As I’ve discussed in previous posts, we are incredibly, wildly fortunate to have a wonderful Ethiopian tutor/cook/cultural liason in our lives. Kiddy has been coming every week now for a few months to work with Dawit on his Amharic and to teach me more about the miracles of Ethiopian food. Dawit is making good progress, maintaining his previous comprehension and speaking skills while learning a bit more about reading and writing in Amharic. Sula secretly loves it when Kidest comes; she talks about Kiddy all week but gets very shy when she comes over. My guess is that Kiddy seems mysteriously familiar to Sula- she looks and sounds like the nannies who cared for her in Ethiopia- and yet she’s showing up at her ferenji parents’ house in America. How confusing, right? The most interesting thing happend this past week when I was cooking an Ethiopian dish that Kiddy had taught me; Sula (who is just beginning to put together subject-verb-object sentences) was watching me and said “Kiddy cooked that.” WHAT?!?! I had her repeat it just to be certain. I could not believe it- it was like she saw me chopping the onions and adding the ginger and garlic and turmeric and just *knew* that it was Ethiopian food. There’s a lot we don’t know about how Sula has processed the whole adoption and move to America but it’s so clear that there is this underlying recognition of all things Ethiopian.
Anyways, now Kiddy has helped me build up quite a repertoire of Ethiopian recipes and I figured it was time to start sharing. Adam and I are OBSESSED with Ethiopian food. When I’m not eating it, I’m fantasizing about it. When I make enough to last a week, it lasts a day or two at most. I sometimes even find myself sneaking bites of the stuff for breakfast, it’s *that* good. The flavors are so complex and tantalizing, and I think a lot of that has to do with the method of cooking. Keep in mind that Kiddy’s method is not representative of that of all Ethiopians (obviously) but there seems to be a science to it and I don’t want to mess with a great thing :)
I’ll start with the basics. Ethiopian dishes tend to be either spicy (with either berbere or mit’mit’a, both of which are blends of hot pepper and other spices) or mild (with turmeric). This is simplifying things a lot, but it holds true for the recipes that I cook. All of the recipes I cook also have four ingredients in common: onions, oil, garlic, and ginger. To be honest, before I started cooking with Kiddy I had never used fresh ginger (and, uh, wouldn’t have even known how to work with the stuff), just the powdered kind. Now I buy massive pieces of the ugly knobby root at the grocery store and use it all up within a shockingly short time period. I use my mini food chopper and chop up a whole head of garlic and a huge piece of ginger each week for my Ethiopian cooking. And onions- oh my gosh, I absolutely HATE to chop onions, but they are an evil necessity. I tried to use my food processer for those, but I don’t like the way some of the onions get too liquified while there are still big chunks that go unchopped when I do that, so for now I’m sticking to cutting them up the old-fashioned way and trying not to let my snot and tears drip onto the cutting board.
So, for the cooking part. No matter what the recipe, Kiddy always starts by adding the onion (no oil!) to the pot first. This is new for me- I was accustomed to starting with oil- but Kiddy is the second Ethiopian I have witnessed cooking onions dry so that’s what I do. We always let them cook until they are getting transluscent and soft, about five to seven minutes or so on medium heat. THEN we add the oil. This is another thing I have to get used to. In the past, I used so little oil in my cooking that the bottles of oil in my kitchen cabinet usually expired before they were used up, but since Kiddy has started cooking with me, I have gone through an average of one enormous bottle of oil per month. Ethiopian food uses an obscene amount of oil. And IT IS WORTH EVERY CALORIE. Keep in mind that in Ethiopia, cooking oil is one of the only sources of fat in a typical Ethiopian diet, unlike here in America, where fat is practically dripping from everything we eat. I usually can’t bring myself to use quite the full amount of oil when Kiddy isn’t around. But when she is cooking, I would guess that she uses at least a half cup of oil per recipe. (This is another thing I should mention- Kiddy (and the other Ethiopians I know) does not measure anything while cooking. Quantities are just eyeballed. I’ve encouraged her to use measuring spoons and cups so that I can replicate her recipes when she isn’t around and she is very helpful and willing to do so, but that’s just not the way she’s accustomed to cooking. I have gotten used to that and am now able to cook without being completely chained to a recipe and measuring utensils, but my recipes might not be precise enough for others to follow. Leave a comment and let me know if you need more specific information about any of the recipes and I’ll do my best to help.)
After adding the oil, we add the spice. As I mentioned before, that’s usually either berbere or turmeric. Each ingredient afterwards (vegetables, lentils, etc.) is added separately and given time to soak in before the next ingredient. I like this method because I think it allows all of the flavors to meld together evenly. Then at the end of cooking, we add the ginger and the garlic. Those are key ingredients and by adding them near the end, they keep most of their flavor without being too pungent.
So, to recap and simplify:
-Cook the onions first until they start to soften.
-Add the oil. More than you think. WAAAAY more than you think.
-Let the oil and onion simmer a few minutes, maybe five or so, on medium heat.
-Add the spice, usually either berbere or turmeric.
-Let the spice, oil, and onions cook together for several more minutes.
-Add the other ingredients, one at a time (but hold off on the garlic and ginger), and give each ingredient time to simmer before adding the next.
-Add the garlic and ginger at the end, and cook for another ten minutes or so.
When it’s finished, pig out and wish you made more :) I’ll post several of the recipes I have, but these are the basics of “how to” cook Ethiopian food as I’ve been taught. I’ve found that now that I am familiar with the methods involved, I am able to learn how to make new recipes much more confidently and without the need for precise directions.