One thing that always baffles me about some people is their unwillingness to try something they had never tried before; I think being closed off to trying new things is a waste of life experiences. When people have said to me “I won’t eat that”, not out of principle or allergy restrictions, but because they didn’t know what it would taste like and that appeared to terrify them, I usually get really angry. “What do you mean, you won’t try mango? Who doesn’t love mango? It’s not like it’s a gross bug- do you have any idea what you are missing?!?” But, of course they don’t, or otherwise they would scarfle down that mango without any reservation. This has led me to try gorgonzola over and over again in the past, tentatively, as each time I did, it made me want to spit it out the instant it hit my mouth- maybe this time I’ll like it? Nope, just like every other time I’ve tried it, blue cheese is really gross (Sorry, gorgonzola lovers. To me it tastes like death. But at least I tried it!!).
This was why it was so dismaying to find myself, many years ago, sitting in this beautifully decorated Ethiopian restaurant, poking at the injera. “It looks like a bandaid!” I exclaimed like a whiny child, and for weeks after, I couldn’t stop thinking about the bandaid bread. Even though I don’t think I minded the flavor, the image was ruining it for me. I felt so narrow minded, like the non-mango tasting relative, missing out on the joys of life. But I finally got over it, urging myself to keep trying it. And it worked- I don’t see it as a bandaid anymore! Instead, it is a beautiful squishy fork that helps shovel one of my all-time favorite foods into my mouth. And it can really taste quite exquisite. My favorite one so far is the gluten-free injera made exclusively of teff flour (you have to ask for it specially) at Lalibela in Washington, DC. I love Lalibela- it is this little dingy place, and if you go, you will definitely be the only non-Ethiopian diner there (unless you are Ethiopian, in which case you will feel right at home). This place has the best vegetarian combo dish, and you can order a whole fried red snapper on the side that is simple but oh-so-tasty. The gluten free injera was even better than the original (which is made with a mixture of wheat flour and teff flour), as the teff flour manages to enhance the sour flavor, similar to the great Acme sourdough from San Francisco. Finding out that injera can be gluten free and taste amazing was such a relief- I wouldn’t be able to live all my life without eating Ethiopian food, it is simply too delicious to never eat again.
Yet even though I love Ethiopian food so much, I had never attempted to make it at home. In fact, that idea simply had not ever crossed my mind. Thinking back, I can’t believe that it never occurred to me, not even as a thought that I threw out for lack of knowledge or fear of complexity. So it surprised me when, as Valentine’s Day approached this year, the idea popped into my head! I wanted to make something very special at home, something filled with love and spices. I challenged myself to try to make an Ethiopian feast as a celebration. Obviously I needed to start with the injera, as this is the basis for the best Ethiopian meals- getting bad injera can really put a damper on the deliciousness. Turns out it’s not easy. You need several days to allow the teff to ferment, with many steps of stirring and sitting; I could just imagine accidentally knocking the bowl off the table three days into the process. It gave me the willies. Not only am I too much of a klutz, I also lack the patience to wait calmly for four days for the injera to ferment. But, fortunately, I soon found a 1-day gluten free injera recipe. Only one day of waiting! I can do that, I thought to myself. Well, turns out there is a reason why even Ethiopians go to purchase injera at the store. It is way more difficult than I could have ever imagined. Cooking it like a pancake on the stovetop generated a raised mass of disgusting brown dough, not cooked all the way through, sticking with all its might to the pan, tearing apart into strips the second I tried to lift it with a spatula. I tried with three different pans- non-stick, small, large- different amounts of oil, different thicknesses, etc… Nothing. At one point, a portion of the injera could be peeled off- it tasted really bad. Like uncooked sweet brown bread. Not at all like the squishy tender and thin tortilla-like sourdough that Lalibela consistently produces. It was an utter disaster. And the worst part was that I had no back up plan, and I had waited until all the other foods were ready to eat before attempting to cook it. So I had to place everything directly on the round dish I had bought especially for that occasion, and eat most of the food with my fork (how boring!!)- so I ate the fish with my hands in protest.
My recommendation to you? Make the foods listed below. But buy the injera at your local Ethiopian restaurant. It will be worth it. I also promise to try once more; this time with patience and caution I will attempt the 4-day recipe and let you know how that goes.
