Advertisement

MARKETS : Cooking <i> T’ibs </i> From Ethiopia

Share via

The rich, perfumed cuisine of Ethiopia uses complex spice blends that often include exotica such as bishop’s weed, rue and grain of paradise. This sounds just a tad intimidating, but modern Ethiopian cooks are as convenience-minded as other shoppers. What’s more, Southern California’s Ethiopian food shops have started to pay attention. Los Angeles Ethiopian markets Selam and Merkato, for instance, prepare spice blends and sauces that one shopper told me are “as easy to use as Ragu sauce.”

Both places are in the Pico-Fairfax district, where a cluster of restaurants and cafes make up the Little Ethiopia business district. Both have cooking facilities and a thriving take-out business, so they can prepare convenience products in their own kitchens.

Apart from the spice mixtures, one of the handiest items is injera , a washcloth-thin griddle bread that is tasty and versatile and as basic to Ethiopia as rice is to Asia, but fiendishly tricky to make.

Advertisement

The cuisine is famous for dishes called wet’s (since the short e is a rather vague vowel in Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia, you may also see wet’ spelled wat’ or wot’ ). These are rich, highly seasoned stews based on meat or legumes, and injera is the perfect thing for sopping them up. Once you have your wet’ flavorings and your injera , putting together a splashy Ethiopian meal is a snap.

*

Selam Market and Deli, 5409 W. Pico Blvd. Los Angeles, (213) 935-5567. Open Thursday to Tuesday, 9 a.m . to 8 p.m .

Selam Market and Deli used to be an Ethiopian butcher shop. It became a deli last October when Amsalework Asfaw bought the business. When she first came to Los Angeles, Asfaw expressed her passion for cooking by working at Adolis Restaurant (now Rosalind’s). Now she prepares the store’s cooked-to-order dishes and a line of homemade products. She also sells the cuts of meat used in Ethiopian dishes. Many of these are served raw and the meat must be completely lean and trimmed of exterior fat.

Selam’s decor can only be called utilitarian. A lot of ingredients are sold in bulk: squat barrels of various ground peppers, bins of grains and beans. The predominating earth tones are brightened only by containers of fire-engine red berbere spice mix.

On a Wednesday, when the store is closed, Asfaw and her aunt wear aprons drenched in chile powder--they are preparing the store’s seasonings. The air in the room crackles with red pepper dust, the merest whiff of which tingles the nose.

On a long table, the women blend several small mountains of spices with ground chiles, then mix them with fresh ginger and garlic in a huge washtub-sized pot. Dillih , as this sauce is called, is packed under a film of oil to keep its fresh taste from oxidizing.

Meanwhile, 110 pounds of spiced butter bubble away in two huge pots on the back of the stove. A few hours later, when the spices have settled, along with the butter’s milky whey, the clear, seasoned butterfat will be scooped into clean containers. This clarified butter, called nit’ir k’ibe , is similar to the unseasoned ghee of India and is used much the same way.

Shopping List

SPICES AND SPICE MIXTURES

Berbere Mix: In Amharic, berbere simply means red pepper. Selam sells several kinds of ground red pepper that you scoop from large containers. But these should not be confused with berbere mix, which is a blend of seasonings basic to many dishes. Of all the chile-spiced Ethiopian seasoning blends, berbere mix is the mildest. Asfaw’s version uses cayenne, tempered with plenty of mild paprika and semi-hot New Mexico chiles. Some Ethiopian recipes call for berbere mix, while others list all the spices individually. In the latter case, I don’t bother to follow the recipe but simply total up the number of teaspoons, tablespoons or cups of seasoning called for and use an equal amount of berbere mix (or less if I don’t want the dish too spicy).

Dillih: Even easier to use than berbere is dillih , a paste made from berbere , fresh garlic and ginger with water. To use it in a wet’ , I have followed the recipes in “Exotic Ethiopian Cooking” by Daniel Jote Mesfin, replacing the garlic and ginger with dillih . Then all you have to do is fry onions (Ethiopian recipes invariably call for sauteing onions slowly without any oil or butter), add meat or chicken, the dillih and perhaps some water and cook. Seasoned butter is usually added later.

Mit’mit’a: Like berbere , mit’mit’a is a dry seasoning mix based primarily on tiny, very hot chiles. Since it contains no mild peppers, it’s much hotter than berbere . Ethiopians use mit’mit’a in cooking or as a dry condiment to sprinkle over their popular raw meat dishes. Mit’mit’a is sold in plastic bags of four- and eight-ounce portions.

Awaze: The wet form of mit’mit’a is awaze . The dry spice mix is blended with fresh garlic and ginger to make a thick paste. It’s at least twice as hot as dillih and is often served as a table condiment as well as a seasoning for cooked food. Awaze is packed in half-pint containers.

