Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Week Twenty-Three: A Journey to Ethiopia

My week with Ethiopian cuisine proved to be quite an experience.  I began with only the understanding that Ethiopian meals are eaten with bread, instead of utensils.  Such limited knowledge afforded me an opportunity to explore Ethiopian dishes with an open mind free of any preconceived notions.  Whereas my research typically begins with online searches and stacks of cookbooks piled on the couch, this week’s initial discovery began with a conversation over dinner at Edge a few weeks ago.  My husband and I attended one of Chef Brooks’ specialty dinners, and I was so excited to meet Twitter friends Patrick and Stephanie in person at the event.  They had recently visited Nile Ethiopian Restaurant in Orlando, and after discussing their meal and experience, we scheduled a “Y’all Taste This” dinner experiment for an Ethiopian feast at my house.

I immediately delved into planning for a Friday night feast.  I began with my copy of Mark Bittman’s The Best Recipes in the World, which included ZERO Ethiopian recipes.  I moved on to the big yellow Gourmet Cookbook which was another bust.  So, I turned to the internet.  As with other African cuisines I’ve researched, I found that the available information is somewhat limited as most recipes have been communicated through oral tradition.  Interestingly, many blogs with Ethiopian recipes are written by families who have adopted children from Ethiopia.  After a few hours of research, I felt comfortable enough to finalize recipes and a menu for Friday night.

As a note, I found that many Ethiopian dishes and ingredients have up to five different spellings in English format.  By no means am I claiming to use the most accepted spellings…just the ones that seemed to be used most often.

Basics Planning
There are four essential components to an authentic Ethiopian meal:  Berbere, Niter Qibe, Iab, and Injera.

Berbere Spice Mix
Berbere is a spice mix used in Ethiopian dishes, especially wats (spicy stews).  It is essentially a chile powder that includes almost everything in the spice cabinet as an accompaniment to the chiles.  To determine which spices I would use for a berbere, I read every recipe I could find and assembled a list of the most commonly used spices and their proportions.  In the end, my berbere mix included dried Chiles de arbol, cayenne pepper, coriander, fenugreek, peppercorn, allspice, cardamom, cloves, dried onion, paprika, nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, garlic powder, and basil. 

Niter Qibe is clarified butter seasoned with spices.  It serves as the primary fat/oil and as a flavoring agent in many Ethiopian dishes.  I made Marcus Samuelson’s recipe for Niter Qibe as it seemed to encompass an appropriate list of spices and seasonings.  I simply made a clarified butter and then let it cook over low heat with red onion, garlic, ginger, fenugreek, cumin, cardamom, oregano, turmeric, and basil for about twenty minutes.  I strained the butter and kept it in the refrigerator to use later in the week.

Iab is a fresh curd cheese with a characteristically sour flavor that is served with Ethiopian meals.  I found numerous recipes for odd “Americanized” versions using cottage cheese and lemon juice, but I am confident that my research paid off when I found this simple direction for making Iab that appears to be much closer to the real thing than any weird cottage cheese concoction:

When I was in Ethiopia, on the mini bus to Harar, I met an Ethiopian woman who now lives in Scotland. She was back for Timkat and gave me this recipe for Iab.

Let buttermilk come to a slow boil in a pot. I always buy the highest fat content of buttermilk I can find. Then let it cool and strain it. Add a little bit of lemon juice to the cheese (to taste).

It is really good and she said it was the closest to the real thing she could make in Scotland.

I made Iab using these exact guidelines, and it turned out beautifully.  I had read that the texture of proper Iab is similar to feta cheese, and the finished product was indeed dry and crumbly just like feta.  I did not add lemon juice, because I thought the cheese had enough sour flavor as it was, but with no prior Iab experience, I cannot confirm that my version was truly as “sour” as it should be.

