Country #12: Eritrea

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Eritrea, a tiny country on the horn of Africa, is one of those countries that exists due to colonization. It became its own entity in 1890, when it was colonized by Italy, which created a bizarre sense of European superiority over the Eritreans’ “ethnic brothers” in Ethiopia. If you travel to Eritrea, you’ll find that most of the restaurants are similar to Americanized Italian - pizza, pasta, etc. Italy lost control of Eritrea during World War II, however, losing out to the Brits. After about a decade under British military rule, the UN federated it with Ethiopia. Eritreans, used to having some sort of autonomy, albeit colonial autonomy, quickly violated the federation and Ethiopia annexed it as a province. The next 30 years would be one of the longest liberation wars in Africa’s history, and after those three decades of fighting, the last of the Ethiopian forces were removed from Eritrean land. It was only in 1993 that the country became completely independent in a UN referendum.
Despite this seemingly unending conflict with Ethiopia, the two countries have left indelible marks on each other’s culture, especially the food. Many people can’t tell Eritrean and Ethiopian food apart; they both eat injera, a kind of fermented flatbread, with stews and meats. I didn’t attempt to make injera this time; I am pretty intimidated by it. One day I’m sure...
Another mark of both Eritrean and Ethiopian food is berbere, a spice mix that is frequently used in soups, stews, and as a rub for meats. Every area and family has their own special berbere that they prefer, but all have the same basic ingredients: cardamom, cloves, fenugreek, ginger, pepper, salt, and cayenne or chili pepper. Cooks who frequently make this type of food will have jars of berbere pre-ground in their spice cabinets, just as we have Italian seasoning and Old Bay.

So, without further ado, I give you:
Tsebhi Birsen, or Eritrean Spicy Lentils
(adapted from here, here, and here)
To make the berbere:
2 teaspoons cumin
4 whole cloves
3/4 teaspoon cardamom
1/2 teaspoon whole black peppercorn
1 teaspoon Moroccan seasoning (optional)
1 teaspoon fenugreek
1/2 teaspoon coriander
8-10 small dried red chilies, finely chopped or ground in a mortar and pestle
1/2 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon sea salt
2 1/2 tablespoons paprika
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1 cup brown lentils
1 cup red lentils
6 1/2 cups of water, separated
1 medium onion, chopped
3 teaspoons olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 large can tomatoes
1 small can (6 oz) tomato paste
3 cloves garlic, minced [note: I actually broke my garlic press mincing this garlic! Whoops!]
Toast the cumin, cloves, cardamom, and peppercorn in a dry pan until fragrant, for about three minutes. Mix the rest of the spices together in a bowl, then either grind it with a mortar and pestle or put it through a pepper grinder (that’s what I did).
Cook the lentils in 6 cups of water and simmer for 20 minutes until done. While they are cooking, heat the olive oil in another (large) pot, then add the onions and let them caramelize on medium-low heat for at least half an hour. Add the salt, berbere, tomatoes, tomato paste, and the other ½ cup of water to the onions. Pour in the lentils (including any extra water that may be left in the pot) and the garlic to the onion mixture. Allow it to simmer for about 15 minutes - less if you want a thinner stew, more if you want a thicker stew. Serve with injera (if you have the guts) and a dollop of plain yogurt if you want to cut down the spice. Enjoy!


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