Friday, August 3, 2012

Ethiopian food

When I lived in Cincinnati, there was a family-owned and operated Ethiopian restaurant I used to frequent with friends, called Emanu.  Emanu is actually the matriarch in this family. They had AMAZING food. Now, I have never been to Ethiopia or anywhere remotely close to there, so I have no basis for comparison. But regardless, their food was some of the most delicious I've had. It also helps that the people there have been nice to me, and I love the restaurant's minimalist aesthetic. Oh, and the restroom. I even told my friend Anne specifically to check out their restroom and on one visit she actually photographed it! That modern sink...anyway, check out her photos here (not just of the bathroom sink, but the food!)

(I've heard people say that the state of the restroom in a restaurant, I think, is a good indicator of cleanliness in other areas. But I'm not an expert restaurant critic.).

Going back to the topic... At Emanu I would usually get the vegetarian sampler dish which consisted of lentil stew, collard greens, stewed cabbage, and carrots and green beans, served in separate piles on top of injera (soft flatbread made of teff flour - actually a bit more like a spongy crêpe). The lentils had a nice earthy fragrant-spicy (not hot-spicy) flavor... the collards were tender, and the carrots and green beans were soft and almost caramelized from what I suspect is a slow-cooking process.

Ethiopian food | image by eyesopenwide

I haven't had the opportunity to visit this restaurant again, as it is four hours away after all. But recently I got hit by a strong craving. And if there's something you probably already know about me, it's that I do act on my cravings. Sometimes to a fault, especially if it involves Cape Cod salt + vinegar chips. Or Jeni's roasted strawberry buttermilk ice cream.

But my cravings for Emanu's food...something about the flavors of Ethiopian food are so distinct, yet comforting and strangely familiar.

So I was on a mission to make some. We were getting a lot of greens from our CSA, including collard greens, and both A. and I were starting to get pretty tired of my usual sauteed-greens-in-garlic-and-olive-oil staple.

I found these recipes for lentil stew and collard greens and set off to work. Thankfully I had a lot of the spices already thanks to our pretty extensive spice cabinet that could rival a Penzey's store (yes I'm pretty proud of it too!). I chuckle as I type this, as I am actually notorious among my friends because of my (in)famous spice cabinet. Three years ago, I left my apartment in Cincinnati and moved in with my friends CD and MK for about three months while I was in transition between leaving Cincinnati and coming to Kent. Most of my stuff went into storage. My spices, on the other hand, stayed with me. I moved into my CD's spare bedroom and instead of filling the armoire with clothes, I filled it with spices. I'm serious. My friends even photographed the said armoire-turned-spice-cabinet. They called it the "second pantry" in addition to their existing kitchen/pantry. Such that, when one of us was cooking and we needed an ingredient, the other would say, "go check the second pantry." Now I wonder if they can unearth that photo of the second pantry...

Anyway. This isn't so much a recipe post as much as it is just me sharing my experience making Ethiopian food at home. The lentil recipe called for a spice mix called berbere ("bayr-beray"), a complex, heady spice mix with such depth of flavor, made up of about thirty different things. Ok, not really... but thirteen, to be exact: coriander seeds, fenugreek seeds, black peppercorns, whole allspice, white cardamom pods, whole cloves, dried onion flakes, dried chiles de arbol, paprika, ground nutmeg, ground ginger, ground cinnamon, kosher salt. Whew. I know it's a long list, but don't give up on it yet. I promise, it's GOOD.

Clockwise from top: white cardamom, whole coriander, black peppercorns, whole allspice. Aren't they pretty? I know... the things that amuse me...
 Thankfully there were only two things I needed to buy; first was white cardamom. Because I live in a half-Indian household, we already had green cardamom and black cardamom, but not white. I did not even know prior to this that there was such a thing as white cardamom! The second ingredient I needed was dried onion flakes; I typically use fresh onion in cooking, but of course that wouldn't work in a spice mix and I had no intention of dehydrating onions myself. I know I get a bit really crazy in the kitchen but I don't go that far.

Now I know that the spices listed above are probably not in everyone's kitchens - depending on what you like to cook - but let me tell you that making this spice mix is SO. WORTH. IT.

Fenugreek, in different forms (clockwise from top): ground, seed, and dried leaves. Seeds and dried leaves (methi) are from the Indian grocery store. I used the ground and seed form for these recipes.
Be forewarned though that your house will smell like fenugreek and other spices for maybe... um, 2 days. Even with our sliding doors open while I was cooking, the smell lingered. But again - so worth it.

I always like starting with whole spices to the extent possible - I can buy them in larger amounts and store them without the risk of turning stale or losing flavor. I read somewhere that ground spices start to lose flavor after six months. Of course some spices are just convenient to have already ground though, and I do have those as well - I just store them in airtight glass jars and keep them away from light and direct heat (do not store them in those wall-mounted spice shelves right above your stove!).