My Small Burned Injera
atop a stack of the beautiful
Injera I ordered online
Injera is a spongy flatbread made of Teff grain with a sour flavor.  This bread is used as the “utensil” in an Ethiopian meal.  There are hundreds of recipes for different “versions” of Injera online.  Most of the variations include recipes for making the bread with buckwheat flour and note the difficulty in finding Teff flour.  (Finding Teff flour was the easiest part of this task for me.  They sell it at Whole Foods.)  Since I attempt to be as authentic as possible in this project, I set out to make an injera with Teff Flour.  The key to making a proper batter is time.  It needs to ferment.  I found some recipes that quoted the timeline for preparing batter as a three week process.  Since I didn’t have that much time, I settled on a recipe for Injera that quoted a timeline of 3-4 days for fermentation.  I made the batter on Sunday (Teff Flour, AP Flour, salt, and water) and left it on the counter to begin its 3-4 day quest for fermentation.  On Monday, I came home from work and found the batter covered in bubbles just as the recipe noted I would.  I swirled around the batter a bit and left it until the next night. On Tuesday night, no bubbles.  Wednesday night, no bubbles.  Thursday night, no bubbles.  Friday night, no bubbles.  I wasn’t sure if this was correct or not, so Friday I attempted to make the bread.  I think it was actually fermented and ready on Monday night when I came home.  I made several different pieces trying to figure out the art of injera-making.  The basic directions are as follows:

Pour the batter in a round, non-stick skillet over medium heat and cook until bubbles form (similar to a pancake).  Do not turn the injera.  When the bubbles form and it is cooked through, flip it out onto a plate and let it rest.

Here’s the part they don’t tell you about the bubbles.  A pancake is ready to flip when bubbles form on top, so I waited and waited for bubbles to form on top.  All the while, my first two injera were burning on the bottom, because as it turns out, the bubbles form underneath.  After I figured out that part, I had slightly better success, but all in all, my injera was heavy, dark, and thin.  On the up side, the flavor of my injera was sour like it should be.  Not my biggest success story, but experience is everything.  I think I could actually make a decent batch now.

Fortunately, I had an Injera back-up plan that included ordering it online from a bakery in Washington, D.C. to ensure proper arrival for my Friday night feast.  I received beautiful, fluffy injera from Zelalem Injera.  I would highly recommend them to anyone interested in purchasing injera online.

Friday Night Feast
After reading several recommendations for Ethiopian menus, I determined that I needed to include at least one presentation of each dish listed below for my Friday Night Feast:

  • Wat, a spicy stew
  • Alicha, a mild stew
  • A dish with meat
  • A vegetarian dish with Lentils or Legumes
  • A vegetable stew
  • A vegetable cold salad
  • Iab Cheese
After finalizing a menu, I organized a plan to be ready for dinner guests at 8:00 PM on Friday (after working all day and getting home at 5:30 that is.)  Fortunately, the menu includes several stews that I could make on Thursday night, and everyone knows that stews are always better the second day!  Here is a play by play of my final menu and how I pulled it together.

Dabo Kolo
Dabo Kolo is a bready snack seasoned with berbere.  Since I had leftover berbere and niter qibe, I decided to make a batch of these snacks.  It’s a basic flour and water dough infused with the Ethiopian spices and butter, rolled into long strands, and cut into small pieces.  (So easy that I actually had time to make it when I came home on Friday before dinner.)  Traditionally, the snacks are cooked in a dry skillet, but they can also be baked in the oven.  I expected them to be crunchy and spicy.  Instead, they were crispy on the edges with a soft center and only mildly spiced.  At first, I was disappointed in them, but then I realized that this is the kind of snack that is addictive, because I kept going back for another handful.  With so many spices in the berbere, each bite presents a new “what is that?” moment. 

Even better, Patrick, a.k.a Miami Malt Bomb, kicked off our evening with a special treat, B. Nektar Yo Momma’s Strawberry Pizzazz mead.  The most popular beverage in Ethiopia is Tej, a honey wine similar to mead, so this was the perfect choice for a light, refreshing pre-dinner drink with our dabo kolo.

Iab, Doro Wat
Gomen, Timatim, Kik Alicha
Kitfo Leb Leb
Doro Wat is a spicy chicken stew seasoned with berbere and niter qibe.  Wats begin with finely chopped red onions simmered in niter qibe until golden brown.  Then, Berbere, cloves, garlic, and ginger are added, and the mixture stews until the onions take on the color of the spices.  Next, chicken stock, a little red wine, and chicken pieces are added to the pot to simmer until the chicken is cooked.  Just before serving, fresh lime juice is added to the stew and quartered, boiled eggs are added to the top of the stew to simmer and soak up the flavors of the broth.

Interestingly, all of the recipes called for a whole chicken cut in parts.  Of course, that is the best way to impart the chicken’s flavor into the stew; however, I thought it would be cumbersome to eat with injera on a large platter shared by a group of four.  With that in mind, I simmered my stew on Thursday night until the chicken was completely cooked.  Then, I took the chicken out of the stew, pulled the meat off the bones, shredded the meat, and added it back to the stew.  On Friday evening, I simmered it for about an hour before dinner.  Then, I added the lime juice and boiled eggs just before serving.

