International Cooking: Food from Eritrea

This was a difficult week because it turns out Eritrea and Ethiopia share a lot of dishes. I wanted to make sure I didn’t make something that was better suited to Ethiopia for Eritrea. Some of the dishes I made this week are also common in Ethiopia, but they have different names, and there are probably some differences in the ingredients and/or preparation. I tried to use specifically Eritrean recipes where possible, which wasn’t always easy.

Eritrea is located on the coast of Eastern Africa, in an area known as the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia is to the south. The countries share a lot of history, and were even once part of the same kingdom (at least, parts of each country were).

Italy colonized Eritrea in 1882, but after World War II the country was made into a British Protectorate. There was some debate as to what should happen to the country when the British left, and it was suggested that Eritrea be divided, with the Christian parts going to Ethiopia and the Muslims to Sudan. Instead, the country was left to govern themselves for the most part, but entered into a federal status with Ethiopia for foreign affairs and defense. This lasted for about 10 years, until Ethiopia formally annexed Eritrea in 1962. The Eritrean War of Independence followed, until finally Eritrea gained legal independence in 1993.

Eritrea is home to nine ethnic groups, who speak nine different languages, all nationally recognized. There are, however, just three working languages: Tigrinya, Arabic, and English.

What Do People Eat in Eritrea?

As already stated, Eritrea shares a lot of dishes with Ethiopia. The main difference is that Eritrean cuisine often features more seafood, since it’s on the coast. Eritrean cooking also shows more Italian influences, such as pasta sauces featuring berbere.

Berbere is a common spice mix in Eritrean and Ethiopian cooking. The exact ingredients can vary widely, but they may include paprika, onion, garlic, coriander, fenugreek, chili, and cloves. I used the blend from The Spice House in my dishes this week.

Common dishes in Eritrea are thick stews, with or without meat, and they are often spicy and seasoned with berbere. They are usually served on injera. Injera is a sour, fermented, pancake-like flatbread made from teff flour, and it is also common in Ethiopia. Injera accompanies most meals.

Although meat dishes are quite common – featuring lamb, mutton, beef, goat, or chicken – there are many vegetarian dishes in Eritrean cuisine, made with lentils, beans, and vegetables.

What I Made

Ga’at (Barley Porridge with Spiced Butter)

Ga'at (Barley Porridge with Spiced Butter)

This is a breakfast dish made by cooking barley flour with water. It gets shaped into a mound, then you make a hole in the middle into which you add spiced butter and sprinkle berbere. It turns out looking kind of like a volcano.

I had to wing this a little because I didn’t buy barley flour, since I wasn’t sure what else I would use it for and I have so many random flours from this challenge. I’d also read that I could make barley flour by grinding up pearl barley in my food processor, and that’s something I do use, so I decided I was going to do that,

It did not work. I actually used my blender instead, since I didn’t think I was grinding up enough for the food processor to be effective. I’m pretty sure my blender is also more powerful than my food processor, and it can grind up ice so I thought it would do fine with the pearl barley. But it didn’t. The barley kind of just rattled around making lots of noise.

So, I decided instead to just cook the pearl barley and then blend it. It didn’t turn out completely smooth, and I think more water would have helped there, but I wanted a thick mixture so I could make my volcano. I made a hole in the middle and added butter mixed with berbere. This is cheating a bit, since you’re supposed to make a spiced butter with garlic, red onions, cardamom, and fenugreek. But I was just making one serving and was already taking too long with the barley fiasco, so I just used the berbere, which has the same flavors and more anyway.

This definitely doesn’t look terribly fancy, but it did taste really good. I think berbere can make anything taste good! This can also be served with plain yogurt.

As a guide, I loosely followed a recipe from Instructables. There are no amounts listed so it’s not really a proper recipe, but it was the best I could find as I was having trouble finding recipes that use the traditional barley flour.

Tumtumo with Injera (Red Lentil Stew with Teff Flatbread)

Tumtumo with Injera (Red Lentil Stew with Teff Flatbread)

I’m not a big lentil fan, because I don’t like the texture, but red lentils are different. They just kind of melt into the other ingredients and absorb their flavors. I’ve made various red lentil stews before and enjoyed them, so I was quite sure I would like this.

