Shortly before the pandemic, I was lamenting that we rarely go for Ethiopian food since having lildamnhero. The only Ethiopian restaurants are in the city, and we don’t make the time for that trek anymore. I think after my complaint, we got in one trip before the world shut down. So the cravings were strong, and I decided to figure out how to make it at home.
Ethiopian food, if you’ve never had the pleasure of enjoying it, typically consists of various heavily spiced stews, with nearly everything served on injera – a unique, spongy, sour, fermented bread made from teff grains. It serves as both plate and utensil – you rip off bits of injera, pinch your food up with it, and drop the bite in your mouth, ideally using only your right hand. If you do this right, your hands do not get messy. I also realized recently that the Ethiopian solution to eating the delicious sauce-soaked injera under your food without getting your hands messy is simply to eat it with more injera. (Apparently a popular breakfast dish there is injera stir fried in spiced butter, eaten with more injera. To call it a staple of the cuisine is an understatement.)
At this point, I should probably include the disclaimer that I am not an expert. I have never even been to Ethiopia. I’ve just been working on this set of recipes for a while now, and picked up some interesting information while doing so. I started by buying some berbere (an important Ethiopian spice blend with berbere chiles plus various other spices) and finding a good recipe for misir wot, but eating it with store-bought naan just didn’t quite hit the spot. I wanted injera. Now I’ve never made any type of bread, and when I looked at recipes for injera… well it isn’t for the faint of heart. But then I started looking into shortcuts, and found several recipes to play with.
Something I realized when I was digging into Ethiopian recipes is that names for the same dish vary, in part because of the issue of transliterating Ethiopian into English. If you’re trying to parse dish names, two of the most common words you’ll see are wot/wat/wet (a spicy stew made with berbere), and alicha (a mild stew typically made with ginger and turmeric, plus a little spice). It’s also helpful to know you may see dish names with or without a prefix of “ye-” which just means “of” (“misir wot” = lentil stew; “yemisir wot” = stew of lentils).
Eventually, I ended up with four recipes (two dishes, a salad, and quick injera) that I’m quite happy with. I wanted to recreate the experience of getting a vegetarian combo at a restaurant, but of course you don’t need to make them all to have a good time. Just the lentils and injera would be a solid meal. If you don’t want to make injera, you could eat the dishes as is, or with any type of flatbread, but the injera does elevate the experience. If you make all these recipes as written, I found that it makes enough for two nights of leftovers for two hungry adults (with the exception of the injera, which is just one meal’s worth).
These recipes are mostly vegan, with the only exception being ghee used in the misir wot, but you can easily substitute vegetable oil. Ethiopian cuisine is actually very vegan friendly due to the religious culture. The Ethiopian Orthodox church observes multiple “fasting” days every week (and more before holidays), where “fasting” means abstaining from animal products.
Misir wot (Instant Pot recipe)
This spicy lentil stew is one of the easier dishes to find a recipe for, and the first one I tried from Spice Cravings was great. I didn’t really adjust anything. My berbere spice blend is this one from Zamouri Spices; berbere can be pretty varied (think “curry powder”), so if you use a different one you may find you need to adjust the amount (also check if yours has salt as a major component; mine doesn’t). I put the Instant Pot directions below because it’s how I’ve made it, but the recipe I’ve linked above does also give stovetop directions if that’s what you’re working with.
- 3 tbsp ghee (ideally you’d use niter kibbeh, which is Ethiopian spiced clarified butter, but I don’t have that and I suspect you don’t either. You could also sub butter or oil.)
- 1 cup red onion, chopped fine (apparently Ethiopians exclusively use shallots or red onions, never white or yellow onions)
- 1 tbsp minced garlic
- 1 tbsp minced ginger
- 1 tbsp tomato paste
- 1 tsp salt
- 1½ tbsp berbere seasoning (result is medium spicy)
- 1 cup red lentils, rinsed very well (red lentils are a quick cooking lentil, so be careful about substituting this for another type)
- 2½ cups water
- lime or lemon juice
Set Instant Pot to saute. Saute onions in ghee for about 3 minutes. Theoretically, for a good wot, you are meant to mince the onion and slow cook to a paste-like consistency. But this recipe isn’t that fussy, and the result is still very good.
