International Meals – Eritrea

This week, we cross Africa to the somewhat larger, but still not terribly large, country of Eritrea. We’ve had Ethiopian food many times, and so the challenge here was to determine what makes Eritrean food distinct from Ethiopian food.

And the answer seems to be… almost nothing, that we could find.  Eritrea and Ethiopia were even the same country for a while, until Eritrea fought a war to break away and gain their independence.  They’ve had the same president since independence in 1993, possibly because they haven’t troubled themselves with little annoyances like holding elections.

We’re going to make a meat stew called Tsebhi Sega and a lentil stew called Alitcha Birsen. However, you could call them by their Ethiopian names, Sega Wat and Misir Wat, and you wouldn’t have to change the recipes at all. We DID identify one recipe which DOES seem to be uniquely Eritrean – a type of pan bread called hembesha. We decided we had to make that, plus it let us put off screwing up injera again for another few weeks. (To be clear, Eritreans DO eat injera, and it would have been totally appropriate with the rest of the meal.)

Let’s start with this bread, shall we?  The dough involves normal dough stuff – yeast, flour, butter, eggs.  But it ALSO involves cardamom, fenugreek, coriander seed, and garlic.  What’s not to like there? We’ve been binge watching “The Great British Bake Off” to pass the apocalypse, so I feel like I’ve had quite a bit of practice watching other people knead bread by hand correctly. It seemed to go OK.  No pictures – it just looked like dough.

On the other hand, after the first rise, comes the shaping, and that IS a bit unique:

Unbaked hembesha bread

Apparently the traditional way to do this is with nails, and one blogger I consulted used a ravioli cutter.  I just stabbed it a bunch of times with a fork. Another rise in the pan, and then the pan goes into the oven.  You’re supposed to cover it, but we forgot that step.  Since we’ve only done this once, we don’t know what effect that might have had, but the bread still puffed up nicely in the oven.

Baked hembesha bread

OK, on to our stews. The primary reason that there’s not much distance between Ethiopian and Eritrean food is this stuff:

Bottle of berbere seasoning

This spice blend is fundamental to both countries’ cuisines. And as far as we can tell based on our internet research, there is no uniquely Ethiopian or Eritrean version – it’s the same blend both places.

Which is not to say that every Eritrean grandmother makes her blend the same – of course not.  It’s just that if you surveyed all the Eritrean grandmothers, and all the Ethiopian grandmothers, there doesn’t seem to be anything that one group is doing systematically differently than the other one.

What’s IN Berbere, you ask? LOTS of stuff.  Typical ingredients often include, according to Wikipedia, chili peppers, coriander, garlic, ginger, basil, korarima, rue, ajwain or radhuni, nigella, and fenugreek. Now, none of the online recipes we consulted for making the stuff included the more obscure ones on that list – korarima or rue.  But that’s OK, because we already HAD a bottle from Penzeys, so we weren’t planning on making it from scratch anyway.

First up is the lentil stew. A common characteristics of the two recipes is that the ingredients are added to the pot slowly, and each batch is allowed to cook at their own pace before adding the next one.  In this case, we start by frying some ginger:

Frying ginger
When that’s all pretty and golden, you toss in just the lentils and let them fry a little bit before adding ginger, chili, and salt and pepper.  Cover with boiling water, and that’s it for the lentils. (There ARE lentils in this picture, trust us.)
Cooking lentils

Those cook for an hour, so it’s time to move over to the beef stew.  Instead of garlic, this one starts by frying onions, and I feel at this point I should mention that we just bought an electric knife sharpener.  I HAD been sharpening our chef’s knife using a water stone, and I didn’t realize JUST how crap my sharpening skills were until I finally sharpened the thing properly.

My sharpening skills are CRAP, y’all.  Unless you’re prepared to spend years mastering the craft with a water stone, get yourself a sharpening machine.  The difference was miraculous.  Cutting the aforementioned onions was absolutely effortless.  And I didn’t even lacerate myself this time.

Ahem.  There was a reason we ordered the sharpener, after all.

Moving on.

In addition to berbere, the other distinctive ingredient in this stew is tegelese tesmi, or seasoned clarified butter.  Prior to starting these recipes, we cooked a whole pile of onions and garlic in some butter, and then I did a poor job of filtering out the solids.  Still – even if it’s not done perfectly, it’s onion and garlic flavored butter – nothing not to like.