The meal is as follows: You have a fish, surrounded by several different vegetarian items. Each side dish has its own particular flavor, and they are all really easy to make. The difficult part is the timing- make sure you cook all of it in the right order so that they are ready together. However, don’t worry too much, because even if they have to sit on low heat for extra time the dishes will still taste great. The only exotic spice you will have to purchase for this meal is Berbere, which is a spice mixture that is typical in Ethiopian meals- I found it at my local food co-op. This feast will easily feed 4 people.
Main Dish: Berbere Red Snapper
Follow the Tandoori Fish recipe from my blog, but for the marinade use only the ingredients listed from Salt to Green Chilies, then add the following ingredients:
2 Tbsp Berbere
1 Tbsp Turmeric
2 Tbsp Crushed Garlic
Cook as otherwise directed. You can serve 2 fish if you have 4 guests.
Side Dish 1: Cabbage, Carrots and Potatoes (taken from Allrecipes)
2 Carrots, thinly sliced into oval medallions
1 Onion, thinly sliced into strips
1 tsp Sea Salt
1/2 tsp ground Black Pepper
1/2 tsp ground Cumin
1/4 tsp ground Turmeric
1/2 head of Cabbage, chopped thickly
2 medium sized Russet Potatoes, cut into 1-inch cubes
Heat a bit of coconut oil in a skillet over medium heat. Cook the carrots and onion in the hot oil about 5 minutes. Stir in the salt, pepper, cumin, turmeric, and cabbage and cook another 15 to 20 minutes. Add the potatoes; cover. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook until potatoes are soft, 20 to 30 minutes.
Side Dish 2: Berbere Spiced Lentils (adapted from TastyTrix. This recipe originally calls for red lentils, as they are commonly used in Ethiopian food. I use my favorite lentils instead, black beluga. They are small and cute!)
1 Tbsp Coconut Oil
1/4 Red Onion, minced
1 thumb Fresh Ginger, minced
3 cloves Garlic, minced
1 heaping Tbsp Berbere
1 cup Black Beluga Lentils (rinsed)
14 ounces Fire Roasted Tomatoes
2 cups Water
Salt & Pepper, to taste
Greek Yogurt and Cilantro, to garnish
In a medium saucepan, saute the onion and ginger in the coconut oil over medium heat until the onion is soft. Add the garlic and the berbere, stir to combine. Add the lentils and cook for a couple of minutes. Add the tomatoes and water, bring to a boil, lower the heat and simmer, covered, until the lentils are soft, about 25 minutes. Stir occasionally and if the lentils are drying out, add more liquid. Season with salt and pepper and serve with a dollop of yogurt and a garnish of cilantro.
Side Dish 3: Tomato Salad (Adapted from Just A Pinch. This typical Ethiopian salad is a refreshing side to the other spiced dishes.)
1/2 small Yellow Onion
1 small Jalapeño
Juice of 2 small Lemons
2 Tbsp White Vinegar
1 Tbsp Olive Oil
1 tsp Salt
1/8 tsp fresh Ground Pepper
Chop onions and tomatoes into thick cubes. Seed the jalapeño and dice finely, You can put the seeds in if you want it a little spicier. Mix dressing ingredients together until well combined. Pour dressing over veggies and stir together gently. Let stand for at least 10 minutes to let the flavors blend. Use a slotted spoon to serve.
Side Dish 4: Collard Greens (Interestingly, this dish ends up being a bit sweet and very lightly spiced. It’s a beautiful side dish. Adapted from IheartKale.)
1 Tbsp Coconut Oil
1/2 an Onion, minced
2 cloves Garlic, peeled but left whole
2 cloves Garlic, minced
1 bunch Collard Greens, finely chopped
1 tsp Berbere
1 cup Water
Salt to taste
Heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and all the garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5-7 minutes, until translucent and starting to brown. Stir in the berbere, saute for 30 seconds to coat onions, then add collard greens and saute a quick minute. Pour in the water and salt and simmer for about 15 minutes, until almost all of the water has evaporated. Transfer mixture to a blender or food processor and pulse until you have a thick puree. If your greens are on the bitter side, add a little more salt.