International Meals – Ethiopia

We had been looking FORWARD to this one.

Leigh and I have VERY diverse food tastes, but the nature of this project is that more often than not, we’re researching recipes from countries whose food we have not specifically tried before.  Sure, we’ve had pupusas, but when was the last time you saw a specifically Belizian restaurant?

Ethiopia, on the other hand, we were familiar with.  There’s a fantastic Ethiopian place in Lansing called “Altu’s.”  If you find yourself in Lansing, we’re really, really sorry.  But at least you can go and STUFF yourself on Ethiopian food.

The absolutely essential component of an Ethiopian meal is a spongy flatbread called injera.  It’s slightly sour, and is used to scoop up the thick stews that are the cornerstones of the cuisine.  An Ethiopian meal will typically not be served with cutlery – just tear off some bread and scoop up the stew.  Then try to STOP eating before you make yourself ill.

Good luck with that.

So we had to try to make injera.  Problem: We have tried before, and it Did Not Go Well. ™  The dough has to ferment for a few days to build up the requisite tang and texture, and the last time we tried it, the dough got blue and fuzzy.  This is NOT the correct color. (or fuzziness level)

But we had to try.  So into a bowl went two cups of teff flour.  Teff is a tiny grain that mills down to a silky soft flour.  That gets mixed with some water and for the recipe we chose, a tiny amount of yeast.  Traditionally, this is a wild sourdough – no additional leavening would be added.  But traditionally when Dan and Leigh make injera it turns blue and fuzzy, so we’re going to duck tradition this time.  The dough is left to do its thing for two days.  Longer would have produced a tangier flavor, of course.

Injera dough

Two days later, the dough was definitely not fuzzy, and it was very active, to the point where it would fizz if you poked it. That was fun, and a bit unnerving.  Toss in some more flour for it to chew on, along with some baking powder and salt, and it’s time to start in on the butter.

In addition to berbere, the other fundamental ingredient in just about every Ethiopian dish is Niter Kibbeh, or seasoned clarified butter.  We made some for Eritrea, and it was OK, but not special enough to include in the post.  THIS time, it went a lot better.  A truly LUDICROUS variety of spices get boiled in butter for an hour to make this stuff. And we didn’t even have everything the recipe called for.

Ethiopian seasoned butter

A quick strain through cheesecloth and we were left with a sadly fairly small quantity of amazing smelling butter.

Finished seasoned butter

Also, East Van Jam’s Plum Jam is great.  Get some if you run across it.  We used it for the Czech kolaches.

Butter in hand, it was time to start the fairly length process of making Doro Wat, the chicken stew that is frequently referred to as the national dish of Ethiopia.  The way Ethiopian stews get their incredible depth of flavor is from a base called kulet.

First you puree some onions in a food processor to get them down to a paste.  They’re cooked in the butter for 45 minutes.  Seriously – this recipe calls for doing nothing but cooking the onions for the better part of an hour.  At that point, they had started to caramelize, and we tossed in some ginger, garlic, and a bit more butter.

Twenty more minutes.

Onion base cooking

At this point you throw in a quarter cup of berbere and some more butter.  “Cup” is definitely not a unit of measure we’re used to associating with spice blends, especially one as bitey as berbere.  We’re here for it.

Thirty more minutes.

Onion base continuing to cook.

At this point, we have been cooking onions with some seasoning for the better part of two hours.  The kitchen smelled unbelievable, and dinner was still a ways off.  Into the pot goes the chicken, some stock, and in theory, T’ej, or Ethiopian honey wine.  Not having any T’ej, we threw in a tablespoon of honey and some Sauvignon Blanc.

Let’s leave that to cook for a bit – we have two more recipes to make.

First, while we wanted to have a side dish to the doro wat, it was so labor intensive that we went looking for a shortcut for the other dish.  Enter the Instant Pot, and a bowl of red lentils, to make misir wot.

Red Lentils over the Instant Pot

The liquid here is more clarified butter, along with another ludicrous dollop of berbere and some tomato paste.  The instant pot  directions were the usual “Put everything in, close the lid and go do something else.”

In this case, “something else” consisted of making ANOTHER spice blend for the chicken stew. If you’re following along at home, you’ll notice that the recipe we’re using does NOT mention this, but it was common enough in other versions of the dish that we wanted to include it.  This blend is called mekelesha, and is the second most widely referenced Ethiopian blend after berbere. It is used as a finishing blend, similar to garam masala in some Indian curries.

