It is said that within the mountain ranges of Ethiopia one may come across fire-breathing dragons. The dragons in question are actually relatively small lizards, and if they do breathe fire it is probably due to berbere, the most characteristic ingredient in Ethiopian cookery.
This palate-searing reddish paste, found in most Ethiopian kitchens and used in preparing many local specialties, consists of hot red chili peppers, garlic, ginger, fenugreek, cardamom, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, white pepper, salt and turmeric. There are various traditions that besides adding magnificent flavor to many traditional dishes, this especially potent mixture will also add to one's longevity and cure rheumatism, among other claims.
Of all the cuisines of East Africa, the most highly developed and the one least exotic to the Western palate is that of Ethiopia. It is a style of cookery that has combined the best principles of the Arab kitchen with the use of classic African ingredients, such as peanuts, bananas, rice, coconuts, spinach, corn and beans.
Ethiopian Jews, while adhering strictly to the laws of kashrut, also made a major contribution to this national cuisine. Some five hundred years ago, Jewish merchant families of Addis Ababa introduced the use of curry powder and other aspects of Indian cookery; while this might be thought of as mere sophistication, it produced a culinary style that is not difficult to admire.
The impact of the Ethiopian kitchen has started to make itself felt in Israel. In Tel Aviv, Haifa and Be'er Sheva, for example, immigrants have opened restaurants, mostly in the area of the central bus station. Featuring traditional food in settings that are comfortable but simple, it is possible to dine at these places in goodly fashion for prices that are remarkably reasonable.
The following traditional recipes, which will sit comfortably on any Western table, represent a festive meal that might be found in an upper-middle class Jewish home in Addis Ababa as well as throughout Israel.
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Sources: Embassy of Israel; Israeli Foreign Ministry; Ruth's Kitchen; Manischewitz; Rogov's Ramblings- Reprinted with permission.
Daniel Rogov is the restaurant and wine critic for the daily newspaper Ha'aretz. He is also the senior writer for Wine and Gourmet Magazine and contributes culinary and wine articles to newspapers in Europe and the United States.