Add garlic and ginger and saute for another minute. Stir in tomato paste, salt, and berbere. Hit cancel and add lentils and water. Pressure cook 4 min on high, natural release 5 min.
Finish with a squeeze of lime or lemon. Stir well until the water is absorbed and lentils reach a creamy consistency.
This is one of the more variable dishes, both in recipe and name. The name above simply means “mixed vegetables”, so that makes sense really. In a quick survey of restaurant menus and online recipes, I’ve found this called Yataklete kilkil, Yeatkilit Kilikil, Ye-Atkilt wot (a confusing one since the menu description labels it a “mild sauce” and yet “wot” should describe a very spicy dish), Atikilit Beyayinetu (vegetable combination), and more. The exact vegetables vary, but the mix below seems to be the most popular. The spice blend can be minor or extensive, but seems to include garlic, ginger, and turmeric at a minimum. Sometimes it includes chiles or some berbere, and sometimes it has no heat at all. Sometimes it’s made with canned tomatoes, though not in the restaurants I’ve been to and I don’t prefer it that way. The recipe below is a mix of various ones I’ve found plus experimentation of my own, but the method is pretty standard – fry up onions and spices in a generous amount of oil, add veggies and a little water, cover and simmer.
- ¼ cup vegetable oil
- ½ cup red onion, chopped
- 2 medium potatoes, peeled and chopped
- ½ lb green beans
- ½ lb baby carrots (cut in half lengthwise if thick) or carrot sticks
- 2 tsp minced garlic
- 1 tsp minced ginger
- ½ tsp turmeric*
- ¼ tsp cumin*
- ¼ tsp fenugreek*
- ¼ tsp cardamom*
- ¼ tsp cinnamon*
- ⅛ tsp cloves*
- ¼ tsp black pepper
- 1 tsp salt
- ¼ cup water
*Don’t have all these spices? I think you could probably replace all these with 1 – 2 tsp curry powder or even garam masala and get a good result, if a little different.
In a large saucepan that you have a cover for, heat oil over medium to medium low heat. It’s more oil than I would typically use, but nearly all recipes call for a generous amount of oil. It will help when you add the veggies later. Add onions and saute for a couple minutes, then stir in the garlic, ginger, and all the spices. Let those cook for about 3-5 minutes, stirring frequently. You want the onions to be golden, though it’s kinda hard to tell with the turmeric.
Now add the potatoes, carrots, green beans, ¼ cup water, and the salt. Stir it up, then cover and simmer for 20-30 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes or so. If needed, add water to prevent any burning. Cook until potatoes are tender. If there’s still a fair amount of liquid when your veggies are done, cook for a few more minutes uncovered to let some of the liquid evaporate.
This is a tomato salad that’s really refreshing to have alongside the spicy stews. Often you’ll see it as timatim fitfit, which means it has chopped up bits of injera mixed in. There are variations on it, but it’s usually just tomatoes, onions/shallots, and chiles in a lemon vinaigrette. Sometimes you will also see it with berbere.
- 4 medium tomatoes, diced (using all red ones will make a result that’s prettier than the multicolor tomatoes I was using)
- ½ cup red onion, finely diced
- 1 jalapeño, finely diced (remove seeds and ribs if you want to decrease the heat level)
- 3 tbsp vegetable oil
- 2 tbsp white wine vinegar
- 3 tbsp lemon juice
- ½ tsp minced garlic
- Salt and pepper to taste
Whisk dressing together and toss with tomatoes, onions, and jalapeño. Let sit for at least ten minutes.
