A foray into Ethiopian flavors

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Today’s attempt at a plate of wot and vegetables

Please allow for a temporary distraction from the great Asia-focused food in Philadelphia. Don’t get me wrong, this is an exciting time for new Asian food items–it seems every day there is something new–but I’d like to share a recent revelatory food experience I had at an Ethiopian shop in West Philadelphia. As many of you know, West Philly is a place where Ethiopian food is well represented, with restaurants and store supplies of spices, unroasted coffees and piles of injera (on that last item there was a really nice highlight by Alex Jones on the “West Philly’s injera lady” in the summer issue of Edible Philly).

For several years I have been fascinated with Ethiopian food, and particularly with the rich meat-based stews and various vegetable and lentil sides. I sought out insights on basic recipes in any English-language book I could find (often through interlibrary loan) and I ended up with a lot of respect for two books: the 1970 TimeLife book on African Cooking, and Daniel Mesfin’s 1993 Exotic Ethiopian Cooking. I was pleased with the recipes from those books for the most essential Ethiopian flavors: spiced red pepper powder berbere, and for the spiced clarified butter niter kibeh. While those key ingredients produced delicious stews, there were always a puzzling difference in flavor notes when I compared my dishes with Ethiopian/Eritrean restaurants. Today I finally learned why that was, and about the spices that had previously eluded me…

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Some of today’s shopping: Berbere spicy blend of chiles and spices top left, korerima Ethiopian “false cardamom” seeds right, and besobela and kosseret bottom left

The Rift Valley Grocery Store (715 S. 52nd St) is a small corner store that looks like many others in Philadelphia neighborhoods. A bulletproof glass cage surrounds the cashier with cigarettes and lottery tickets, and that enclosure is accompanied by two racks of non-perishable goods and a cooler. Those non-perishables though–there are some rare items! I started my exploration with the ground berbere and other unmarked spice blends, and I ended up getting schooled a bit on my very narrow understanding of Ethiopian spices.

I questioned a plastic container of something that resembled dried thyme, and the shopkeeper said it was besobela, something important for clarifying butter (i.e. for preparing kibeh). After getting into a discussion about the way I had been doing it (i.e. by simmering butter and hard spices like fenugreek, clove, cinnamon, [green] cardamom), the shopkeeper was amused and surprised. She said, “some of those secondary ingredients are fine, but you should have at least the three key components for clarifying butter: besobela, kosseret, and korerima.”

I assumed these were probably Amharic translations for some of the things I was already using. But then she started opening containers and having me smell them. I was dumbfounded by a strong aroma of these extremely fragrant herbs and surprised I hadn’t encountered these before in books. The strong smell of Kossaret reminded me immediately of hops, and besobela had a sharp smell of Ethiopian holy basil. She asked how much butter I was clarifying, and she graciously prepared me a mixed batch of kosseret and besobela to take home to correct my kibeh. I had already located the third spice korerima at an Indian grocery in University City (International Foods & Spices at 4203 Walnut).

As soon as I got home, I started scouring the internet to make sense of what I had experienced. I quickly found the excellent site How to Cook Great Ethiopian Food, and confirmed Rift Valley Grocery’s suggestions. I happily went forward with correcting my kibeh.

I also went forward with preparing a decent dorowat (chicken stew with onions and berbere). Again, following the advice of the site How to Cook Great Ethiopian Food, I first prepared a garam masala like spice mix used to finish wot stews called mekelesha:

Here are the ingredients I used to make my dorowot:

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Ingredients for doro wot, from clockwise from top left: Chicken, onions, ginger, garlic, olive oil, mekelesha, lemon, eggs, kibeh, and berbere in center

I blended a whole bag of onions, which are one of the key base flavors for many Ethiopian dishes, especially for dorowot. The first cooking step for dorowot is quite unlike any other cuisine culture that I know of: the finely shredded onions are dry-fried without oil for upwards of one hour (caution: this will make your house/apartment smell strongly of onions for some days!):

These onions need to be frequently stirred to keep them from burning. When they have changed colors to an earthy ochre, other ingredients can be added to build up the stew. It is very interesting how these onions set the stage for the wot.

I suggest checking out HTCGEF’s video on dorowot for suggestions on the typical effort that goes into this stew (i.e. the many hours). Basically after the onions are ready, a lot of oil and kibeh are added and then garlic, ginger, berbere. The onions are further melded with these flavors for another hour. Finally lemon-marinated chicken and shelled hard boiled eggs are added. The stew is finished with a sprinkling of mekelesha.

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My dorowot, to be included in a broader collection of dishes with injera later

I didn’t attempt to make my own injera–but I do see this as a key complimentary flavor to dorowot. As many of you know, that is a multi-day process that also is best done on a special griddle. Fortunately for me, injera is pretty easy to come by in West Philly. I got a bag at International Foods & Spices on Walnut St. To accompany injera and wot I also boiled some split yellow peas (yekik alicha) and fried some cabbage, onions, and carrots, as sides, along with some leftover sweet potato greens and pickled beets, and a dollop of sour cream:


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About David Dettmann

Food obsessed and frequently nostalgic.
This entry was posted in - Featured Food Discoveries, - Featured Markets, - Unique food traditions, Non-Asian and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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