So into the onions went some butter and a LOT of berbere, and then the onions cooked down even more.

Onions cooking

The long, long cook time on these onions really had an amazing effect – even though berbere is pretty firey, after 20 minutes of cooking, you could easily detect the sweet notes of the caramelization coming off the wok.

Wait – why are we using a wok here? Well, we only have two large frying pans, and at this point, one’s got the lentils and the other is in the oven with the bread. So wok it is.

Once the onions were ready, they were joined by some tomatoes, ginger, and garlic, and THAT was given some time to cook down as well.  Finally, in went the meat.  The site we got these recipes from is definitely very knowledgeable about Eritrean culture, but is somewhat unevenly translated.  The recipe calls for “beef or lamb, shredded”, and the recipe title is “Spicy minced meat.”  As such, we decided to go with ground beef rather than the chopped beef cubes, which we have seen more commonly at restaurants.

While the stews were finishing up, I made coffee. Coffee is an incredibly crucial part of Ethiopian and Eritrean culture.  There are ceremonies. It is often prepared with the beans being not only ground but ROASTED for each individual meal.

THAT sure wasn’t going to happen.

Instead, I used the Kylo Ren of coffee apparatus – an Aeropress.  At least the beans were from east Africa.

Coffee preparation equipment.

A few weeks ago, we showed off Leigh’s “PhDemon” glass from Flint Roller Derby, so here’s my “Adam Smasher” mug from Kalamazoo’s team.

After an hour, our kitchen smelled amazing and it was time to eat!

Eritrean Meal

And the verdict? Stunningly good.  We already knew we loved Ethiopian food, and this iteration did absolutely nothing to change our minds. (There was a reason we already had that jar of berbere, after all!) The lentils and beef stews were both spicy and delicious. You could taste the spices in the bread without their being overpowering, and the texture was soft and chewy, perfect for soaking up the juices.  These are definitely recipes to come back to.

So, nice job, Eritrea!  You make not like Ethiopia much, but your cuisine definitely matches everything we like about theirs.

Next time, we head back to Europe to visit Estonia!

This is an entire page of recipes from what seems to be an the web page of a Belgian(?) who goes to Eritrea a lot? I think? You can draw your own conclusions.

International Meals – Equatorial Guinea

There are no fewer than four “Guinea” countries in the world: Equatorial Guinea, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, and Papua New Guinea.  Why?

Imperialism!  Also racism.

“Guinea” was the English form of the Portuguese word for the region on the west side of Africa.  No one’s really sure where THAT word came from..  But thanks to colonialism, there was a Portuguese Guinea, a Spanish Guinea, French Guinea, and even a German Guinea.

Those became, respectively, Guinea-Bissau, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea, and Togo plus bits of Cameroon.  But what about Papua New Guinea, which is in (checks notes) not Africa? Welp, some super racist Spanish explorer decided that the inhabitants of Papua New Guinea looked like west Africans, and decided to give it the same name.  Great.

The subject of today’s meal, Equatorial Guinea, is a bit geographically improbable.

Map of Equatorial Guinea

Most of the country is on land, except for two islands, which are nowhere near each other, and in fact, have an entirely different country separating them. The capital of the country, Malabo, is located on the northern island.  Having your capital off on an island away from most of your landmass?  What a silly idea.  *mumbles in British Columbia*

Equatorial Guinea is the only independent country in Africa which is majority Spanish speaking. It’s also, in a continent full of governments left in bad shape by colonialism, one of the worst offenders in terms of human rights.  As in so many cases, the presence of substantial oil reserves has not helped the democracy situation much.  Heck – look at Texas.

But enough politics.  What about the food?  Well, the extended riff on politics and geography is going to help cover the fact that our Equatorial Guinean meal consisted of probably the simplest dish to make we’ve done so far, and so this entry is going to be pretty darn short.  The dish in question is a fish stew called “Pick a Pepper Soup.”

First – a trip back to our spice hookup for another new ingredient. Grains of Paradise.  These things are also known as Guinea Pepper, so that’s a good sign, right?  Except that Guinea Pepper is strictly speaking some OTHER random spice, also known as  “Grains of Selim.”  So we’ll stick with Grains of Paradise.

Grains of Paradise

These are the seeds of a plant closely related to ginger and cardamom. You treat them like you would black pepper – dump them in a spice grinder or mortar, and mash them up to make a powder.

Ground grains of paradise.