So we toast a few spices:

Toasted spices

This particular version calls for cloves, cinnamon, black pepper, nutmeg, and black cardamom seeds.  Into the spice grinder, and we get a dark, dark powder.

Mekelesha spice blend

A bit of that goes into the doro wat for the last ten minutes of cooking.

Doro wat nearing completion.

I am drooling just LOOKING at that picture.

We can’t put it off any longer – let’s try to make some injera.  (This actually happened a bit earlier in the day, but is placed here in the narrative to build suspense.)

Could we achieve the requiste spongy texture, with lots of air bubbles?

Injera cooking

We sure could!  This one’s a bit thick (and not finished cooking), but it turned out pretty great.  Since we were warned they would glue themselves together into a sticky blob if we tried to stack them before they were cool, we worked out an assembly line, where Leigh would ferry each one to towels spread out across the kitchen table as I started the next.  By the end of the process, we had a table full of lovely, spongy injera!

Cooked injera

By design, the lentils finished up at about the same time as the chicken, and had reduced to a thick, creamy consistency.

Cooked Ethiopian lentil stew

And now for the final sexy shot:

Ethiopian meal

Hello gorgeous.  Get in ma belly.

This meal was stunning. The sheer density of flavor in the chicken stew is impossible to describe – it turns out cooking onions by themselves for the length of Monsters, Inc. makes them incredibly delicious. The lentils were excellent, and the injera worked! It tasted good, and was the perfect texture to scoop up all the lovely, lovely stew.

We gorged ourselves, just like at Altu’s.

Next up, our first trip to Oceana, and the island nation of Fiji!

Doro Wat (Ethiopian Chicken Stew)
Misir Wat (Ethiopian Red Lentil Stew)
Mekelesha Spice Blend
Niter Kibbeh (Spiced Clarified Butter)

International Meals – eSwatini

“Yeah, since the pandemic, it’s almost impossible to find ostrich.”

I’ll take “Sentences I would have a very difficult time explaining to my past self” for $800, Alex.

Of course, my past self wouldn’t be trying to source ostrich at this point ANYWAY, because eSwatini only changed its name three years ago, so past me wouldn’t have hit this particular snag until they reached “Swaziland.”

But change it they did, and so we found ourselves trying to find recipes and source ingredients for one of the very few countries in the world that routinely uses camel case in their name.  Not ACTUAL camel, as far as we know, but that’s probably coming at some point….

At any rate, there are very few recipes that purport to be from eSwatini online, and most of them are the same ones cut and pasted back and forth.  The national dish is allegedly Ostrich Steak, and another possibility would be “Samp and Beans.”

We spent a solid week trying to source ostrich.  We called a LOT of butchers, including ones that advertise exotic meats.  They all told us the same thing – their supplies dried up about six months to a year ago.  So after that, I moved on to trying to locate samp.  Samp is cracked dried yellow hominy corn.  Shouldn’t be that hard, right?

I did find it, but only in a ten pound bag, and we do NOT need that much samp.  I went to every Latino and African grocery store I could find, and other than that one giant bucket o’samp, no one had it.  Were we going to have to make just an avocado salad and nothing else? I had just checked the last two stores on my list when I walked past a butcher shop, and on a lark walked in and asked “Say, you don’t have ostrich, do you?”

“Sure!  One piece left, right here.”

Ostrich meat

And you don’t even want to know what it cost.  But at this point, we were ready to buy SOMETHING so we could get going with this meal.

Ostrich is super lean, so after we sliced it thinly, it got an overnight marinade in red wine with some crushed juniper berries to tenderize and flavor it.

Ostrich marinating in red wine

For accompaniments, we DID make that avocado salad.  Pretty straightforward – avocados cubed, tossed with lemon juice, ginger, peanuts and salt. (The peanuts were added after this picture was taken)  The avocados we had were a bit under ripe, but still tasty.

Avocado salad

Our other side dish was cornbread.  Ideally, this should have been made with a specifically South African product called “mealie meal,” but at this point we were just done looking for ingredients, so ours was made with normal cornmeal. We also ran into the problem that the recipe said to add “enough milk” at one point, without giving any indication as to how much that was, or evening listing milk in the ingredient list.

