I count myself lucky to live in a multicultural pocket of Melbourne. Footscray is particularly rich with Vietnamese and African communities, and when COVID hit I felt luckier than ever. As restaurants closed and we had to stick to our homes and neighbourhoods for months, I relished all the magical little food shops and groceries that stayed open. I made a short video about living and cooking in Footscray if you want to take a look! [Jump to my IGTV here.] The injera bakeries are my favourite, especially one, where the Ethiopian ladies behind the counter smile so broadly when you enter. My face cracks open too – no matter that we are all wearing masks; you can feel it.
The injera is beautiful in itself, especially now you can get it in three colours like neopolitan ice-cream – white (wheat), pink (sorghum) and brown (teff). I specially ordered a mixed packet a day in advance just so I could take a photo of the three colours together! Teff and sorghum are the ones I usually buy – I love their colour, plus they have more flavour and are healthier 🤎
For a long while I’ve taken to buying a packet of injera, then making a couple of different veggie dishes for dinner, with enough for leftovers the next day. Ethiopian food has to be one of the world’s healthiest cuisines, because it is so strong on vegetables and legumes. I am not an expert, but from what I know, I would say that some of the cornerstones of Ethiopian food are butter, much onion, and spices. Yum! Ethiopian recipes are fairly simple and can easily be made vegan – though I think butter does add a luxurious dimension.
I own a book called Ethiopia: Recipes and Traditions from the Horn of Africa by Yohanis Gebreyesus, which is a cookbook also with beautiful photography of the country and so much interesting info about the food and culture. It is a gem and I highly recommend it. One of my favourite features is a little map showing how the spiced clarified butter called niter kibbeh varies with different flavours and techniques across the country. I found the pumpkin recipe below in this book.
If you don’t have an injera bakery near you, you could still make the recipes and enjoy them with rice or other bread. Or, have a go at making injera by finding a recipe online? It’s a sourdough, so all you have to do is get going on it some days in advance, then have fun watching it bubble and come to life.
And if you can’t get the spice mix called berbere (also from Ethiopian bakeries and grocers), then you could try my homemade version below, using spices that are probably lurking in your pantry already.
When the berbere hits the buttery onions, the dish becomes unmistakably and deliciously Ethiopian. Strangely enough, in visuals, aroma and taste, this pumpkin stew called duba wat reminds me of the famous doro wat – a chicken stew that is made with a dazzling amount of onions (i.e. 3 kilograms!) and often has hardboiled eggs in it. I tried making that once to see what it was like, and it was delicious, but I knew it was never going to become everyday food for us. This, however, is easy and wonderful any day of the week.
I found the recipe in Yohanis Gebreyesus’ book (see above), and was very excited to try it as I’ve never seen a pumpkin dish on the menu at an Ethiopian restaurant. It’s become a big favourite, and I’ve doubled Gebreyesus’ original recipe and added butter. I wouldn’t go back to making a smaller quantity because it’s so nice to have leftovers.
50 g butter
generous splash of oil
2 large onions, diced
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1½ tablespoons berbere spice mix (store-bought or see my recipe below)
8 cardamom pods, cracked open, husks removed, seeds ground
1 kg pumpkin, seeded and skin removed, cut into 3–4 cm chunks
Combine the butter, oil and onion in large saucepan and place over medium heat. Allow the pan to heat up and the butter to melt until the onions are frying gently. Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring regularly, until the onions are soft and lightly golden. Add the garlic, berbere and cardamom and cook, stirring, for another minute or two.
Add the pumpkin pieces and enough water to come about halfway up the pumpkin (don’t fully submerge it or the dish will be too watery). Also add 1 heaped teaspoon salt. Rest a lid on top of the pan ajar and bring to the boil, stirring occasionally to make sure the onions aren’t sticking to the bottom. Reduce the heat to medium and cook until the pumpkin has started to break down a little (there should still be chunks, but smaller), forming a sauce with the onion and spices. This should take about 30 minutes, but depends on what variety of pumpkin you are using, and how big you cut it. If the stew seems too liquidy, you can take the lid off the pan at any time to allow some water to evaporate. At the end, taste for salt, adding more if needed.
Cabbage and vegetables with turmeric and ginger
This is one of the classic dishes you find on the menu at an Ethiopian restaurant, and part of the spread when you order a platter. It’s gentle comfort food – cabbage and other vegetables (see options in bold below) are cooked until meltingly soft with butter, onion, garlic, turmeric, ginger. A bowl of this on its own, even without injera, makes a fine meal if you ask me!
The dish seems to go by a few names – sometimes tikil gomen (even though gomen actually means ‘collard greens’), and sometimes atakilt, which means ‘vegetable’. It could also be called an alicha, a mild stew without heavy spicing, i.e. no berbere. (Actually, some recipes for the dish seem to have no dried spices other than turmeric, while others have spices such as nigella, cardamom, mace, cumin, cloves, coriander and pepper. Some also have green chilli. If you want to add any of these to your version, go for it! I’ve added nigella seeds.)
I find you can vary the vegetables and do different combinations of two or three, depending what you have and what is in season. Cabbage, potato, beans, carrots and cauliflower are the vegetables I think work best. If using carrots, cut like the potatoes and add at the same time. If using cauliflower, cut into florets and add at the same time as the cabbage.
30 g butter
splash of oil
½ teaspoon nigella seeds (optional)
1 large onion, finely sliced
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 cm slice of ginger, finely chopped
1 teaspoon dried turmeric
2 medium potatoes (ideally a waxy variety that holds its shape), cut into bite-sized chunks
¼ white cabbage (not too large), finely sliced
handful of green beans
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Heat the butter and oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the nigella seeds (if using) and allow to sizzle for 20 seconds or so before stirring in the onion. Fry gently for about 10 minutes, stirring regularly, until soft and lightly golden. Add the garlic and ginger and cook, stirring, for another minute or two. Stir in the turmeric, then add the potatoes and 1 cup water. Cover with a lid and bring to a simmer. After a few minutes stir in the cabbage. Once the cabbage is well wilted, stir in the beans and 1 heaped teaspoon salt, plus some pepper. Cook until the vegetables are soft.
Berbere spice mix
Berbere is special Ethiopian blend of chilli and spices. This is the recipe I came up with for The Hungry Girls’ Cookbook Volume 2 (used with a fantastic lamb and tomato stir-fry called tibs).
I wrote the recipe because I know berbere can be hard to get your hands on, especially if you don’t live in a city with an Ethiopian community. And even if you do have Ethiopian shops nearby, you might not want to buy an entire large packet of berbere.
This berbere is milder than usual, with sweet paprika standing in for some of the chilli. You can use it in lots of other ways, such as sprinkled on vegetables before roasting, or in a soup (I like one with chickpeas, cauliflower and tomato). Or you can gift it in small jars to friends!
½ teaspoon fenugreek seeds
5 cardamom pods
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
½ teaspoon coriander seeds
½ teaspoon black peppercorns
½ teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon turmeric
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
¼ teaspoon allspice
1 tablespoon hot chilli flakes (if you have mild chilli flakes, then use more chilli and less paprika)
¼ cup sweet paprika
Grind the fenugreek seeds to a powder using a mortar and pestle – the bigger and heavier the mortar the better, as these seeds are tough. Add the cloves, seeds of the cardamom, cumin, coriander and peppercorns one at a time, grinding each to a powder with the fenugreek. Stir in the remaining ingredients. Store in a jar. This makes a little under ½ cup.