This turned out to be one of the most delicious parts of the meal.  With so many different spices in the berbere and niter qibe, each bite presented a new, interesting flavor.  I was a bit concerned about the thin sauce on the stew, but the injera soaked up the sauce which created another great layer of flavor.

Kik Alicha is a mild stew of yellow split peas with onions and tomatoes.  Because this dish is known for its bright yellow hue, I used yellow onions and yellow tomatoes in my presentation.  The stew’s seasonings include garlic, ginger, cardamom, and black pepper.  I made this dish on Thursday night, because I knew that a night in the refrigerator would intensify its flavor and provide a heartier, thicker texture.  On Friday evening, I simmered it for about an hour before dinner and added turmeric in the last fifteen minutes.

While I liked this dish, I wanted it to have more flavor.  With such a vibrant color, I expected to be blown away by the flavors of ginger and turmeric.  Of course, this dish’s role in the meal is that of the “mild stew” so I suppose its flavor was not only appropriate but correct!

I am 90% sure that Kitfo Leb Leb is the appropriate name for the next dish that I served.  In its most basic definition, Kitfo is an Ethiopian steak tartare.  The raw beef is marinated in berbere and niter qibe before serving.  Most of the information I found notes that Kitfo can be made from either ground beef or small cubes of beef tenderloin; however, some sources cite that the “cubed” version is called Gored Gored.  To add to the confusion, some general definitions of kitfo state that it may be served raw or cooked to rare.  While there are definitely Kitfo purists that believe this dish is only authentic if served raw, I found that it is actually appropriate to serve it both ways.  When served raw, it is served tre; when slightly cooked to rare, it is served leb leb.  There is also another fully cooked version called tibs.

My version included cubes of beef tenderloin lightly sautéed to rare.  (I just don’t trust myself to serve raw meat to guests.  I’m not a professional.  It would be an amazing tartare though!)  I began by cooking onions, garlic, chiles, ginger, and berbere in the niter qibe.  I added cubed beef tenderloin and briefly sautéed it just until the edges browned.  I seasoned it with salt, pepper, and fresh lemon juice just before serving.  It was delicious!  The strong flavors of the spices complemented the rich beef tenderloin really well, and I found myself going back for more. 

Gomen reminds me of Southern-style collard greens in the best way!  Instead of using pork fat to season collard greens, Ethiopians use niter qibe, and the results are outstanding.  Honestly, I can’t even believe I am admitting this, but I didn’t even miss the pork fat.  To make this dish, I cooked onions in niter qibe.  Then, I added garlic, ginger, and serrano peppers for a few minutes.  I added collard greens and some water, and I cooked them over low heat for about an hour and a half.  This was my favorite dish of the night! 

Timatim is a basic tomato and onion salad.  Sometimes, torn pieces of injera are added to it, in which case it is called Timatim Firfir.  This dish provides a light, cool element to an otherwise heavy, warm platter of stews and injera.  My timatim included tomato, onion, jalapeno pepper, Serrano pepper, and garlic dressed in a mixture of berbere, red wine, fresh lemon juice, and olive oil.  I made it on Thursday night, and the flavors came together for a refreshing addition to the platter. 

Patrick and Stephanie treated us to a few more beverages over the course of our Ethiopian Feast.  Stephanie read that a comparable version of Tej (honey wine) can be made by mixing 2 cups white wine, 2 cups of water, and 4 tablespoons of honey.  This turned out to be quite refreshing, and she said that it tasted as good as the Tej they had at Nile in Orlando.  Patrick brought Lion Stout brewed in Sri Lanka to accompany the stews.  Wow!  This is a great beer.  It is the lightest stout I’ve ever tasted, yet it still maintained the full-flavored qualities of a stout.  Both the tej and the stout complemented the flavors of our Ethiopian platter well.

Even though I only prepared one meal for this week’s project, the planning and preparation culminated in a week of Ethiopian immersion.  I enjoyed all of these dishes, and I will definitely be stopping by Nile Ethiopian on my next visit to Orlando.  I still have some berbere in the spice pantry, so I am confident that more Ethiopian food is in my future!

1 comment:

  1. I feel very privileged to have literally stepped into a Y'all Taste This episode!