Still, it turned out fine.  You’ll see it in a bit in the final picture.

So back to the ostrich. The recipe calls for it to be served over a mash of pumpkin and cornmeal.  In addition to the aforementioned mealie meal substitution, we ALSO couldn’t find a pumpkin in April in Vancouver, so we used a Japanese squash called a kabocha.

Kabocha squash

At least on the inside, LOOKS like pumpkin, and it tastes like pumpkin, so we’re going to call “close enough.”  I would not be embarrassed to make tikvenik with this, and that’s a good enough test as any.

Kabocha gets diced up and boiled with cornmeal until tender:

Uncooked kabocha

Once it’s soft, you drain off some portion of the liquid (the recipe was vague) and mush it up until you get a soft mash.

Pumpkin mushed up. 

We also needed to make a quick sauce for the ostrich, by sweating onions, and then cooking them with white wine (South African, of course), heavy cream, and green peppercorns.

Cream sauce for the ostrich

Finally it was time to flash fry the ostrich itself, which took almost no time, given how thinly we’d sliced it.

Ostrich cooking

And here’s everything all together, including the promised shot of the cornbread:

eSwatini meal

It all turned out kinda pretty – the avocados were various shades of green, the cornbread and pumpkin mash were orange, and the ostrich was wine-dark.

So now for the most important question – how did it taste? It was pretty good!  The avocado salad actually stole the show – peanuts and avocado are a great combination that we shall have to remember.  The cornbread needed a bit more salt, but was very good at soaking up things.

The pumpkin mash was kind of bland by itself, but the creamy texture went well with the chew of the onions and the slight acidity of the white wine sauce.

And everyone knows what ostrich is like, so there’s really not much point in describing that, right?

OK, fine.  The ostrich was good, but honestly it mostly just tasted of the wine.  The texture was definitely unique – not chicken, not beef, but somewhere in between the two.  I don’t think I’d buy it again at that price.

And that’s our trip to eSwatini, which is the first country in a while that has taken us two weeks to accomplish.  Next up, we have our final “E” country, as we remain in Africa for one more week to visit Ethiopia, and a chance to once again botch making injera.

Karoo Ostrich Steak
Swazi Cornbread
Slaai (Avocado Salad)

International Meals – Estonia

Estonia was interesting.  A few, well – not exactly failures – but not exactly blazing successes, either.

After our hilariously awful attempt at locating Danish bread a few months ago, I decided to take no chances and start a sourdough a week before the meal so we could bake the bread of Estonia ourselves.  We did have a sour going last spring, when everyone and their cousin was discovering how to bake without yeast. Its name was “Oscar.” Oscar did not make it to Vancouver with us.

And then on Friday, I found this:

Estonian bread in the package.

OK, so – we’ll make a loaf, and we’ll compare it to the real stuff, and that will be interesting.

Welp – it was that.

The recipe we had certainly sounded tasty – it used pumpkin, flax, fennel, and caraway seeds, in addition to molasses, coffee, and cocoa. It uses a standard sourdough rye technique, where you let the sour get a head start on rising before you add any other ingredients that might slow it down.

For whatever reason, though – the sour was too stiff, I didn’t mix it properly, wrong temperature, or something else – the dough never really… doughed.  It was more of a wet sticky blob that never came together. Between that and the fact that it was dark brown, it looked quite unsettling.

Estonian bread dough

It was at this point that we realized that we had missed just how long of a rise time the recipe called for, and that this bread wasn’t even going to be ready for dinner.  So we’ll come back to our bread, and just eat the commercial stuff.

For our appetizer, we were going to put some sprats on the actual Estonian bread from actual Estonia.  Since that involved opening a can and putting fish on bread with butter, we managed not to screw it up.

Sprats on bread

Our main course was a porridge called mulgipuder. The essential ingredients for this dish are pearl barley and potatoes.  If you’re not familiar with pearl barley, it looks like this before it’s cooked:

Pearl Barley

That goes into a pot with some potatoes to boil for an hour.

For some versions of the dish, that would be it. We wanted to get a bit more fancy, so we went with a recipe that also called for mushrooms and smoked pork hock.  That’s right – the giant hunk o’ pig is back, after making its last appearance for Croatia.

Pork hock

We sliced off enough for this recipe, and threw the rest in the pressure cooker the next night to make a very nice bean stew.