The stew itself is very simple. I didn’t exactly follow the method from the recipe I chose. I started by sautéing onions in oil, then added garlic, tomatoes, and chili. I added berbere, then water, tomato sauce, and lentils. When the lentils were done, I seasoned with more berbere, salt, and pepper, and that was it. This made for a really easy and delicious stew.

I served this with some creamed spinach, which probably isn’t very traditional – the cream part, I think the spinach would be pretty typical.

This is usually served on injera, a common Eritrean and Ethiopian flatbread, so I had a go at making it. If you’ve had injera before, you can probably see that it didn’t quite come out right.

The injera takes a while to make, because it needs to sit and ferment for a few days. The recipe said I could use a regular sourdough starter, so that’s what I did. I think one problem I had was that the dough needed more resting and fermentation time than I had. I think this may be why I didn’t get bubbles on top of the bread, like I was meant to. The dough/batter might have also been too thin. I had a lot of trouble removing the bread from the skillet in one piece, even though I used my nonstick skillet (I basically only ever use it for crepes).

As for the flavor, well, it tasted to me like really concentrated sourdough. I love sourdough, but I think the flavor was a bit too strong for me. It’s not so bad when you’re eating it with stew though, and that’s how it’s intended to be consumed anyway.

I plan on trying injera again for Ethiopia, so I will include a more detailed write-up of the process then, when I hopefully get it right! The recipe I used is from Lin’s Food.

The recipe I used for the tumtumo (mostly just for the ingredient list) is from Epersian Food.

Zigni (Spicy Beef Stew)

Zigni (Spicy Beef Stew)

This is a beef stew, made with onion, garlic, tomato paste, and berbere as the main other ingredients. There’s also quite a lot of oil and butter, but I did reduce those amounts a bit because I just didn’t want to eat something that greasy.

I felt like there was too much tomato paste in this recipe, but after making it I noticed that the ingredients list and directions both call for different amounts. If you decide to make this, I would go with the smaller amount listed in the directions.

I’d thought I might serve this was some injera if that turned out well, but it didn’t. So instead I served this with a whole wheat flatbread called kicha (next) and some lightly charred broccoli (probably not an authentic side).

I used the recipe from Foreign Fork.

Kicha (Whole Wheat Flatbread)

Kicha (Whole Wheat Flatbread)

I fully acknowledge that this isn’t the prettiest flatbread but it doesn’t actually look that far off the recipe photos. I think it’s meant to look kind of like this.

It’s very easy to make, as the dough is completely unleavened. All you do to make the dough is mix whole wheat flour, all-purpose flour, salt, and warm water. Then you heat up a skillet with some oil and add half the dough, pressing it into a circle as it starts to cook. I think this part might have been more difficult for me because I used a cast iron skillet rather than a traditional non-stick skillet, which I think led to the dough cooking faster, so I had less time to get it pressed out. As a result, my flatbread was a bit thicker than I think it was meant to be, and the first one was a little underdone. I cooked the second one for longer, and I think it turned out alright.

As you might expect, this was pretty heavy, but it went well with the zigni (previous entry). I also used it to make the next dish.

I got the recipe from Simply Recipes, but it is originally from a cookbook called ‘In Bibi’s Kitchen’ by Hawa Hassan and Julia Turshen.

Kicha Fit Fit (Spiced Fried Flatbread with Yogurt)

Kicha Fit Fit (Spiced Fried Flatbread with Yogurt)

This is another dish that doesn’t really look like much, but it was really good. It was extremely easy too; all you do is melt some butter in a skillet, add some berbere, and stir in torn-up pieces of kicha (previous entry). Once the bread is coated with the spiced butter and warmed through, it’s ready. Kicha fit fit is usually served with plain yogurt on top; I used plain Greek yogurt.

I really enjoyed this, and would even consider making the kicha specifically to make this dish again!

This recipe is another one that is originally from In Bibi’s Kitchen, by Hawa Hassan and Julia Tushen, but I found it online at CBC. You can also find the kicha recipe on the same page if you want to make both at once.

Final Thoughts

Everything this week was pretty good, but I think the kicha fit fit was my favorite, despite its simplicity.

Next week, I will be taking a break from my challenge as I am on call for jury duty. This break could even end up being a little longer if I actually end up on a jury. When I return, I will be cooking food from Estonia.

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