Nit’ir k’ibe: The flavor of this spiced, clarified butter will be best if you don’t store it in a refrigerator. Because it’s pure butterfat, with no milk solids, it won’t spoil quickly, but do refrigerate it if you plan to keep it for more than 10 days.

TAKE-OUT AND DELI

Injera: Injera is more than a bread. At the Ethiopian table, it replaces both plate and fork. Food is served mounded on top of injera , and to pick it up, diners tear off swatches of more injera .

The batter for injera --a blend of wheat flour, t’ef flour and water--sits overnight in tall barrel-like containers. ( T’ef , the preferred grain for injera is a tiny seed; Indiana-grown domestic, t’ef finally became available a few years ago.) It ferments slightly, which gives the bread its distinctive, slightly sour tang. Each injera is cooked by the same method as a French crepe: swirled in a thin stream onto a hot, round non-stick pan then covered for a few seconds until it develops a network of tiny bubbles. These give the sponge-like bread its sopping-up power.

Timatim Fitfit: Fitfits are torn-up pieces of injera mixed with a flavoring (often a wet’ ). Timatim , which means “tomato,” gives its name to a fitfit rather like a bread salad filled with the sparkling flavor combination of minced tomato, chopped fresh jalapen~os, onion and a berbere -spiked dressing.

Asfaw also makes k’wanta fitfit, a stewy blend of diced Ethiopian-style beef jerky with shredded injera and cooked tomatoes in a dillih -laced sauce.

Kitfo: Ethiopians love this finely minced, very lean beef, which is usually (but not always) served raw. It’s a sort of Ethiopian version of steak tartare. Traditionally the meat is blended with warmed nit’ir k’ibe and awaze , but Asfaw prepares it with a special spiced butter she makes just for this dish. The usual accompaniment is fresh Ethiopian-style cottage cheese, here made daily from clabbered buttermilk with the whey drained away.

Advertisement

T’ibs: This is something like a Chinese stir-fry (by the way, the word isn’t plural--it sounds almost like tips , with a catch in the throat after the t ). For awaze t’ibs, lean cubes of beef are seared and tossed with dry-fried onions, tomatoes and dillih so the flavors remain clear and separate. Another version, k’arya t’ibs, omits the spicy red dillih but includes thick slices of jalapen~o. At Selam, t’ibs is always accompanied with the bread salad tematem fitfit .

K’wirt: Ethiopia’s answer to Boy Food is a legacy of the days when only men ate raw meat, passing a chunk of it around the table. To cut off a bite, each diner grabbed the end of the meat with his teeth while slicing upward with a sharp knife, barely missing his nose. Selam serves the meat a little more daintily. It’s sliced and accompanied with a mound of mit’mit’a , a spoonful of awaze for dipping . . . and, of course, injera .

Vegetarian Dishes: Although Selam started out specializing in Ethiopian meat dishes, Asfaw finds she has many vegetarian customers. She often prepares the meatless dishes that are eaten on the Ethiopian Coptic Church’s fast days (there are 208 in the year). Along with timatim fitfit and fresh cottage cheese, there might be a tomato-onion salad dressed with a little awaze and dillih or the ultra-spicy yeshiro wet’ , a soupy blend of spiced yellow pea flour cooked with fried onions and chile; it resembles an Indian dal .

GRAINS, BEANS, SPICES

Abish: Selam stocks whole and ground fenugreek seeds ( abish ) in the bins under the spice shelves. Ground fenugreek powder is used for abish mit’ad , which is rather like a milkshake. Asfaw’s husband, Samuel, makes it by mixing the powder with plenty of water and allowing it to soak overnight to remove the bitterness. “It’s very important to pour off absolutely all the water,” he says. He then takes a small portion of the soaked powder and mixes it in a blender with honey, milk and crushed ice.

Fenugreek seeds also season nit’ir k’ibe and many legume dishes.

Flax Seeds: For thickening soups, flax seeds are first skillet-roasted then ground to a powder in a blender or with a mortar and pestle. The powder is also a major ingredient in telba fitfit , a popular hot weather dish served chilled that people also often eat when fasting. Telba fitfit consists of dried injera broken into small pieces and soaked in water, flavored with blend of ground roasted flax seeds and berbere.

Tea Spices: Ethiopians flavor tea with spices, and Selam sells the cloves, cinnamon bark and whole cardamom that are used. Some cooks use just one of the spices, others combine all three.

Sinde and Shimbra: Snacking is a critical part of Ethiopian eating because a full-scale meal may only be served twice or even once a day. The nourishing snacks that keep everyone going are crunchy roasted grains or legumes, Ethiopia’s equivalent of potato chips or popcorn. Sinde is pan-roasted whole-wheat kernels. Selam also sells shimbra , the tiniest chickpeas I’ve ever seen--smaller than a green pea. Before roasting in an oven, first boil in water for about 10 minutes and dry well. Some cooks add salt as the chickpeas cook.

