Friday, March 16, 2012

Recipe: Ethiopian Beef Wat with Berbere Sauce and Lentils

Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are. – Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

Spicy and delicious.
I don’t understand people who aren’t adventurous in the kitchen. In my mind it’s akin to not being interested in the whole cultures of other ethnic groups: their art, architecture, customs, etc. It strikes to the heart of inquisitiveness.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has been influential in the daily
culinary life of Ethiopians. Photo: Alik Shahaf, Flickr ccl
Why on earth would you want to know only what’s familiar in your own culture? If we did that we would have very boring cuisine. We have few native herbs or spices that modern North American cooks would be familiar with. (That’s probably worth investigation, isn’t it...)

Where would we be without the influence of other cultures in our kitchens? Our main influence is, of course, Europe due to the origins of many of us who live here. A stellar example is Italy. But where would we be without Asia? See what I mean?

I’m always on the lookout for original (or close) recipes from other nationalities. One culture that I haven’t much experience with is Ethiopia. There is an Ethiopian restaurant close to where I live that piques my interest every time I drive by.

Much farming is subsistence. Photo: neiljs, Flickr ccl
I’ve never eaten there, but I hear the food is very good. So why shouldn’t we try to make some authentic Ethiopian food at home? It definitely would be cheaper than dining out…

Ethiopian food has influences from several ancient and modern cultures. Ethiopia’s ancient name was Abyssinia. Because of the mountainous location the country was able to avoid much of the invasions of other adjacent countries over the years so its cuisine is different than other parts of Africa. But influence did arrive in the form of trade. Portugal brought chillies and via India came exotic spices.

Much of agriculture and animal husbandry in Ethiopia is subsistence (raising what you need to survive). There is also bee-keeping which produces honey – common in much of their food. Coffee is Ethiopia’s main export crop.

This is my berbere sauce.
From Wikipedia:
Ethiopian food mostly consists of breads, stews (known as Wat), grains, and spices. Typically, an Ethiopian meal consists of a combination of injera (flatbread) with different wats, yet each diverse cultural group has their unique variation. A typical snack would be baked small pieces of bread called dabo kollo or local grains called kollo. Pasta is frequently available throughout Ethiopia, including rural areas. Coffee is also a large part of Ethiopian culture/cuisine, after every meal a coffee ceremony is enacted and espresso coffee is drunk.

Berbere, a combination of powdered chili pepper and other spices (somewhat analogous to Southwestern American chili powder), is an important ingredient used in many dishes. Also essential is niter kibbeh, a clarified butter infused with ginger, garlic, and several spices.

Wat stews all begin with a large amount of chopped red onion, which are simmered or sauteed in a pot. Once the onions have softened, niter kebbeh (or, in the case of vegan dishes, vegetable oil) is added.

There are quite a few vegetarian dishes in Ethiopian cuisine due to the fact that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church prescribes fasting days on Wednesdays and Fridays plus others (200 days per year). Home cooks have become very adept at infusing great flavours without the use of meat or animal products.

This dish is not vegetarian, as you can see. This particular recipe has a fair amount of kick too. You can adjust that fire by reducing the number of green chillies, or removing the seeds and ribs before using.

But why do that? It’s always exciting to get a “taste” of a culture in the form of their food. It adds diversity to your meals. There’s nothing worse than serving the same dish over and over and over. Expand your repertoire and experience the world while standing in your kitchen.

Ethiopian Beef Wat with Berbere Sauce and Lentils
Prep: 15 min  |  Cook: 25 min  |  Serves 4
1-1/2 tsp cracked black pepper
1 tsp ground cardamom
1/2 tsp ground allspice
1/4 tsp ground turmeric
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp salt
3 long green chiles
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 tbsp fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
4 garlic cloves
1/4 cup red wine
1 lb beef steak
2 tbsp oil
2 cups red (or yellow) onion
1-1/2 cups green lentils

Make the berbere first. Purée the spices, chillies, ginger, garlic and wine into to a paste in a food processor.

Cook the lentils in salted water according to package directions

Heat the oil in a Dutch oven or large sauté pan. Cut the beef into bite-sized strips. Brown the beef in the oil and then remove to a dish.

Next add the onion and red pepper to the oil and sauté until softened. Then add the berbere sauce and bring to a boil. Let the sauce reduce slightly and then add the beef strips back to the pot.

Continue to cook the beef and sauce until it is quite thick and coats the beef well.

Serve the wat atop the lentils.


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  1. A couple of questions, if you don't mind.
    1. How is the red pepper used? It is not included in any of the instructions.
    2. What is the correct measurement of cumin (1/4 tsp or 1/2 tsp)?
    3. Ground cardamom is listed twice with 2 different measurements. Are both needed? One? Which measurement?

    Thank you

  2. Wow. I was a sleep at the switch with mu ingredients list wasn't I? Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

    The recipe and directions have been corrected.

  3. It is absolutely delicious, BTW.