Exploring Ethiopian food

by Sarah on July 12, 2012

Ethiopian ingredients- legumes

A year ago my son’s class organized a cultural night. Each child was asked to bring a dish that best represented their ethnic background. The parents went all out as they are wont to do in these situations. They came with steaming pots of kubbeh, jachnoon, baklava, stacks of ingera, hummus, Balkan pastries, hand-raked couscous, bourekas, borsht, falafel, churros and chocolate chip cookies (the last was my modest offer to the event). These are foods that pan the Sephardic and Ashkenazi world and have become part of Israel’s culinary melting pot.

Before the eating began, some of the students performed traditional dances and songs in native dress. Others stood proudly as their parents shared stories of their life before moving to Israel. The room grew quiet, which rarely happens in an Israeli school, as an Ethiopian mother told of her tribulations escaping her native country. She had walked hundreds of kilometers, often at night, fearful of being caught and persecuted. An Argentinian mom attempted to teach the class a Spanish folksong, laughter erupting as mouths stumbled over unfamiliar words. It was an evening of acceptance and of intermingling, not only of the children who knew each other from first grade, but everyone who participated.

lentils, a popular ethiopian ingredient

When the show came to a close, the feast began. Plates were piled high with the best of home-cooked foods from Iraq, Ethiopia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Russia, Egypt, Iran, Italy, Argentina…Parents swapped recipes and children skipped off to play with friends.

As the crowd eased away from the tables, I still hovered, sampling the diverse offerings- a bit of honey soaked baklava, a piece of Iraqi sambusak. Wedged in a corner was a bowl of Ethiopian lentil stew, the most humble of victuals.  It tasted familiar, yet perplexingly exotic. I’d learn to identify spices by scent and taste- a bit of cumin, nutmeg, nigella seeds, ground coriander, cloves but the lentil stew left me blank. Back home I rummaged for an Ethiopian cookbook I bought but never used and began my slow initiation into Abbsynian cuisine.

the Ethiopian spice store entrance The Ethiopian spice store/candy store

At about the same time the candy store down the block underwent a transformation. The new owners decided to leave the sweets but added stacks of grains, legumes and spices central to Ethiopian cooking. To notify potential customers the entrance was painted red, green and yellow, the bold colors of the Ethiopian flag.

I visited the store a few days ago and brought my cookbook with me. The salesperson thought me a curious customer but patiently went over the ingredients I needed. This is just the start of my journey which I hope will culminate with my successful attempt at making injera. Meanwhile, I’d like to share a few interesting highlights of Ethiopian cuisine and a spiced lentil recipe.

Ethiopian spices, fennel, noog, niger seeds, ruta fruit, fengreek, long pepper From top left: flax seeds, niger seeds, fenugreek, rue fruit, long pepper and mystery herb (I think it’s basil, any thoughts?)


Niger seeds (Guizotia abyssinica) look similar to wild rice and are prized for their rich oil content. The seeds are roasted and then ground into a black spread known as noog. The saleswoman at the Ethiopian spice store incorporates dried garlic, basil and berbere in her spread though there is also a sweet version made with honey.

Dried rue fruit (Ruta graveolens) is added to the berbere spice mix which is used extensively in Ethiopian cooking.

Long pepper (Piper longum) is added to the berbere spice mix. The Moroccan spice mix, ras el hanout also contains this ingredient.

Teff (Eragrostis tef) is the staple of Ethiopia. It is used in ingera, large gluten-free flat bread made my fermented teff flour. Spreads, stews and sauces are placed in small piles on the ingera and scooped up with pieces of the bread.  Ingera is the utensil and the main part of the meal.

ethiopian spices From top left: Berbere, niger seeds, niger seed paste. from bottom left: Shuru made with ground chickpeas and berbere, Ethiopian cardamom (Aframomum corrorima) and red lentils


Shuru (or Shiro)  is made by ground split desi chickpea although it can be made with other legumes as well. It is sold plain or with the addition of spice mixes such as berbere. This flour is mixed with water and cooked over low heat until it is the consistency of hummus.

Watt- watt translates to stew, the hallmark of Ethiopian cuisine. Everyday watts are made with legumes and vegetables. Meat is reserved for special occasions. Gomen watt is a stew made with Swiss chard and potatoes though traditionally wild edible greens growing in Ethiopia were used.

Ethiopian shuru Shuru made fr cooking a mixture of ground chickpeas with onions. It is eaten with ingera


Berbere is the most popular spice mix in Ethiopia. Like other mixes from around the world there are variations but it often contains the following spices: dried rue fruit, black pepper, chili pepper, long pepper, Ethiopian cardamom, ginger and fenugreek.

ethiopian ingredients From top left- chili peppers for the berbere spice mix, green coffee for roasting at home, bottom left: garlic and Ethiopian cardamom for preparing berbere and ingera from teff

Ethiopians use a plant called Rhamnus prinioides in a way similar to hops for preparing Ethiopian beer. I’ve seen large sacks of ground gesho, as it is called, in Ethiopian spice stores in Israel.

Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity is the main religion in Ethiopia and influences its cuisine. This community observes Lent and refrains from eating any animal derived food products during this time. Many intensely flavored and filling  vegan dishes are common in Ethiopia for this reason.

Jews from Ethiopia prepare a fenugreek dip similar to Yemenite hilbeh before fast days and during the Tisha B’av period. It is made with peeled split broad beans, ginger and a wild amount of fenugreek seeds.

Shiro is popular during the month of Ramadan and Lent.

Ethiopian lentil stew with tomatoes and peas

Lentil and tomato stew (Yemeser Kemedoro watt)

This recipe was adopted from The Ethiopian Kitchen (in Hebrew) compiled by the The Association for the Integration of Ethiopian Youth in Yavne. Avner Karpol, Anat Varnech-Pinhas and Moshe Shaked helped the Ethiopian youth bring this wonderful cookbook to fruitation. Please contact mitbach.etyopi@gmail.com if you  are interested in purchasing it. I bought my first bag of berbere with (a little push from) Kerstin Rodgers of The English Can Cook- a bit of culinary inspiration from the English!

1 cup brown or green lentils

1 onion, chopped

4 garlic cloves, crushed

1 tablespoon berbere spice mix

1 teaspoon cumin

1 tablespoon sweet paprika

4 tomatoes, blanched and skin removed

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 cup fresh or frozen peas

Soak the lentils for one hour or overnight in the refrigerator. Drain.  Place in a small pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil and reduce heat. Cook until the lentils are tender.

In a sauce pan add the chopped onions and cook for three minutes while stirring (this is the first time I’ve seen the onions added before the oil). Add 3 tablespoons of oil or until the bottom is covered and continue to fry until the onions are golden. Mix occasionally so they don’t burn. Add the garlic and continue to stir for about 1 minute.

Add the spices- berbere, cumin, paprika and cook for 1-2 minutes to release their aroma. Add the tomatoes and tomato paste and 1 cup of water. Cook for about 15 minutes. Add the lentils and cook with the top off until thick. Remember it is traditionally served with ingera so it shouldn’t be the consistency of soup, more like soft mashed potatoes. That said, my version was more liquidly because I used it on top of rice.

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