*

Merkato, 1036 1/2 S. Fairfax Ave . , Los Angeles, (213) 935-1775. Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.

Merkato, a long, thin shoebox of a store, is a microcosm of the huge Merkato marketplace in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. There in the market halls you find everything from food and traditionally made crafts to boom boxes. L.A.’s Merkato likewise manages to fill every inch with an enormous jumble.

Advertisement

To the strains of the Ethiopian music constantly playing on a stereo, you can browse through racks of traditional women’s garments, jewelry, gifts, music cassettes and books that include one of the few Ethiopian cookbooks printed in English. At the back is a minuscule food market with a refrigerator case and several tables that make up a sort of impromptu cafe.

As you might imagine, Merkato carries many of the same staple foods and take-out items found at Selam. But it makes its own distinctive blends of berbere , mit’mit’a , awaze and nit’ir k’ibe , and its spice selection is a little more complete.

Shopping List

SHELF STAPLES

Ambasha: Somewhat like a coffee cake but a lot less sweet, ambasha is an Ethiopian pan bread. The hefty two-pound loaf is scattered throughout with a few raisins and tiny black nigella seeds that sweeten it slightly. It’s delicious for breakfast or with strong Ethiopian-style coffee.

Yeshiro Wet’ Mix: Yellow pea flour blended with a long list of seasonings makes yeshiro wet’ a practically instant vegetarian meal. In Merkato’s cafe they cook it with fried onions, thick slices of fresh jalapen~o and tomatoes.

To make yeshiro wet’ at home, fry the vegetables and gradually sprinkle the mix into boiling water to get a thick porridge-like consistency (about two cups mix to two and a half cups water). Then simmer the mixture with the vegetables for a few minutes. Although the mix is spicy, some cooks add a little extra kick with mit’mit’a . Serve with plenty of injera for sopping.

T’ef Flour: Stacked to the right of the spices are pillow-like plastic bags of grayish-tan t’ef flour. In Ethiopia the flour is often used on its own because that’s all that’s available. But injera made strictly from t’ef is a stiffer, coarser bread than what you’ll sample here or in restaurants. When wheat flour is available, Ethiopian cooks prefer to blend it, using about 40% t’ef flour. The t’ef flavor still predominates, but the bread is lighter and more flexible, making it easier to use for picking up food.

Awaze Jam: Merkato makes its awaze paste two ways. For cooking, it mixes mit’mit’a with red wine. Another version, a blend of mit’mit’a and Greek ouzo is used as a condiment like Indonesian sambal . They serve this alongside t’ire siga , the sliced raw meat dish.

Injera Chips: These hunks of dried injera in potato-chip-sized bags are always handy to have around for making impromptu fitfit dishes.

SPICES

Rue: You’d never know it by looking at the little rue plant that grows by Merkato’s front door, but rue is a distant relative of citrus, and its bitter leaves have medicinal uses in many cultures. Ethiopian cooks do sometimes use the leaves as seasonings, but it’s the dried flower pods (which resemble large cloves) that they put into berbere , awaze , yeshiro mix and many other dishes. Unlike cloves these pods have an herbaceous, slightly bitter flavor.

Bishop’s Weed: These tiny grass seeds, known as nech’ azmud in Amharic, look very much like celery seeds but have a sharp, tart flavor. Some cooks use bishop’s weed in their berbere mix and in t’ik’ur k’arya awaze , an awaze made with green instead of red peppers.

Senafich: Grainy and gray, this potent mustard seed powder is mixed with water and served as a table condiment. It’s especially popular during the 40 fasting days before Lent. But the mustard’s most popular use (at Merkato anyway) is as a dip served with t’ire siga along with ouzo-laced awaze as a second dip.

Gesho and Barley Malt: Many Ethiopians make their own t’ej , a honey-based wine known in English as mead. T’ej can be flavored with lemon, coffee or even ripe bananas. The most popular flavoring, gesho , is woody hop stems.

Another favorite home brew, t’ella , is often called Ethiopian beer though it resembles what we know as beer only slightly. Based on roasted barley with malt (also sold here), the brew is flavored with gesho leaves, instead of the woodier stems used in t’ej .

TAKE-OUT AND CAFE

Kitfo: Merkato’s owner wants everyone to know that although this minced beef dish is often served raw, it is equally delicious as kitfo lemlem (cooked slightly rare) or kitfo lebleb (cooked medium) . . . or even cooked well done. The important thing is the spiced butter and a touch of the blazing-hot mit’mit’a that makes the meat flavor sing. At Merkato the cooks mince up sirloin tip completely stripped of all fat for the dish.

Advertisement

Gored gored: Another meat dish that is equally delicious rare or well cooked, gored gored comes in the form of tiny beef cubes drenched with nit’ir k’ibe , chopped fresh green chiles, onions and spiced butter. Merkato seasons the dish with mit’mit’a and its special awaze mixed with red wine.

Advertisement