Dried Indian red chile peppers. I didn't have chile de arbol, but had a large bag of this stuff. I think it worked out well. I actually grind these into red pepper flakes as well, for Italian cooking. 

Cooking always comforts and grounds me. The process is part methodical, part intuitive, and part creative. And just plain rewarding in the end!

I toasted the spices in a skillet, added them to my spice grinder, gave everything a good stir and stored them in small glass jars (and gave a couple of jars to my friends). I took a whiff of the mixture and the fragrance of the spices resulted in a sneezing fit. This is potent stuff, people. Click here for the recipe.

berbere (Ethiopian spice mix)
"How can I describe the result of this blend? It was both masculine and feminine, shouting for attention and whispering at me to come closer. In one sniff it was bright and crisp; in the next, earthy and slow." - Marcus Samuelsson, Yes, Chef: A Memoir (p. 223)

Once the spice mix is done, everything else is so incredibly easy that I couldn't believe it took me so long to try making Ethiopian food. For the Misr Wot (lentil stew): Onions and garlic, sauteed in a combination of olive oil and butter. Red lentils go into the pot with enough water to cover by about an inch or so, along with some tomato, and about a tablespoon of the spice mix. Then it is left to simmer slowly until the lentils are soft, then the spices and seasoning is adjusted before serving.

Good thing the spice mix makes about 3/4 of a cup, and you only need a couple of tablespoons each time -  so you would have enough to make these lentils again several more times before running out.

Red lentils

Next, Ye'abesha Gomen, or the collard greens. Slow-cooked in aromatics (onions, garlic, ginger), chiles, and spices (black cardamom and nigella) until the leaves are so tender, and the flavor is slightly smoky and spicy, and slightly sweet.

Left: black cardamom pods; right: nigella seeds

Both recipes call for Ethiopian spiced butter, but I left that out because I didn't have enough butter on hand at the time (horror of horrors!). I bet it would be out of this world with this special butter mixture.

We ate the lentils and greens with brown rice instead of the traditional injera - what can I say, I'm Filipino and a rice girl through and through (though I'm sure my roti-loving and naan-loving husband would love injera... but that will be a project for another day).

It was so unbelievably good. I was so addicted I made both dishes twice in a week. Then I made both  again a few weeks after that. As you can see, these dishes have been in heavy rotation recently - which is great because it gives us another flavor profile in our already bean- and lentil-centered diet.

If this isn't comfort food, I don't know what is. I know slow-cooking doesn't sound all that appealing during the summer months, but it's also nice to have some variety aside from cold soups and salads.

I won't re-post the recipes here as they are so nicely laid out in the links above - and I really didn't do anything much to adapt the recipes other than to omit the spiced butter in favor of olive oil.

Now if only I can recreate the cheesecake that the restaurant's matriarch makes. As dessert-loving as I am, I'm actually not a cheesecake person - especially most restaurant cheesecakes. I usually find it too dense, heavy, and cloyingly sweet. Emanu's cheesecake on the other hand is like nothing I've tried before - it's unbelievably light and just heavenly. It's made of a mixture of mascarpone and ricotta and goat cheese (I think) with a touch of honey. It is hands-down the best cheesecake I've had. I guess you can't go wrong with a grandmother's cooking. Oh, and the pine nut pound cake...which caused quite a ruckus when I was with two of my friends one time. But let me just blame that on the Ethiopian espresso we had with dessert.

Why I torture myself dreaming of dessert like this when the restaurant is four hours away from me, I don't know. But at least I can now make the lentils and greens and be transported to fond memories with friends in this restaurant.


Once again, here are the links to the recipes:
Misr Wot (Ethiopian Lentil Stew)
Ye'abesha Gomen (Ethiopian Collard Greens)
Berbere (Ethiopian Spice Mix)
Nit'r Qibe (Ethiopian Spiced Butter)

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Anonymous said...

Oh MY gosh. Ethiopian food is hands down my most favorite cuisine in the whole wide world! And I always get the veggie sampler platter. Plus a glass of honey wine :)

I'm so impressed that you tackled this! Living in DC we are lucky to have a large Ethiopian population, so I do get to indulge my craving every now and then. But how wonderful to make the food at home!


Mia (Savor Everyday) said...

Oooh, fellow lover of Ethiopian food - yay!

Honey wine? I have not heard of that!

That is awesome that you have a good Ethiopian restaurant close to you. I think there's one around here too but I haven't tried it, and I thought I might as well try to make it instead of driving out 30-40 minutes to get there. And I'm glad I did - it's all in the spice mix :)

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