A first attempt at Ethiopian food

As much as I dread winter, I tend to do my best cooking then, when the warmth of the oven is welcoming, and work keeps my fingers warm and occupied in the long months before spring arrives and frees me from the cold.  When a snowstorm hits, and all the town is back from scavenging like madmen for food to sustain them through the long hours before the streets are cleared, I tend to choose something warm and spicy and new to spend an afternoon making.  On such days, I don’t mind grinding a thousand spices by hand, or trying out something that just might work, if only I give it a try.

These afternoons are more fun when I don’t have everything I think I need.  When I’m missing a few ingredients, I’m forced to improvise, to think about what each ingredient does to the dish, and to figure out how to achieve the same effect with what I have at hand.  I get to have taste tests, and run around the kitchen, searching for some forgotten spice or obscure ingredient that all of a sudden seems essential to the finished dish.  These eureka moments are quick and satisfying, unlike science, and that, perhaps, is why such experiments are so frequent in our household.  James and I both come home after a long struggle with some obscure problem or another, and create new ones: ones we can discard or change as we see fit, with only the judgement of our tastebuds to concern ourselves with.

This meal is the outcome of one such experiment, and was my first attempt at cooking Ethiopian food at home.  An impending snowstorm cut my shopping trip short, so I made do with the ingredients I had at hand, and was mostly happy with the results.  My mock injera was a semi-disaster (though edible enough), so I won’t share the recipe here, but the chicken stew (doro wett) was spicy and complex, without being overwhelming, and the cabbage dish was sweet and subtle.  The pair complemented each other surprisingly well, balancing sweet and spicy, rich and wholesome.  Both are worth trying out, especially if you’re craving hearty winter fare like I am.  And yes, you can skip the berbere. It won’t be quite the same, but I think the stew and cabbage will be satisfying nonetheless.

Recipes after the jump.


Spice mixes are an important component to Ethiopian cooking, and yes, they are a bitch to prepare. But if you make bulk quantities of the stuff, you can have quick and easy Ethiopian-style stews for dinner any night of the week, without much forethought.  Think of it as an Ethiopian equivalent of garam masala, and put in the effort.  This particular mix is a glorification of chile powder, with the somewhat exotic influence of typical curry ingredients like cardamon and cinnamon.  The end result is a warmth and richness pure ground chiles would not be able to replicate.

I didn’t have a few of the ingredients I needed for this, and with the impending snow storm, I thought it best to just give it a shot with what I had. I’ll let you know what I substituted here, as I thought it made a pretty tasty spice mix as is.  The original recipe is from The Soul of a New Cuisine, by Marcus Samuelsson, which I suggest you check out from the library RIGHT NOW, if only for the gorgeous photography.

Yield: ~1 c. spice mix

Cost: Depends on where you get your spices, and how much you already have.  If you shop at an Indian market, and buy spices in bulk, it’s cheap. If you rely on your supermarket spice isle for all these ingredients, OUCH.

Difficulty: Hard, unless you have a handy electric spice blender, in which case, I am so jealous right now.

  • 1 t. fenugreek seeds (I didn’t have these, so I used 1/2 t. yellow mustard seeds and 1/4 t. ground cumin instead. If you can get fenugreek, do — it’s apparently very hard to substitute.)
  • 1/2 c. ground dried chiles (I ended up using ~1/4 c. ground chipotles and hot Hungarian paprika instead, as our chiles were not in good shape.)
  • 1/2 c. paprika (I used hot Hungarian paprika here, which is SPICY stuff.)
  • 2 T. salt
  • 2 t. ground ginger
  • 2 t. onion powder
  • 1 t. ground nutmeg (freshly grated is nice)
  • 1/2 t. garlic powder
  • 1/4 t. ground cloves
  • 1/4 t. ground cinnamon
  • 1 t. ground cardamom (grind these yourself!  I probably ended up with a bit more than 1 t. of cardamom, but I think it’s good stuff, so I threw it all in.)

Ok, the instructions will vary depending on what spices you have available.  You start by grinding up all the spices you have in whole form, until they turn into powder.  Then you add the rest of the ingredients, mix everything together, and call it a day.

For me, this meant I had to hand-grind the mustard seeds, cardamom, onion and garlic (we had flakes, not powder), and salt, so I did each of those in a mortar and pestle and threw them in a bowl.  (This, coincidentally, is a good workout for your arms.)  The cardamom was the most annoying bit, because I buy mine in the pods.  I had to de-shell the seeds, save the shells for throwing in rice, and then grind the seeds to a powder, which was fun until they started shooting out from my (tiny) mortar, peppering my kitchen with rather expensive seeds. But I digress.

That wasn’t so painful, was it?  Though you might take heed and keep a kleenex handy, because you will sneeze repeatedly throughout this process.

Doro wett

This is a spicy chicken stew, flavored with bebere and red wine.  It is designed to be eaten with injera, which I have not yet successfully made, as you have already figured out. In a pinch, you can use savory crepes (2 c. flour, 1 egg, enough milk to form a wet batter, a pinch of salt, mixed well and prepared as you would pancakes) as a substitute, which is what my disastrous attempt ended up resembling. Rice would work as well. The broth will not get thick, like most stews, which is because it’s meant to moisten the injera. If you want a thick broth, you’ll have to mix in some starch or flour to the broth at the end of cooking time. Just make sure to cook it for under 30 seconds after adding the flour, or you’ll end up with a pasty-tasting stew.

