Location: The Horn of Africa
Population: 5 million
Geography: A mix of desert and fertile highlands and plains
Language: Tigrinya, Arabic, English (working languages — Eritrea has no official language)
Signature flavours: Teff, fenugreek, ginger, lentils, turmeric, berbere, lamb
Like Uruguay to Argentina, Guatemala to Mexico, Eritrean cuisine’s online presence is overshadowed somewhat by its better-known neighbour. Ethiopian restaurants abound in Toronto (it is my favourite kind of food, if I had to choose), and while there is quite a bit of overlap — Eritrea was a part of Ethiopia until 1993, after all — the distinct culinary traditions that Eric sought took a bit of looking.
Himbasha: A spiced bread made from a mix of wheat and teff flours, baked on the stovetop and scored for easy tearing.
Prep and cooking time: 2 hours
Hamli: Swiss chard sautéed with onions, garlic, and hot peppers.
Prep and cooking time: 15 min
Tikil Gomen Alicha: A stew of cabbage, carrot, and potato.
Prep and cooking time: 60 min
Tsebhi Birsen: A spicy red lentil stew, with fenugreek, nutmeg, cumin, cardamom, and cayenne.
Prep and cooking time: 1.5 hours
Ga’at: Cornmeal porridge served with Eritrean ghee (tesmi), berbere spice, and a buttermilk and yoghurt mix.
Prep and cooking time: 30 min
Tej: Eritrean mead (Eric used white wine as a base as opposed to fermenting the wine himself — that would have taken at least four weeks, according to online sources).
Prep and cooking time: 60 min (including chilling time)
The Shopping List
Kullubi Food and Spice, a corner store on Parliament street full of Ethiopian foodstuffs, provided berbere spice and nigella seeds. The elusive ground fenugreek was located at Kabul Farms. The many spices and varieties of flour came from Bulk Barn, and the rest of Eric’s ingredients were purchased at our local supermarket.
One of the reasons I like food from this region so much is that I love to eat with my hands. The Eritrean dining experience is tactile and immersive, and I find there is a sense of ritual to it. Eric’s spread was beautiful. A tray of stews sat on the centre of the table, surrounded by a pan of himbasha bread, a chilled bottle of tej, and a plate of ga’at. Eritreans eat as much injera bread as Ethiopians, but Eric didn’t find an injera recipe that he loved — the one he liked best would have taken three days — and he knew the chance to make it would come again for one of us when Ethiopia comes around, so he made himbasha. It has a dense texture and a pleasant but not overpowering spiciness. It is usually a special occasion bread, and even though our special occasion was just Wednesday, it tasted delicious, scooping up stews and wiping our plates clean.
The stews Eric chose to make are all familiar from our Ethiopian restaurant experiences. The chard was mild and onion-y (yum), and the lentils were very hearty and packed quite a spicy punch. Eric halved the recommended four tablespoons of cayenne, but they were still really spicy. The potato-cabbage-carrot stew is a favourite from Ethiopian cuisine, and the Eritrean version was excellent, with melt-in-your-mouth potatoes and carrots. It’s hard to figure out why this dish works as well as it does, but considering how many places eat a version of this dish (from Germany to China and many in between), the world knows it’s good.
The ga’at was something completely unexpected. Eric spiced the ghee himself, pouring a pool of it into this volcano-like dish. The cornmeal porridge is pretty bland, but the yoghurt/buttermilk mixture adds a bit of sourness and the ghee a little spice and salt. The end product is a surprise every time you take a bite.
Eric made the tej by mixing water, wine, and honey. I don’t usually like tej (I’m not a wine lover), but his was very good. He used a non-alcoholic wine because he thought I would find it the least offensive (I really, really don’t like the taste of wine). In tej, though, the acidity in the wine is tempered by the honey, and we both ended up having two big glasses.
Eric found the food somewhat difficult to make, in part because many of his recipes were vague on quantities and timing. I have a sense that this type of cuisine requires practice — probably years of practice to get it just right.
Disclaimer: I’m not a professional chef. I’m just a passionate cook with a curiosity for flavours I’ve never tried. For great recipes from gifted local cooks, follow the links above.