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Learning the basics – Ethiopian cuisine during lent

By Katie Kurz

This past Monday as dawn was breaking over Addis on the first day of Lent, my house was bustling with activity, in particular as four kids got ready for school.  The kitchen was also busy as Shewaye was making injera and cooking shiro wot for the family for the coming week.

While this might seem like a normal weekday to most, I’m an American who lives in Switzerland and am visiting Ethiopia for the first time. Thanks to my host family, I’m learning a lot of new things.  And to really get to know a new culture, I firmly believe the kitchen is a great place to start.  I want to understand the foods that are integral in an Ethiopian kitchen like teff grain and berbere spice, and learn how to prepare a key dish that is featured regularly during the important Lenten fast.

Shewaye Dergu is my guide for the morning as we navigate her kitchen.  She cooks everyday for the family and is proud to have learned her culinary skills from her mom and her older sisters when she was growing up in the Shiro Meda neighborhood of Addis Ababa.  “For Ethiopians, injera is a staple of our diet. In my family, we typically eat it at lunch and dinner. Remember too,” she says gesturing with her right hand, “not only is it part of the meal, but it also serves as our eating utensil.”

For Shewaye and her family, the Lenten fast is more rigorous than other fasting periods in the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian calendar.  During the 56-day period, they will go vegan and abstain from alcohol.

Passionate about her cooking, Shewaye first starts the morning by working on the injera because it will take a few hours to make.  At her feet in the kitchen stands a red plastic 20-liter bucket filled with leet, the smooth, elastic-like dough mixture of teff, yeast and water; importantly, it is sealed with a lid.  Shewaye tells me that this process requires time; she actually began more than three days ago by preparing the dough.

Teff is the key ingredient in this traditional spongy flatbread. Grown predominantly in Ethiopia and Eritrea, the fine grain is available in three varieties – ivory, brown and red.  “Our family prefers the milder taste of the white teff,” Shewaye remarks and points to the 50-kilogram vat in the corner of the kitchen.  “There is enough teff in that container to make injera for the family for two months.” Knowing how nutritious teff is also pleases Shewaye because her family benefits from the high levels of calcium, protein, iron, and even vitamin C.

Nestled in another corner of the kitchen is the family’s electric mitad, the 16-year old stove with a 50-centimeter diameter cooktop, which is essential for cooking injera.  While it warms up, Shewaye adds more water to the red pail and stirs the leet vigorously with her hand and arm, as well as a wooden utensil.  It is physically demanding work as she thins the consistency of the leet to something more like a smooth, creamy milkshake. 

Before she starts to pour it onto the hot stove, Shewaye reminds me that it is important to rub the surface of the stove with gomenzer, finely ground, roasted kale seeds, which have a slightly oily quality to make the cooking surface ideal for injera. She also prepares the woven basket (the base of the mesob) to hold the flatbread once it’s taken off the mitad.

There is a sizzling hush that falls on the kitchen as Shewaye pours the leet in a circular fashion on the mitad.  The aroma in the kitchen smells like fermentation; it reminds me of a brewery. The kitchen warms up too, a welcomed contrast to the crisp, early morning air.

Each piece of flatbread cooks for two to three minutes; once steam starts to emerge from the lid, it is time to remove the injera with the meshrefeet, a thin, flat woven circular piece, which is used to easily transfer the injera to the mesob.  When I told Shewaye that the process reminded me of making a crêpe or pancake, she turned to me and smiled.  “It’s your turn next.  An engocha is the perfect test for you.”  I wasn’t sure I was fit for this kid-sized challenge, especially seeing how effortlessly Shewaye makes the injera.  My first attempt at Ethiopian cooking turned out fairly well, even if my pouring technique needs improvement; I was even able to transfer the injera in one piece to the mesob

In tandem with the injera-making, Shewaye starts to make the shiro, a dish that most Ethiopians grow up loving.  Each ingredient is unmeasured as she adds it to the pot – first, the oil is brought to a boil to sauté the chopped onions.  Then tomato paste is added.  I asked why tomatoes are part of the stew and Shewaye thought it was an influence from the Italians centuries ago.  Depending on what’s available that day, Shewaye sometimes uses fresh tomatoes in her shiro. Berbere, a combination of sun-dried red chili peppers and other spices ground together, is added as well and amplifies the red color of the dish.  Once it is all simmering, Shewaye adds water. 

As the mixture comes to a boil, Shewaye tells me about her shiro flour and how she makes it.  After buying the chickpeas from a nearby vendor, she washes and dries them in the sun at home before grinding and combining them with other spices like cumin, cinnamon, garlic and a few other secrets she wouldn’t reveal. 

Scoops of shiro flour are then stirred into the boiling concoction, ensuring that the texture is smooth as it bubbles.  Gesturing to the pot a short while later, Shewaye announces, “Now it’s ready to enjoy.”  When the oil rises to the top, the stew is done.     

Later that day, I sampled Shewaye’s fresh injera and shiro for lunch.  As I tear off a piece — a little crispy on the thin edge, a slightly sour fermented taste with a the spongy middle soaked with flavor from a scoop of the spicy red stew — I realize Shewaye’s passion and patience for her food is evident in every bite.  It is delicious.  And Shewaye reminds me that, outside of the fasting period, there are plenty of other ways to enjoy shiro, including with meat (bozena shiro) or with a homemade spiced butter called kibe that makes the shiro extra creamy. While I savor the tastes, I realize that there are many more secrets to discover in Shewaye’s kitchen as I continue to learn more about Ethiopian cuisine.

Ed.’s Note: Katie Kruz is a volunteer at The Reporter.