Ethiopian food. My love affair with this cuisine began a few months before we completed the adoption of our daughter from Ethiopia. In our quest to familiarize ourselves a bit more with the culture, we dove in head first (hands first?) and ate at the one and only Ethiopian restaurant that Halifax had at the time. That first experience was….a let down. We had no idea what we were ordering, our waitress (who was not Ethiopian) had no idea what we were ordering, and the combination of foods was unlike anything we had ever had before. We left feeling a bit disappointed. Here we were, about to adopt an Ethiopian child…and we HATED the cuisine.
After coming home and doing a bit more research on the various dishes, I was determined to try it again and like it. To this day I still cannot remember what we ordered during that first Ethiopian restaurant experience, but after a bit of reading, our second trip was MUCH better! Both my hubby and I loved everything on our platter and vowed to visit many more times (and we did!). We were also so relieved. All adoptive parents know how important it is to be able to make links in our every day Western lives with the cultures of our children. We were glad food could be one of them.
After we arrived home from Ethiopia and after moving to a staggeringly more expensive city, we soon realized that eating at a restaurant every time we wanted Ethiopian was not really an option. The cost of eating out was one thing, but the other thing was that we wanted the preparation and enjoying of Ethiopian food to be just a normal part of our lives, not just something we ate on special occasion. It was also important to me that our daughter would have the option of learning to cook it herself and that I could teach her. Children adopted from abroad already lose such massive amounts of their culture (more than we as Westerners will ever fully understand) – I didn’t want food to be one of them. So I got to work. I experimented with recipes found online, recipes passed around through the adoption community, passed down and taught to me from Ethiopian friends both at home and during a solo trip I too back to Ethiopia in 2011, and I even chatted up local restaurant owners hoping to gain some insight. After a few years of practice I’ve managed to perfect a small handful of dishes that our family really loves. I’m sharing two of them today. And the next time we’re having a hankering, I’ll be sure to share a couple more.
Before learning how to cook Ethiopian food, here are the basics you need to know:
1) Ethiopian food is typically served on one large platter and is meant for the group to share. All food is eaten with your hands. Specifically with your right hand.
2) There is often a big variety of food to choose from on a platter. These different sauces or stews are referred to as a “Wot”, “Wat” or “Wet”. They contain everything from beef to chicken to lamb to goat to lentils to vegetables to eggs. The majority of the food is very spicy, however, most restaurant owners know the North American restaurant goer doesn’t like it nearly as spicy so it’s often toned down. If you want to full experience, be sure to ask for full heat.
3) Speaking of heat, spice is a huge part of Ethiopian cooking. The Berbere (pronounced Burr-burr-ee) spice blend is the most commonly used. You can read about what goes into that HERE. And while it’s not a spice in itself, Shiro powder, another very common Ethiopian ingredient that I’m using in my recipes below (pictured above), is usually made using a blend of chickpea and lentil powders as well as spices. You can read more about Shiro HERE.
4) Food is served on Ethiopia’s national bread called Injera. Injera is a flat bread, cooked on one side, bubbly on the other. It is made from the fermented, Ethiopian-grown Teff grain and can have a slightly bitter taste. In addition to the food being served on Injera, food is also served with lots rolled up on the side. This is what you use for scooping up and pinching the food to eat it. For those with gluten sensitivities it’s worth knowing that pure Teff injera is gluten free, however, most restaurants I’ve been to in Canada use a blend of white flour and Teff to keep costs down and to keep a milder, less bitter flavor. I’m not sure whether restaurants typically have the pure Teff variety on offer but it may be worth asking ahead of time if that is important to you.
Misir Wot – (Spicy Red Lentil Stew)
- 1.5 cups dry split red lentils
- 3-4 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 heaping tbsp Berbere spice (see bottom of post for more info and where to buy)
- 1 medium onion
- 3 cloves fresh garlic
- 2.5 cups water
- 1/2 can tomato paste (cans here in Canada are 156ml or 5.27 oz)
- Salt as needed
1) Finely chop onion and garlic and sautee in medium sized pot with a few generous tablespoons of olive oil for about 4-5 minutes until onions are soft. Add in tomato paste and Berbere spice and stir until mixed thoroughly. If mixture is too thick, add about 1/4 cup of water. Cook mixture another 2-3 minutes stirring occasionally.
2) Place red lentils in a bowl and rinse thoroughly. Once rinsed, add 2.5 cups of fresh water to the bowl and add this to the onion and Berbere mixture. At medium heat, stirring occasionally, simmer until lentils are fully cooked – about 15 or 20 minutes. If mixture becomes dry before lentils are cooked, add small amounts of water to mixture until they are. (This is something I just learn to do by eye!). Once you know that they are fully cooked, stir in about 1/2 of warm water. Salt to taste. Serve hot with Injera on the side.