Now we come to my pride and joy. For a shortcut version of injera, these are surprisingly close to the real thing.
Teff flour can be tricky to come by in the US, and is expensive. I bought a 1 lb bag of teff flour on Amazon for $7.50 for my experiments. Most recipes and even restaurants cut the teff with part white or other flour. Buckwheat flour is also supposed to be a good substitute for teff and is half the price (and apparently some people even just use whole wheat flour, but I have not tried that). I’ve made it both ways and I’ll stick to buckwheat after exhausting my teff supply – they’re pretty similar.
- 135g (1 cup) teff or buckwheat flour (I prefer weight measurements when it comes to flour. If you use volume, be sure not to just scoop your measuring cup straight into the bag – you want it loose, not packed.)
- 67g (½ cup) white flour
- ½ tsp baking soda
- ½ tsp salt
- 2 cups carbonated water
- 6 tbsp white wine vinegar (the result has only a subtle sour hint – if you want a more pronounced taste, I’d use straight white vinegar)
Whisk together your dry ingredients. Add the carbonated water and whisk until smooth.
You want to cook these in a nonstick skillet, and I have a brief aside here about nonstick skillets. My husband used to insist that you were never supposed to use any oil in a nonstick, and over time, our nonstick got more sticky. I eventually read up on it and found out you SHOULD use oil, but only the tiniest amount, and only when the pan is cold. Just put a little on a paper towel and wipe it before you start cooking. Don’t use cooking spray. Then heat your pan, never higher than medium heat. Ok, back to the recipe.
Preheat a nonstick skillet over medium. Once you’re ready to cook, whisk in the vinegar. (I’m not sure why you wait to do this right before cooking, but all recipes seem to specify this.) The batter should be like a thin (and foamy) pancake batter, as pictured:
Use a ⅓ cup measure to scoop batter (making sure to stir a little before scooping) and pour into the pan. There are different techniques, but I found what works best is just pouring in the center and quickly tilting the pan in a circular motion to spread the batter thinly across the bottom. (Other people like to pour in a spiral and tilt back and forth, or use your measure or a spoon to spread the batter.)
Cover and cook for about 1 minute, until the injera is dry on the top. Uncover and cook for another 1 minute or so, until the edges start to curl and the bottom is firm, smooth, and barely golden. Total cooking time should be about 2-3 minutes per injera.
Don’t flip it, because you want one smooth side and one spongy side. Use a silicone spatula to help transfer it onto a plate covered with a tea towel. Repeat, stacking under the towel so they don’t dry out. This recipe should make around 10-11 injera.
Let them cool to room temperature, and they develop a spongy-stretchy texture. This only happens once they rest. I was disappointed with my first batch when I tasted them fresh, and then after sitting for an hour, they were great. If you taste them right out of the pan, they’re weird, almost gluey. They will probably seem underdone. But keep stacking and wrapping in the tea towel. Something magic happens when they rest.
If you make these ahead of time, which I recommend you do, you can leave them sitting at room temperature wrapped in the tea towel for a couple of hours. More than that, you may want to stick them along with the tea towel into a zip top bag (after they’re totally cool) to ensure they don’t dry out. Ideally, eat them the same day they’re made, but I have also read that you can freeze them (but I have not tried this).
Ethiopian food is served family style on one large platter for everyone (or if you’re me, a baking tray, because you don’t own a platter because you never host parties and you usually just serve food in whatever it was cooked in). Overlap the injera to cover the platter. Put appropriate serving sizes of your dishes onto the injera. With the remaining injera, cut them in half, roll them up, and put them around the edge of the platter. Refer to the header image for my unskilled attempt at decent presentation.
Phew, we made it to the end! Let me know if you’re interested in more recipes like this, because at some point I’ll probably try expanding my Ethiopian repertoire into shiro wot (spicy ground chickpeas), kik alicha (split peas), and gomen wot (collard greens).