Then, you put them and literally every other ingredient in the pot all at once.

Stew ingredients
And you cook it for an hour.  After an hour, you put in a tiny, tiny, amount of oil, then cook it for another five minutes.  I have absolutely no idea why.  And that’s it.  That’s the whole recipe.

Here it is cooking:

Equatorial Guinean Stew Cooking

And here it is on the table, with a decidedly non-Guinean beer.

Equatorial Guinean Stew on the table.

And that’s it.  Just, dump it all in the pot, cook it all together, done.

So how does it taste?  Delicious, actually!  In addition to the Grains of Paradise, the stew also contains cayenne pepper, a scotch bonnet pepper, and black pepper, so it’s got some bite to it.  The snapper was firm enough to hold up to the seasoning and cooking time, and the vegetables soaked up the flavors nicely.

We’re definitely going to be looking for more ways to use the rest of this jar of Grains of Paradise.  However, I DON’T think Equatorial Guinea is going to be at the top of the destination list when *waves vaguely at everything* ends.

Next up, we remain in Africa, but cross to the east side to visit Eritrea.

Pick a Pepper Soup

International Meals – El Salvador

El Salvador… could have gone better.  It was fine, but certainly not our best effort.  It’s unclear to me whether that’s a result of not picking the best recipes, or not executing them well.  Y’all can judge for yourselves as we go along.

We’ve actually had Salvadoran food before, and it was a no-brainer to choose their best known culinary export – Pupusas. Pupusas are somewhere between a tamale and a stuffed pancake – they’re a griddled disk made from corn meal with a savory filling.  They’re great if done well.  To accompany the Pupsas, we made a side salad/topping called curtido, as well as horchata and a quesadilla.

“Ah ha!”, you may be thinking, “I am familiar with both of those last two.”  Well, if you’re familiar with the Mexican versions, the Salvadoran ones are just a bit and extremely different, respectively.

To start, I went to the Hispanic grocery store near my office, where they were quite helpful, but also pointed out that they had pupusas and Salvadoran horchata mix ready made, and was I sure I really wanted to try to do both from scratch?

Sure – how hard can it be?  After all horchata is just flavored sugar rice milk, right?

No, that’s Mexican horchata.  Salvadoran horchata uses juuuuust a few more ingredients.

Horchata ingredients

No seriously. From upper left, that’s coriander seed, rice, cinnamon, whole nutmeg, sesame seeds, morro seeds, pumpkin seeds, allspice berries, cocoa beans, and peanuts. (The little red tupperware is just more sesame seeds.)

Every single one of these ingredients except the cinnamon powder has to be toasted, and toasted one at a time, because they all cook differently. Fortunately, the peanuts and sesame seeds can be purchased already toasted. But one at a time, into the wok went coriander, nutmeg, allspice, rice, pumpkin seeds, and morro seeds.

“What the hell are morro seeds?”, I hear you asking.  Apparently, they are a seed that has no business existing any more, because they can only germinate if a large animal breaks their fruit open, and there are no longer any native animals capable of doing so.  Horses and humans are the morro’s best friend at this point.

And finally, we come to the cocoa beans.  Have you ever wondered why we don’t make chocolate at home from scratch?  Well, there’s a reason.  First, the beans have to be roasted like coffee beans.  And like coffee beans, there’s a thin margin between raw and burnt

The good news is that UNLIKE coffee beans, the fumes are a lot less nasty if you try to roast them in your oven.  Once you’ve done that, however, you’re still faced with the problem that the husk is inedible.  So you put the beans in a plastic bag and smash them a bit:

Cocoa beans.

Then you have to somehow separate the chaff from the tasty center bit.  The recommended tool for this job for home chefs appears to be a hair dryer, I kid you not.

Hair dryer and cocoa beans.

I’m pretty sure quite a bit of actual chocolate ended up on our patio, but after a while, we had a bowl of probably more-or-less pure cocoa nibs.

Cocoa Nibs

Note that if you actually want to make CHOCOLATE from this point, there are still like six more steps.  I actually did make a couple of very basic truffles with the extra beans, but it just drove home that no, making chocolate from scratch is not a good choice.

Now that we finally had all of our ingredients ready, everything went into the food processor to make a powder.  It made a LOT of powder. Not for the first time this evening, the recipe made a LOT more of the thing than claimed.  At 1 tablespoon per serving, this is way more than 15 servings of horchata powder.