Shiro Wot – (Ground Lentil and Chickpea Stew)
- 1/2 cup Shiro powder (see bottom of post for more info and where to buy)
- 1 small onion
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 tsp Berbere
- 2.5 cups water
- Salt as needed
1) Finely chop onion and garlic and in a medium pot, sautee with olive oil for about 3-4 minutes. Add Berbere spice and a couple of tablespoons of water and simmer for about 4-5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the remaining water to the pot and carefully whisk in shiro powder a teaspoon at a time until completely combined. Let cook on low heat until it becomes thick but smooth – about 15 minutes. Salt to taste. Serve hot with Injera on the side.
There are two challenging things about Ethiopian cooking. The first is technique and recipe accuracy. Learning from Ethiopian friends has taught me that often, there are no recipes for this stuff. Just methods handed down from family member to family member, nothing ever formally written or explained or even quantified in terms of a cup of this or a cup of that. As time goes on I am developing my own techniques for this stuff and usually I’m not referring to a recipe at all. I think it’s kind of neat. I love that my daughter’s techniques for Ethiopian cooking will be passed down from me and may very well influence generations to come!
The other challenge is where to get the ingredients. Go ahead and ask your local grocer if they carry Berbere spice and Shiro powder and they will look at you like you have two heads! So I’ve put together a list of local Ottawa resources below. There may be more than what’s here, but these are the restaurants that I love, my own sources for ingredients or ones that I’ve heard about through other Ethiopian food enthusiasts!
Habesha Restaurant, 574 Rideau Avenue: This is my personal favorite spot to eat in the city. The decor and ambiance is modest and the eating area is small but the food would be the closest to authentic as I’ve had locally. If you are looking for the FULL Ethiopian restaurant experience in Ottawa with all of the bells and whistles, this may not be the place. But we really like the owner and her family and it’s the closes to home for us so this is usually where we end up.
Blue Nile Restaurant, 577 Gladstone Avenue (at Percy): I have not been to this place in a long time but my past experience there has been excellent. Nice servers, nice ambiance, great food. Last time I was there they also carried coffee beans for roasting, Berbere spice, Shiro powder and a few other spices as well. Another cool thing about Blue Nile is that they have also been known to import Fanta, Mirinda, Ambo mineral water and other Ethiopian beverages on occasion. We all thought this was pretty cool since is it extremely rare to see these things outside of Ethiopia! Their house-made honey wine and coconut ice cream is to die for as well!!
East Africa Restaurant, 376 Rideau Avenue: This is another spot I haven’t been to in ages but if memory serves, the food was good and the decor was probably the nicest in the city. With an indoor waterfall/fountain type thing and a grass hut canopy ceiling, it gives the feeling of eating outdoors which it kind of neat. At one time they also had a lunch buffet on weekdays. This is an excellent opportunity to try different things without committing to a full order of anything. Especially if you are pressed for time. Oh! And they also serve St George’s Beer – another Ethiopian delicacy!
Spices sources and bakeries:
Tizita Injera Bakery, 365 Booth Street: As far as I know, this is the only source for fresh made Injera in the city. They make both the Teff/white flour blend (about $4 for 4 large rounds) as well as the pure Teff variety (not sure of the price, but definitely more expensive due to the cost of the grain being quite a big higher). I do know that some of the restaurants mentioned above will sell injera as well but it’s not nearly as fresh. This place is kind of a one stop shop for everything since they also carry Berbere, Shiro powder and a few other spices as well.
Hareg Cafe and Variety store, 857 Bank Street: I’m grouping this in with stores as opposed to restaurants because again, it’s kind of a one stop shop and doesn’t not have a full menu. When I was there very recently I noticed they sold fresh injera (likely from Tizita), Berbere, Shiro powder and a few other spices. In addition, they also sold homemade Sambusas (Ethiopian samosas $2 and $2.50 each), Ethiopian wraps (I’m not sure what these are) and a few other Ethiopian breakfast, lunch and snack type things. This is one spot I hope to check out again as I wouldn’t mind trying some of the foods that I have not eaten since my last trip to Ethiopia!
Silk Road Spice Merchant, www.silkroadspices.ca: A Canadian online source for Berbere spice. I have not ordered from this company personally but would definitely be a good option if you are not near a store that sells it and would like to try a few recipes!
I hope you enjoyed my own little version of Ethiopian food 101! It’s not perfect, I’m sure, but it’s what I know! I also hope that this is the little push some of you need to try this amazing cuisine for the first time either by making it at home or venturing out to one of Ottawa’s restaurants! Stay tuned for more Ethiopian recipes in the future and be sure to share you success stories, epic fails or restaurant experiences in the comments section! 🙂