In addition to the pork hock, we fried up some mushrooms as well.

Frying mushrooms

Once the potatoes and the barley had finished cooking, in went the immersion blender.  There’s a lot of different versions of this recipe online, and the photos range from “extremely chunky” to “whipped smooth.”  We had enough water left in the pot that we ended up on the smoother end of the spectrum.

And here’s the final spread:

Overhead view of Estonian meal

And it was pretty good!  Bread and butter with oily fish made for a very hearty appetizer.  If you like sardines, you’ll like sprats.  In fact, unless you are very, very serious about sardines, you’ll have great difficulty distinguishing them from sprats. The bread itself was quite sour, and very dense and chewy. A delicious combination, which I did not hesitate to repeat for lunch the next day.

The barley definitely gave the mulgipuder a bit more personality by itself than simple mashed potatoes, and the addition of the ham and mushrooms made for a filling and satisfying dish.  Overall, it was exactly what one would expect from the Baltics – dark bread, ham, potatoes, and fish.  And that’s great, because we like all those things!

I’ll also point out that we managed to acquire an actual Estonian beer! It wasn’t a traditional beer by any means.  Probably a lot of alcohol would scream “the Baltic states” more than a Scotch Ale aged in port wine barrels.  But oh man was it good, and it was made in Estonia (“By Finns, Dan” “Shut up, internal monologue!”) so it counts.

Now let’s talk about partial success number 2.  (Don’t worry, we’ll get back to the bread) “Partial Success” is like “Partly Sunny”, in that it can also mean “Partial Failure.” Since we were having this meal on Easter, we decided to close the meal with a traditional Estonian dessert that is often served on that holiday – Pasha.

Pasha is NOT a dish for the lactose intolerant. It involves farmer’s cheese (we used Ricotta), sour cream, butter, AND heavy cream. Those are blended with butter, sugar, eggs, and vanilla to make what is essentially a cheesecake batter.

Pasha ingredients

The mixture is simmered for a bit to thicken it, and then the fun starts.

You put cheesecloth in a sieve.  You put the sieve over a bowl.  The batter goes in the cheesecloth in a sieve over a bowl, with their paddles in a puddle in a bottle on a poodle.  Sorry.  You pour the mixture into the cheesecloth, fold the cloth over, and then put a weight on the whole assembly.

Pasha with a weight on it

In theory, this squeezes out a bunch of moisture, and when you unmold it and tip it over on a plate, you get a beautiful dome of dairy.  That’s what all the pictures show, anyway.  Possibly because the Estonian Tourist Bureau doesn’t think anyone would want to eat a dessert that ended up looking like this:


It did NOT hold its shape, suffice to say.  And a spoon was definitely more useful than a fork would have been at attempting to consume it.

But, just as “party cloudy” can also be “partly sunny,” this partial failure also succeeded at being delicious.  I mean – it’s a cheesecake.  Even just licking the batters was delicious, and so was the final product. (And lets be honest – there wasn’t a ton of difference between the two.) We topped it with some mixed peel, and the little bit of chewiness was a welcome textural contrast too.

And now we can’t put it off any longer, so let’s find out about the bread.  After four hours, it had barely risen.  But no harm in baking it to see what happens, right?  We cranked up the oven to the specified 480 F (yowzers), heated up the Dutch oven, and baked the daylights out of it, to end up with a “loaf” that could charitably be described as not looking completely like a meteorite.

Homemade Estonian Bread
Large pockets of unmixed sourdough were definitely visible in the final bake.  I think in hindsight I should have added the water to the sour at the very beginning and mixed that in thoroughly before adding any other ingredients.  After that point, the sour just didn’t want to break up.

However… despite everything, the bread was actually pretty tasty!  It was dense and chewy, but that’s OK in a dark bread.  All the toasted seeds gave it a great crunch, and the Dutch oven mean the crust was nice and crispy.  We probably won’t try to make it again, just because we’ve had actual pets that are less work than the sour starter, but I don’t regret this loaf.

And that’s Estonia.  Next time, because of a name change just three years ago, we are off to the country formerly known as Swaziland – Eswatini!

Estonian Black Bread
Pasha (Estonian Easter Dessert)
Sprat Sandwich – You put sprats on buttered bread. Add chopped green onion or sour cream if you like.