This version is adapted from The Soul of a New Cuisine, though I’ve skipped the traditional boiled eggs, as there are few things James hates more than egg, and, well, I wanted him to actually eat this for dinner.

Serves: 4

Cost: Fairly cheap. It all depends on the chicken you choose, and the wine you throw in.  If you get a decent chicken, for, say, $10, I’m guessing this dish is about $3/serving.  You can stretch out the serving size by serving a cheaper vegetarian dish as an accompaniment, as I’ve done.

Difficulty: Easy.  The hardest part is cutting up the chicken, and that’s pretty much optional.

  • 2 medium onions, diced. I used Spanish onions, because that’s what I had, though the original recipe calls for red onions, which I though would be nice.
  • 1/4 c. unsalted butter.  The original recipe calls for spiced butter, which includes onions and yet another blend of spices. I’ll have a shot at making some other time.  Here’s a similar recipe, if you want to try it.
  • 1/4 t. freshly ground cardamom (reserve from making berbere, if you’re making both recipes)
  • 1/4 t. freshly ground black pepper
  • salt, to taste
  • 3 cloves, or 1/4 t. ground cloves, if that’s all you have
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 3/4 t. ground ginger
  • 1 T. berbere, or chile powder.  You will end up with a very spicy stew with this quantity, but the heat will balance out when the stew is served with injera or rice.
  • 2-1/2 c. chicken stock, preferably homemade.  It occurs to me that you might be able to throw the whole chicken in with the spices and water instead of stock, and end up with something equally delicious, but I haven’t tried this. I think you’d need a longer stewing time for this method.
  • 1 chicken, cut into 10 pieces, or 8 bone-in thighs or drumsticks
  • 1/4 c. dry red wine
  • juice from 1 lime

Find a heavy stock pot or cast iron dutch oven, and place over medium low heat. Add half of the butter, allow it to melt gently, and then throw in the onions and a pinch of salt.  Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft and slightly golden (~10 minutes).  Add the remaining butter, garlic, and all the spices, and cook for another 10 or so minutes, until all the onions are soft and red from the berbere.

Add the chicken stock, chicken legs, and thighs, bring to a simmer, and let cook for 15 minutes. Next, add the wine, bring to a simmer, and let cook for 10 more minutes. Throw in the rest of the chicken parts (if using a whole chicken) at this stage.  Bring to a simmer, and let cook for another 20 minutes or so, partially covered.

Stir in the lime juice and let cook for a final 5 minutes.  Serve over injera or rice, possibly accompanied by the lentil, squash, and cabbage dish I will tell you about next.

Experimental lentil, cabbage, and squash sauté

This dish is my own invention. It was inspired by a cabbage dish I made from Cradle of Flavor last week (which is an awesome book, but man, do I need a food processor for most of his recipes).  I’ve used berbere and cumin as a spice base, because cumin, lentils, and cabbage just seem ethereal together, and I’ve chosen red lentils because they cook quickly and don’t keep their shape. Instead, they combine with the squash and coat the cabbage, sort of like a tasty, semi-sweet sauce. It’s a nice, mild accompaniment to the spicy stew.

Serves: 4

Cost: Super-cheap and tasty.  I’m guessing you can do this for less than $1/serving.

Difficulty: Easy.

  • 1/2 head green cabbage, shredded.
  • 1/2 Spanish onion, chopped
  • 1 T. peanut oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/4 c. red lentils, rinsed and drained
  • 1 t. black mustard seeds
  • 1 t. cumin
  • 1/2 t. berbere (You can substitute chile powder or smoked paprika in for berbere, if you like.)
  • salt, to taste
  • 1 acorn squash, roasted until soft at 400ºF/200ºC and cubed.
  • 1/2 c. water

Heat a large dutch oven or frying pan (with lid) over medium heat. Once the pan is hot, add the oil.  Heat for a minute or so, and then add the mustard seeds. Let them cook for a minute or so, and then add the onions. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onions are soft and translucent. Add the garlic, cumin, berbere, and lentils, and stir until everything is coated in oil and the spices are spread over all the onions.  Lower the heat and add the cabbage and water. Mix, cover, and cook for 10 minutes or so, until the cabbage is wilted.  Next, add in the squash, mix everything together, and taste.  Add more salt if desired.

That’s it.  This can sit over very low heat, covered, for quite a while, if need be.


Filed under cabbage, chicken, chili, comfort, Ethiopian, lentils, main, onions, soup, squash, stew, Uncategorized

4 responses to “A first attempt at Ethiopian food

  1. pshazz

    looks delish!

    you could probably use a coffee bean grinder instead of a spice grinder, just make sure you clean it well before your next coffee grind. but then again, it could make for some interesting flavored coffee!

  2. liz

    thanks! yah, i probably could, but i am lazy. 🙂 berbere-spiced coffee might not be too bad, though… well, maybe if you left out the cumin and mustard, anyway. somehow i think coffee and cumin just don’t work together!

  3. pshazz

    coffee and cardamom on the other hand? AMAZING!

    though there are plenty of other berbere spices i might leave out of my coffee

  4. Rosa

    There is a website called eleniskitchen. they sell Ethiopian berbere sauce, which is the base to make ethiopian style stew.

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