Humble, but Hearty Cuisine: Ethiopian Red Lentils (Misir Wat) with Injera

Thanksgiving in the Panchal household is anything but an ordinary affair. I’m not saying that we are not traditional, but in a holiday celebrating togetherness and unity among friends and family, it’s not necessary to have turkey all the time. All that matters, is that everyone is at the table enjoying the feast together and at the same time.This year I sought some inspiration from East Africa and prepared these two fabulous Ethiopian recipes to be the centerpiece of our thanksgiving meal.

Ethiopian cuisine celebrates life’s humble flavors. Along with big, bold meats, plenty of vegetables feature prominently during special occasionsDSCN5783. Cooked together with a tasteful blend of spices, these simple ingredients are transformed into that familiar heartwarming and satisfying plate of food that anyone can connect with.

Misir wat translates into lentil stew in Amharic, the national language of Ethiopia. I was surprised to see that a lot of the ingredients in this dish are ones that I also use frequently in Indian cooking. One my all time favorite chefs, Lidia Bastianich, once said, “great food travels”, and sure enough spices are what give great food those addictive flavors that people the world over clamor for. It was perhaps trade with India along with indigenous growing varietals that gave Ethiopia some of these spices, but it was their spectacular tastes which got them integrated into the cuisine.

DSCN5596I started out this misir wat by making my own berbere, the quintessential spice blend used to flavor almost everything in the Ethiopian kitchen. It begins with toasting coriander, fenugreek, cardamom, cloves, and allspice seeds until fragrant. The toasty seeds are ground with red chilies, dried onion flakes, and handful of other spices to create a blend that’s deeply warming with slight hints of spiciness. It functions physiologically on the body like garam masala in the sense that it heats you up and makes you feel warm and fuzzy on the inside. Berbere is used as liberally in Ethiopia as salt and pepper is used here in the United States, so I’m sure that can only reassure you of its powerful flavors.

DSCN5711Cooking this stew is a lot like making a dal, so naturally, I took to the cooking process as if it were second nature. Yet the flavors which emerged out of the pot an hour later were very different. This bowl of lentils tastes of caramelized onions and has a distinct cardamom aroma that sets it apart from any dal you would be served in the Indian subcontinent. It’s a dish truly unique all on its own, and it makes me ever the more thrilled to continue an exploration into this perplexing, yet familiar cuisine.

Injera is the edible serving vehicle and perhaps even the oldest DSCN5771ancestor of the modern-day bread bowl. Made from teff, an ancient grain that packs in quite the nutritional punch, these moist crepes have a spongy texture along with a sourish taste that comes from fermenting the batter overnight. Injera are far more dense than their French cousins, and they are traditionally served at room temperature. This leaves them feeling a bit heavy in the stomach, but they work excellently in mopping up all of those juices from the wats, and when you think about it, a simple bowl of lentils along with one injera can prove to be a very filling and nourishing meal in indeed. Yes, this is a humble cuisine, but it is heartiness and exhilarating flavors prove it worthy enough to serve as the centerpiece of any upcoming holiday banquet.

Recipe: Ethiopian Red Lentils (Misir Wat) with Injera

Recipes from Food and WineNovember 2012 issue

Lentils

Serves 8

  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 medium red onions, finely chopped (2 cups)
  • 10 garlic cloves, minced
  • one 3-inch piece ginger, peeled and minced
  • 3 tablespoons berbere, see recipe below
  • 2 teaspoons nigella (kalonji) seeds, finely ground
  • 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • kosher salt
  • finely ground black pepper
  • 3 cups red lentils

Method

1. In a large sauce pot or dutch-oven, heat the olive oil. Once it is hot, add the onions and cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally until they are softened and starting to brown, about 8 minutes. Add the ginger, garlic, berbere, nigella seeds, cardamom, and a big pinch of salt and black pepper. Cook the mixture until fragrant and deeply colored, 10 minutes.

2. Add the red lentils with about 8 cups of water to the pot and bring to a boil. Cover and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until the lentils have cooked down and thickened, about 25 minutes. Remember, you want the texture to be on the mushier side and not al dente. Season the lentils with salt and pepper to taste. Ladle into bowls or on top of injera, sprinkle with extra berbere and serve.

DSCN5728Injera

Makes about 8, 12-inch crepes

  • 4 cups teff flour
  • 5 cups water
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt

Method

1. In a large bowl, whisk the teff flour with the water until a smooth batter forms. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let stand at room temperature overnight; the batter will be slightly foamy.

2. Heat a 12-inch, nonstick skillet over high heat. Whisk the salt into the batter. Ladle about 3/4 cup of batter into the skillet and swirl it to cover the bottom of the skillet. Cook over moderately high heat until the injera begins to bubble, like a pancake. Cover the skillet and cook for about 30 seconds, until the injera is cooked through and slightly glossy on the surface. Invert the skillet on a plate and let the injera fall off. Serve at room temperature with all you favorite Ethiopian wats ladled on top.

Berbere Spice BlendDSCN5611

recipe adapted slightly from Marcus Samuelson

Makes about 3/4 cup

  • 2 teaspoons coriander seeds
  • 1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
  • 1/4 teaspoon whole allspice
  • 6 green cardamom pods
  • 4 whole cloves
  • 1/2 cup dried onion flakes
  • 5 dried chiles de arbol, broken into small pieces
  • 3 tablespoons paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Method

1. In a small skillet, combine the coriander seeds, fenugreek seeds, black peppercorns, allspice, cardamom pods, and cloves. Toast the spices over medium heat, swirling around constantly, until fragrant, about 4 minutes.

2. Let the spices cool slightly and then transfer to a spice grinder along with the onion flakes and grind until fine. Add the chilies and grind with the spices until fine.

3. Transfer the mixture to a bowl and stir in the paprika, nutmeg, ginger, and cinnamon. Store in an airtight container for  up to 6 months.

Misir WatCooking Notes:

  • You can find berbere at specialty markets and online, but I always feel that it’s more fun to make spice blends at home if you have all the ingredients on hand. 
  • If you do make the berbere, be sure to store in the fridge. I find that spice blends tend to have a longer shelf life that way.
  • Nigella seeds are also known as onion seeds and you can find them easily at Indian markets, where they will most likely be referred to as kalonji. 
  • I would recommend making only as much injera as you plan on eating that day. Leftover injera doesn’t keep well. It gets way too dense and heavy as a rock a day later.
  • Teff flour can be found at most health-food and organic stores. I got mine at Whole Foods.
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