An Ancient Cuisine, Rediscovered
by Sala Levin
Ethiopian food, famous for its spicy stews and the spongy flatbread called injera, burst onto the international food scene—especially in the United States—in the 1970s and 1980s, when thousands of Ethiopians fled political turmoil in their home country. When Ethiopia’s Jews were airlifted to Israel during Israeli and American government operations from the 1970s to the 1990s, they brought their food with them.
Jews’ history in Ethiopia goes back centuries, with several competing theories as to how they came to Africa. The Beta Israel, as Ethiopian Jews are known, believe themselves to be descendants of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, or else descendants of the lost tribe of Dan. Other theories contend that the community is a result of migration, perhaps a voluntary or forced migration of Yemenite Jews in the last centuries before the Common Era. Still others suggest that the group is an offshoot of Christian Ethiopians, many of whom kept a Sabbath and observed other biblical injunctions.
Much of the cuisine of the Beta Israel mirrors the food eaten by Ethiopians at large—a common theme historically for Jews around the world, from Eastern Europe to the Mediterranean. Injera, the slightly sour bread that serves as an indispensable component of every Ethiopian meal, is made from flour ground from teff—a species of grass native to Ethiopia and a nutritional powerhouse, providing fiber, protein and calcium. Injera is both plate and utensil—the food is ladled onto it and diners use their hands to tear off pieces of the bread with which to scoop up the meal. Berbere, a mix of spices and chilies, is an essential component of wot, the spicy stew that is the national dish of Ethiopia. Ethiopians make wot (always eaten with injera) with a variety of ingredients, such as chicken, beef, lamb or fish; vegetarian versions include chickpeas, lentils or split peas.
Ethiopian Jews, many of whom lived in poverty in small villages, often couldn’t afford much meat, and would frequently eat chickpea wots during the week. On Shabbat, however, doro wot, made with chicken, was a common sign of celebration; wots made of beef or lamb were also sometimes eaten. Lamb was especially highly prized. “It’s prestigious to slaughter a lamb” at significant events, says Shalva Weil, a researcher at Hebrew University and editor of Beta Israel: The Jews of Ethiopia and Beyond. Wedding celebrations or memorial ceremonies after a death might include the slaughter of a lamb if the hosts were wealthy enough to afford it; hosts would bake injeras for all the guests and a lamb wot, called beg wot, would be prepared. Passover, too, is “a lamb holiday,” says Beejy Barhany, an Ethiopian Jew who left her village in Ethiopia for Israel as a child and later settled in New York City, where she owns the Ethiopian-Mediterranean restaurant Tsion Cafe. Steven Kaplan, professor of comparative religion at Hebrew University, points to one reason for lamb’s popularity in Ethiopia: its utility. “People are basically eating meat that they slaughter themselves and that they eat fairly quickly because they don’t have refrigeration,” he explains, making a lamb practical for its size.
Ethiopian Jews’ relationship with meat highlights a facet of their religious observance: their style of keeping kosher. In Ethiopia, keeping kosher was often an essentially invisible practice—pork and shellfish aren’t widely eaten by anyone in the African country—and Jews didn’t partake in kitfo, the popular national dish of raw beef. Historically, the Beta Israel “weren’t familiar with rabbinic law,” says Kaplan, and therefore their kashrut laws came directly from the Bible. As a result, prohibitions against eating meat and dairy together weren’t part of the Beta Israel culture.
This has largely changed over the past three or four decades, as Ethiopian Jews in Israel and the United States have interacted with Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews and taken on the widely accepted laws of kashrut. Still, “there have certainly been cases in Israel of Ethiopian Jews doing their own shechita [ritual slaughter] because they weren’t sure if rabbinic slaughtering of animals was sufficient for them,” says Kaplan.
Another typical celebratory food is dabo, a spiced honey-flavored bread baked for Shabbat and other holidays. Dabo (Amharic for “bread”) is “kind of sweet and almost like a challah,” says Barhany. Unlike injera, which is made of teff, dabo is wheat-based, making it a rarity among Ethiopian breads. In the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, the late Gil Marks describes dabo as “lightly sweetened with honey, which was rather abundant in Ethiopia, and lightly spiced with coriander and sometimes cardamom, cinnamon, cloves or fenugreek.” Weil notes that at the end of the Beta Israel holiday Sigd, which takes place 50 days after Yom Kippur, the community’s priests, known as kesim, bless the dabo with the hamotzi and then distribute it to the assemblage.
In Ethiopia, the Beta Israel also took part in the classic national custom of coffee-drinking. “It’s very important in Ethiopian culture to drink coffee,” says Weil. So central is coffee to Ethiopia that many believe the word “coffee” comes from the Ethiopian region Kaffa, from which the coffee bean plant was first exported to Arabia. A major part of Ethiopian coffee culture is the traditional coffee ceremony, which takes place three times a day and involves an elaborate system of roasting the coffee beans and brewing the coffee in a special clay pot called a jebena.
Although the Beta Israel have lived in Israel for decades, Ethiopian food is just beginning to take off in the Israeli culinary scene. A handful of restaurants, such as Dire in Jerusalem and Habash in Tel Aviv, serve up wots and injera to locals and tourists alike. Barhany hopes the current fervor for healthy eating bodes well for the future of Ethiopian food in Israel. The cuisine is largely unprocessed and vegetable-rich—land-to-table before farm-to-table even existed. “I think people need to know about the health benefits of Ethiopian cuisine,” says Barhany. Injera, among its other virtues, is gluten-free—a bread truly ahead of its time.—Sala Levin
from Gil Marks’s Encyclopedia of Jewish Food
makes 4 to 6 servings
5 large red or yellow onions, minced • ½ cup vegetable oil
3 to 4 cloves garlic, minced • 1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
2 to 4 tablespoons berbere (Ethiopian chili powder)
1 cup water • 1 cup tomato sauce
About 1 teaspoon salt • About 1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 (3- to 4-pound) chicken, cut into 12 pieces, or 6 chicken thighs and 6 drumsticks
4 to 6 hard-boiled eggs, peeled
1. In a dry large skillet or pot, cook the onions over medium heat, stirring constantly, until they begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Do not burn.
2. Add the oil. When it begins to sputter, add the garlic, ginger and berbere and sauté until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add ½ cup water. Add the tomato sauce, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil and cook, stirring constantly, until the liquid is reduced to the consistency of heavy cream, about 8 minutes.
3. Add the chicken and toss until well coated, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the remaining ½ cup water. Cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the chicken is tender, about 30 minutes. Add a little more water if the liquid reduces too much.
4. With a toothpick or the tines of a fork, pierce ½-inch-deep holes over the surface of each egg. Add the eggs to the chicken, turn gently in the sauce, and heat through, about 5 minutes.