Despite loving Ethiopian food dearly, it’s something I rarely get to enjoy. I discovered it inadvertently and have been a fan ever since. When I lived in the city I went out one evening to see friend of a friend’s ex-girlfriend sing and play her acoustic guitar at what I was told would be a hole-in-the wall in west Philly. The place actually turned out to be dinery looking Ethiopian restaurant with a cramped little music venue upstairs. Of course I had to venture downstairs to take a peek at the menu, having no clue what Ethiopian food was like, and of course when I discovered an abundant vegetarian section on said menu, I had to try something.
The experience of eating Ethiopian food is almost as much fun as the food itself is delicious. You generally get a big piece of injera, a sour, spongy, pancake-like bread, served alongside a stewy main course that you dip the bread in. I remember during that first dining experience my friends poking and commenting perplexedly on my bread and stew. They weren’t into it and would have probably preferred the show take place atop a Burger King. I didn’t care. I was in love.
I have no idea where the closest Ethiopian restaurant to my home is these days, so at some point I started experimenting with Ethiopian food in my own kitchen. I’ve only been partly successful. Injera would be the unsuccessful part of my experiments. It’s a little complicated. For one thing, it takes a few days of fermentation – that would be where the sour comes from. For another, it involves teff flour, which is a new grain for me to work with. All of my injera experiments resulted in an un-fluffy, unsour mess of dough.
So, maybe injera is a bit tricky. I’ll certainly give it a few more tries, but in the meantime I can still enjoy Ethiopian cuisine. I started serving Ethiopian-inspired stews atop rice, which worked out pretty well. This time around, I decided to try a polenta base, which worked out amazing. The mixture of textures was so much more perfect than anything I’d ever imagined.
Now, about the flavor. Berbere is a spice blend you’ll find in lots of Ethiopian dishes. It’s a mixture of hot and savory spices including everything from cinnamon to paprika to cumin and chili powder. If you’re a fan of Indian and Middle Eastern, you’ll probably be on board with Ethiopian flavor. I like to make my own spice blends when I can, but this time around I just bought some. The recipe includes a link to where you can buy it on Amazon. If you want to try making your own, go right ahead – you probably have all of the ingredients in your pantry. Here’s a recipe you can try.
- 1½ tbsp. olive oil, divided
- 1 roll (18 oz.) precooked polenta, cut into 1 inch slabs
- ½ red onion, diced
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 tsp. fresh grated ginger
- 1 cup vegetable broth
- 1-14 oz. can or 1¾ cups cooked chickpeas, rinsed and drained
- ¼ cup tomato paste
- 2 tsp. sugar
- 2 tsp. berbere seasoning
- ¼ tsp. salt
- 1 large green bell pepper, diced
- ¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
- Coat a large skillet with ½ tablespoon of olive oil and place over medium-high heat.
- Arrange polenta slabs in a single layer and cook about 5 minutes, until bottoms become crispy and begin to brown.
- Gently flip and repeat on other side. Do this in batches if you don't have enough room.
- Transfer polenta slabs to a plate and set aside.
- Heat remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onion and saute until softened, about 5 minutes.
- Add garlic and ginger. Saute another minute.
- Add broth, chickpeas, tomato paste, sugar, berbere seasoning, and salt. Lower heat and simmer for 5 minutes.
- Add bell pepper and simmer another 5 minutes, until pepper is softened and sauce is thick. Add a bit of water if sauce becomes too thick during cooking.
- Arrange polenta slabs on plates and top with chickpeas. Sprinkle with cilantro.