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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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Katherine Martinelli July 12, 2012 at 7:04 am

Such gorgeous photos Sarah!! I am absolutely enamored with Ethiopian food but have yet to make it myself. About a month ago my husband and I went to a small, unmarked Eritrean restaurant near(ish) the central bus station in Tel Aviv and had a great meal.


Sarah July 12, 2012 at 7:22 am

Thanks Katherine! Are you back in Israel yet?


Rosa July 12, 2012 at 8:41 am

Great stew. Healthy and wonderfully spicy. Ethiopian specialities somehow remind me of Indian dishes…




foodwanderings July 12, 2012 at 8:52 am

Great post Sarah! Love the photos!


Yael (the Finnish one) July 12, 2012 at 9:53 am

Great pictures Sarah! I have been going to the Ethiopian stores near tahana mercazit of Tel Aviv ,and once bought niger seeds,which I ground and put som of it to bread dough as the lady in the shop told me they could be used so,
Greetings from Helsinki this time!


dineke July 12, 2012 at 10:30 am

So interesting this story. Food has a complicated culture background. Dineke from Holland.


Claudemir August 6, 2012 at 4:12 am

I believe her when she says a liter of oil. We just had an Ethiopian freind stay and cook Ethiopian food for us. In one meal a large bottle of oil was used. So rich most of the family had a difficult time digesting it. My Ethiopian food will never taste authentic, as much as I wish it to be. Just can’t use the same amount of oil or berbere. We too let our children have their own pot of food.


Barbara | Creative Culinary July 12, 2012 at 1:37 pm

I can only echo other comments…gorgeous photos. I realize sometimes I’m totally stuck in my food experiences. Italian, French and Barbecue. Love reading about things a bit more exotic; now that I know some great local Middle Eastern and Asian markets I am expanding my repertoire gradually. I know I love all of the ingredients…this might just be happening in my Colorado kitchen!


Denise July 12, 2012 at 1:48 pm

I was so overcome ( GASP!) by how beautiful your photographs are in this article. I so love your blog and love to make your recipes and be the ” Armchair Traveler”. I have never written a comment to you before and for that “I apologize.” I do so look forward to every new addition to your blog. Denise from Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, USA


Sarah August 4, 2012 at 7:43 am

Dense, Thank you so much for taking the time to comment!


Krista July 12, 2012 at 3:33 pm

Absolutely delicious!!! My aunt and uncle lived in Ethiopia for ten years and passed on their love for Ethiopian food to me. I adore it. :-) My best memory of eating it was at a restaurant in Germany with dear friends and the jolly chef who sat with us through our meal then drove us to our car in his enormous convertible. :-) Now I make it at home and love it very much. :-)


usha July 12, 2012 at 5:34 pm

Hello Sarah
At the risk of repeating myself……what a gorgeous post !
And what a stupendous idea, bringing together students and parents through food, in the classroom. I felt a lump in my throat reading about it and to my mind there has never been a doubt that food is the bridge between people even more than The Olympics…..or music…or football ….or cricket.
I dare say that’s because no one’s competing and theres no medal to be won.
Thanks, Sarah.


Sarah July 19, 2012 at 10:06 pm

Usha, You’re right, when there isn’t a medal or title to be won it doesn’t separate.


Traca July 12, 2012 at 6:41 pm

I love the story you opened with. My friend is a reading coach for teachers and often works in classrooms where 2/3 of the students are non-native English speakers. She says lunch time is the a truly fascinating experience, seeing the various foods these students bring.

I love having potlucks with a theme. “Bring a dish that has meaning to you.” Or, I once had a potluck with visiting dignitaries from Africa. During their stay they ate primarily ethnic food–Mexican, Thai, etc. So we hosted a “foods of America” potluck. It was a surprise and delight for everyone to see the vast array of regional foods. For both potlucks, we stood around the table and each person talked about why the dish they brought had meaning (my mom’s favorite cake, the first dish I learned to make, etc.) or describe their “Americana” choice. It was so fun and for me, the best part was meaning making around food.


Sarah July 19, 2012 at 10:10 pm

Traca, The potluck sounds wonderful, would have loved to have tasted the food at this event and listen to the stories.


Eha July 12, 2012 at 8:33 pm

Thank you SO much for this recipe. Since you have made matters very easy for us by using ‘berbere’ mix, which is certainly very easily available from all the good spice merchants in Australia, I’ll be able to follow it exactly! Have been very interested in Ethiopian cuisine awhile: one of our best food series on TV featured a 1/2 hour tantalizing segment a year or so ago. Meanwhile I had ‘travelled’ from Moroccan > Tunisian > Egyptian cuisines always towards the sun (!) and somehow reached Ethiopia myself! What interesting recipes! And healthy and cheap to prepare! Now you have added amother dish to try :) ! Thanks!


Mark Wiens July 24, 2012 at 8:54 am

Awesome to see you exploring Ethiopian food. I still remember my first bite of Ethiopian food, provided by an Ethiopian friend when I was attending grade school in Nairobi, Kenya. It was bite of doro watt and it opened my eyes, energized my taste buds, and I’ve been an Ethiopian food addict ever since. The flavors are so complex and so purely delightful! Thanks for sharing these beautiful photos and a breakdown of some of the spice mixtures.


Sarah July 24, 2012 at 12:22 pm

Thanks Mark! One day I hope to try Ethiopian food at its source


local December 25, 2012 at 9:28 am

Ethiopian food is delicious. Any one that hasn’t tried it should do so to understand what I’m saying. http://www.easyethiopiatravel.com/traditional-ethiopianfood.shtml


George February 6, 2013 at 5:07 pm

I love this article, especially the pictures! I want to mention that we just kicked off a funding campaign for our company – Small Small (buysmallsmall.com) – which is focused on bringing delicious Ethiopian spices and sauces to the US and sharing a portion of every sale to NGOs teaching modern ag in the source region. We’re starting with berbere and a sauce inspired by awaze: http://bit.ly/WSXk5W. Thanks for your consideration!

-George (george@buysmallsmall.com)


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