Horchata powder

To actually MAKE the horchata, you put the powder in cold milk with some sugar and vanilla, let it soak for a while, then strain out the solids through a cheesecloth. (Ph.Demon mug courtesy of Flint Roller Derby.)

Horchata soaking

We discovered later on that a French press works much more easily than the cheesecloth.  Good thing, because we have A METRIC TON of horchata mix.  (It has to be metric – we’re in Canada.)

Backing up a bit in time, let’s talk about the curtido, which we made the night before.  It’s basically a tangy coleslaw made with cabbage and vinegar.  What distinguishes the Salvadoran version, according to most of the sources we consulted, is the addition of quite a bit of radish.  The fact that the particular recipe we were using DIDN’T call for radish might have been a red flag.  We added some in anyway.

Veggies for Cortido

Don’t those look pretty?  The final product looked good too, although I suspect it could have used a LOT more vinegar than the recipe called for.


OK, we can’t put this off any more – what about the actual pupsas? The method isn’t complicated.  Brown some pork butt with a mix of seasonings, braise it for a bit in some water, then cook the water off until the pork turns crisp.

Cooked pork 

Then, to make a filling, toss the pork in the food processor with tomatoes, onions, and green pepper.  The dough is even simpler – instant masa harina (corn flour) and some water.  Mix into balls, and you’re ready to cook.

Pupusa dough and filling.

And here’s where we went wrong. Or the recipe went wrong.  Or something.  The pupusas I remember having in restaurants were hearty items five or so inches across.

This recipe does NOT make enough dough for anything that substantial. And it makes waaaaay more filling than could possibly fill the amount of dough it does make.  But OK, let’s do the best we can.  You flatten the dough, put some filling in the middle, bring the dough over to surround the filling, then flatten it out again.

Not a single one of our pupusas fully enclosed the filling.  They were, to put it politely… rustic.

Pupusas cooking.

Still – they DID cook up nice and brown, with the small dark spots you expect.

And so this was our meal:

Salvadoran meal

Not very much pupusas, a MOUNTAIN of curtido, and a glass of horchata.

And as I said at the outset, the pupusas were… fine.  They tasted like pupusas.  They just didn’t necessarily taste like GOOD pupusas. Certainly more salt might have helped, but more seasoning in general would have probably been welcome.  The curtido was nice and crisp, but the vinegar to veggies ratio also seemed a bit off.

Fun fact: it turns out that one of the most common condiments in El Salvador is, for some reason, Worcestershire sauce, which is often referred to as “Salsa Inglés,” or “English Sauce.”  Not having any of that, I slopped some Costa Rican “Salsa Lizano” on my pupusas, and that was delicious.  Maybe not authentic, but delicious.

The best part was the horchata.  The flavor was subtle, but definitely present, and more complex than the Mexican version.

Wait a minute – didn’t I say we made a quesadilla?  Where was that?

It turns out in El Salvador, a quesadilla is a dessert. Back at the Mexican grocer, I showed the recipe to one of the employees.  It said that Salvadoran cheese is very hard to find outside of the country, and suggested Parmesan.  “Parmesan?” I thought?  Surely one of these Mexican cheeses would be a better fit?

“Nope,” confirmed the clerk.  “You’re better off with Parmesan.”

OK, Parmesan it is.  Into some milk it went to soak while I separated some eggs, screwed up the last one, got yolk in the whites, tried to beat them anyway, realized that you REALLY CAN’T beat egg whites with fat in them, realized I had used the last 4 eggs, and sent Leigh off to the store to get some more.


Egg whites correctly separated and whipped up, from this point, you’re just making a cake; dry ingredients in one bowl, wet in another.  Eggs, milk, butter, cinnamon, rice (!) flour, and baking powder. Mix it all together, trying not to knock the air back out of the egg whites.

Quesadilla batter

And grated Parmesan.  Unusual, to say the least.  After baking, the quesadilla had a lovely color.

Baked Salvadoran Quesadilla

And was very spongy and tasty.  It was DEFINITELY a new sensation getting chewy bits of Parmesan cheese in a sponge cake, but honestly, it worked.  Good thing, too, because we’re going to be eating this thing for a week.

Quesadilla interior.

And that’s El Salvador.  I have to say that we were a little disappointed.  We’ve had Salvadoran food in restaurants before, and this just didn’t live up to it.  I don’t know if it was a poor choice of recipes, ineptitude on our part (likely), or a combination of the two, but the whole meal seemed somewhat under seasoned.

