jamie Oliver Flavour Shaker, grind together cardmom seeds, fenugreek, and nigella.  They can be coarsely ground for this, just break them up a bit.  In a small saucepan, heat oil gently, stir in the spices, and then remove the oil from heat.  Let the mixture cool to room temperature, and then pour into a glass jar, straining if you don't like chunks, and store in the fridge.


2 tsp. coriander seeds
1 tsp. fenugreek seeds
1/2 tsp. black peppercorns
6 cardomom pods, seeds removed from husks
4 cloves
5 dried chillis (or more or less, to taste)
1/4 tsp. allspice
1/4 c. onion powder
3 T. paprika
2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 tsp. ginger
1/2 tsp. cinnamon

In a skillet over medium heat, toast coriander, fenugreek, peppercorns, cardamom and cloves for several minutes until they smell fragrant and toasty.  Remove from the pan, let cool, and then add to chillis and grind to a fine powder.  Stir in remaining powdered ingredients, store in an airtight container.  Also delicious on potato wedges, tofu scrambles, etc.


Hannah said...

Oh, Theresa! Would you believe that I'm going to an Ethiopian restaurant tonight for the first time in my life? I've wanted to try injera for years and now on the very day you wax lyrical about the deliciousness of it, I'm finally getting to try it. Thank you for making me more excited, and for giving me recipes already that I can recreate themenu with ;) (Although I'm certainly not dining with vegans tonight...)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this interesting post. A friend of mine is working in Addis Abeba right now and we thought about visiting him. He already told me about Lent, which sounds like a really great ime to travel there (for a vegan).
I really love Ethiopian food and your wat looks wonderful!

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David J said...

Another tale of an amazing adventure. Too bad about the timing but the Ethiopia looks really interesting.

This is another recipe that appeals to me. It's a keeper. We've been eating a lot of red lentils lately also adding turmeric and creating some awesome flavors.

Great on flat bread.

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