Getting Started with Ethiopian Cooking

I can’t quite remember the first time I had Ethiopian cooking, although I seem to think it probably happened when I moved into the city, about 11 years ago now. I can’t even remember when I decided I liked it more than Mexican, which is a close second for my favorite ethnic food, barely ahead of Indian. I do remember New ERA Bar though, in Fairmount, being re-opened by an Ethiopian family and I do remember being very happy about it.

Kate and I moved to West Philly in 2008, and for those you reading who know the neighborhoods and who know food, West Philly is ground zero for Ethiopian cooking. In the mid-40s along Baltimore Ave there are several really great African groceries and Ethiopian eateries. Sometime in the past year or so I decided that, since we probably won’t live in this neighborhood forever, I should leave here having learned something. And I decided that would be how to cook Ethiopian food. After talking about it for a while, I finally acted this weekend.

There are a couple of core elements to Ethiopian cooking that must be mastered before anything else. Those three things are injira, berberé paste, and niter kibbeh.

To help get your mind around the importance of these items, think of it this way: injira is to Ethiopian cooking as a tortilla shell is to Mexican food; berberé is to Ethiopian as curry is to Indian food; and, niter kibbeh is fragrant, spice-infused clarified butter that is usued anytime you want to keep something from sticking to a pan or burning. Once these three things are perfected, you are all set to make just about any Ethiopian dish you may encounter on Baltimore Avenue in West Philly.


Injira is a yeast-risen flatbread with a unique, slightly spongy texture. Traditionally made out of teff flour, it is a national dish in Ethiopia and Eritrea. It has a slightly sourdough taste to it, depending upon how long you let ferment, which is usually 1-3 days. The meal is traditionally served on top of a large, round piece of injira and the food is then consumed by picking up pieces of the food by hand, using the injira as a substitute for a spoon. Since a lot of Ethiopian food resembles something akin to a stew, you can imagine how messy it can be at times.

This should be adequate for a  four person meal.


- 1 cup teff flour
- 1 cup water
- a pinch of salt
- peanut or vegetable oil

Putting it together:

1. Put the teff flour in the bottom of a mixing bowl 
2. Slowly add the water, stirring to avoid lumps.
3. Put the batter aside for a day or more (up to three days) to allow it to ferment. In this time, your injera batter will start to bubble and acquire the slight tanginess for which it’s known. Note: If you find that your injera batter does not ferment on its own, try adding a teaspoon of yeast.
4. Stir in the salt.
5. Heat a nonstick pan or lightly oiled cast-iron skillet until a water
drop dances on the surface. Make sure the surface of the pan is smooth: Otherwise, your injera might fall apart when you try to remove it.
6. Coat the pan with a thin layer of batter. Injera should be thicker than a crêpe, but not as thick as a traditional pancake. It will rise slightly when it heats.
7. Cook until holes appear on the surface of the bread. Once the surface is dry, remove the bread from the pan and let it cool.

Niter Kibbeh

Niter kibbeh is a seasoned clarified butter used in Ethiopian cooking. Its preparation is similar to that of ghee, which is used in south asian cooking, but niter kebbeh is simmered with spices such as cumin, coriander, turmeric, cardamom, cinnamon, or nutmeg before straining. This imparts a distinct spicy aroma to it. In Somaliland it is known as Subag Soomaali and is extensively produced and used in cooking in households and to preserve meats in nomadic culture. The ingredients are a bit different as Somalis use as well as fresh butter, garlic, cardomom and cloves. Essentially, any time you might want to put oil or butter in a pan, niter kibbeh is what you go to. The cultural utility of it is obviously that it is a dairy product yet requires no refrigeration, although we’ll be doing so anyway, and I’d suggest you do the same. Just to be safe.

This should makes about 2 cups. A typical 4 person portion of doro wat usually would only require about 1/8 of a cup so this recipe should get you a long way.


-Unsalted butter – 1 pound
-Onion, chopped – 1/2
-Garlic, crushed – 2-3 cloves
-Gingerroot, cut into 1/4-inch slices — 2-3 pieces
-Cardamom pods – 3-4
-Cinnamon stick – 1
-Whole cloves – 3-4
-Fenugreek seeds – 1 teaspoon
-Turmeric – 1/2 teaspoon

Putting it together:

1.Place the butter in a small saucepan and melt over low heat. Add the remaining ingredients and simmer on the lowest possible heat for about 1 hour.
2.Pour the clear golden liquid off the top leaving all the solids in the bottom of the pan. Strain through cheesecloth if necessary. Discard solids.
3.Store in the refrigerator or freezer and use as needed.

Berberé Paste

This should make about 1.5 cups. A typical 4 person serving of doro wat requires about 1/8 of a cup, so this should be sufficient to freeze.


- Whole cumin – 2 teaspoons
- Red pepper flakes – 1-2 teaspoons
- Cardamom seeds – 1 teaspoon
- Fenugreek seeds – 1 teaspoon
- Whole peppercorns – 8
- Allspice – 2 teaspoons
- Whole cloves – 4
- Onion, chopped – 1
- Garlic, crushed – 3 cloves
- Paprika – 1 tablespoon
- Salt – 1 tablespoon
- Ginger, ground – 1 teaspoon
- Turmeric – 1 teaspoon
- Cayenne pepper – 1/2 to 1 teaspoon
- Nutmeg – 1/2 teaspoon
- Oil – 1/2 cup
- Water or red wine – 1/4 cup

Putting it together:

1.Heat a skillet over medium flame. Add the whole spices and toast, stirring for about 2-3 minutes until they give off their aroma. Do not burn. Remove from heat.
2.Put the spices into a spice or coffee grinder and grind to a powder.
3.Put the ground toasted spices into a food processor or blender along with the remaining ingredients and process until smooth.
4.Store in the refrigerator for up to a week or freeze portions for later use.

Now that we have the prerequisites down, I’ll return later with a post on how to make sik sik wat, which is a sort of beef stew that similar to the national dish of Ethiopia, doro wat.

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