Good thing we have a MOUNTAIN of leftovers.  Actually, that IS a good thing – leftovers are always a plus, and we still have a nearly full jar of Salsa Lizano, after all!

Next time, we’re off to Equatorial Guinea, to start a run where 4 of the next 5 countries will be African.  Stay tuned!

Salvadoran Pupusas de Chicharron with Curtido (This is the one we used, but I’m guessing you can do better.)
Salvadoran Horchata (Do NOT make this.  Just buy the premade powder.  Seriously. That is what actual Salvadorans in El Salvador do.)
Salvadoran Quesadilla 

PS – if you buy these chips at the Mexican grocer and try to eat them on the way home, be forewarned that even if you eat a lot of spicy foods, and love spicy foods, these things are still really, really spicy. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

Spicy Chips

International Meals – Egypt

This week we visit one of the oldest continuous civilizations in the world – Egypt.  But what is Egyptian food like?  Turns out that it’s got a lot in common with other Mediterranean cuisines, like that of more familiar Lebanon.  However, in part due to the influence of the Coptic Christian community, there’s a higher proportion of vegetarian dishes.

The dish we picked is called Koshari. Alternately spelled Kushari or Koshary, it is essentially a vegan garbage plate.  While there are many variations, the basic idea is a huge pile of rice, noodles, and legumes, topped with several kinds of sauce.

None of the individual elements here are hard – the hard part is getting them all done without running out of dishes!

So, let’s get the rice and chick peas going on the counter.

Rice cooker and instant pot.

And the lentils, fried vermicelli, and boiled ditalini pasta going on the stove.

Noodles, lentils, and pasta water.

If we’ve fried spaghetti before, I don’t remember it. However, the end product turned out with the beautiful range of colors from light to dark that I remember from noodles served at Lebanese restaurants I’ve been to.

Only three more pots to go!  There’s two different sauces – a tomato and vinegar sauce, (not pictured) and a cumin garlic sauce.

Cumin garlic sauce

And if the phrase “cumin garlic sauce” doesn’t make you prick up your ears, then it should.  We’ve mostly encountered cumin incorporated into dishes as a whole, rather than condiments, but it really works.

One last thing to go – our old nemesis, deep frying.

Frying onions

Experienced deep fryers will know that this is way too many onions for this much oil.  (Or alternately too little oil for this many onions)  So they didn’t actually get all that crisp.  But we were too hungry to fry in small batches, and too out of oil to put any more in.

That accomplished, it’s time to gaze at our table of stuff, and begin the final assembly.

Egypt is majority Muslim, so the beer isn’t terribly authentic, but that’s OK, we didn’t pour it into the dish.

What we DID do, is pack our various element into bowls and then invert them.  According to the photos with the recipe, you should get a lovely, layered dome of rice and pasta.

Messy pile of food.

Nailed it.

Joking aside, a healthy splash of the two sauces, and this was genuinely delicious.  The lentils, in particular, had a fantastic flavor, even with relatively humble seasoning.


So what’s for dessert?  Ali’s Mom, that’s what.

No seriously, the dish is called Om Ali, or “Ali’s Mother”.  The legend behind the name dates to the 12th century Ayyubid dynasty, or, you know, the day before yesterday on the scale of Egypt’s ludicrously long past.  The legend says after a caliph died, his second wife had his first wife, (Om Ali) murdered, and then commissioned a fantastic dessert to celebrate the occasion of the murder.  Neat, huh? Yeesh.

At any rate, the dessert is basically a bread pudding.  You puff up some puff pastry, then pour milk and walnuts over it and let it soak for a bit.

Puff pastry and walnut

Once it’s soaked in, you top it with whipped cream, stick it under the broiler, and then DO NOT TRUST the cooking time in the recipe, or else you get this.

Burned bread pudding.

Fortunately, it was equivalent to burned marshmallow – you pick the black bits off, and the rest is sweet and gooey and delicious:

Om Ali

You know I HAVE to say it, right?  There is literally no way I’m NOT going to say it.

Ali’s mom has got it going on.


Well – Egypt was tasty, and as our second vegan main dish, something to remember for future guests!  Next week, the first cuisine for a bit where we’ve been to the restaurants, and know exactly what we’re making – El Salvador!

Om Ali