Shiro-wat-eaters generally take two forms: those who eat this essential Ethiopian stew out of humdrum necessity, otherwise dreaming of doro wat, spiced chicken simmered to a deep burgundy, or kitfo, buttery minced beef eaten cooked or raw—and those who deify the dish as a delicacy.
To be sure, shiro, made of ground chickpeas, is generally considered peasant food, the cheap nourishment of those who can afford no better. And nourish shiro does. Chickpeas (otherwise known as garbanzo beans) hold within their oaky-colored skins gifts of protein, fiber, folate, iron, magnesium, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, zinc, copper, manganese, selenium, vitamins A, B6, B12, C, D, E, and K, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, folate, and chlorine. Setting aside the glugs of oil and butter (We'll get to that later), you can feel good about savoring hearty mouthfuls of injera-wrapped shiro.
Shiro fills the belly on a budget. I am no economist, but have observed...
1. Supply is high. Chickpeas grow by the billions in Ethiopia, Africa's leading producer of the heart-shaped legume.
2. Demand is high. Though the country has experienced a dramatic reduction in poverty in the last decades, still nearly 80 percent of the population exists on less than $2.00 US each day and must stretch their birr in the kitchen.
Thus, shiro's inexorable (though perhaps at times begrudgingly so) position on the Ethiopian carte du jour. In an average hole-in-the-wall café in sprawling Addis Abeba, a plate of shiro will cost perhaps 50 birr, or about one US dollar. Down country, in the expansive rural areas descending from the mountainous capital city, you can eat the same dish for less. Buying the plastic bags of flour-like powder and making the stew yourself is pennies.
Shiro is also a fasting food. Vegan before vegan was vegan. A primarily Orthodox population, Ethiopians fast for 165-250 days per year, including every Wednesday and Friday, and the longest fast, Abiy Tsom, stretches the 55 days before Easter. Fasting tradition prohibits meat, dairy, eggs, or any animal products for that matter. Hence, shiro. Shiro, as you can see, begins to pale to the banality of restriction. The long-suffering of self-limitation, hard repression of the flesh. The mournful wait unrolling endlessly before the coveted days of celebration. The hungering stomach dreaming of potted meats and lucky hardboiled eggs hidden within tingling stews.
Perhaps it is logical then that many who belong to the second group of shiro-consumers, those who laud the creation as specialty, often inhabit the realm outside the Orthodox faith, or even Ethiopian citizenship altogether: the ferenge, the foreigner. I am such a one. For those who didn't grow up eating injera for breakfast (often fir fir, broken up leftovers from the previous night's dinner), lunch (leftovers squeezed into a plastic Tupperware container), and dinner (which will be breakfast), shiro glows with novelty.
In the US, home to over 200,000 Ethiopian diaspora, shiro is often regarded with reverence. Here the powder is ground gold often unearthed from suitcases returned from rare and expensive trips to Ethiopia and handed in Ziplocs to wide-eyed loved ones in living rooms. It generally must be ordered as a separate entrée at Ethiopian restaurants and costs more than ten times what you would pay in the land of shiro's birth. Servers present it sizzling in little black earthen pots called tegamino, cached as within tiny treasure chests. The hushed server, as if in reverent obeisance to the unveiling of a delicacy so imbued with the smells of a faraway home, will open the pot, freeing a fragrant puff of steam and spice. The unbound lid reveals the silky, bubbling dish, colored persimmon or orange or pumpkin, a dab of kibe (spiced, clarified butter) freshly melted at the center, crowned bright with a sliver of hot green pepper. Gingerly, the server will rest the precious stew over your platter of injera with a wide wooden spoon, then return the lid to the pot, still warm to the palm. When my husband and I eat at Ethiopian restaurants in our current home of Indianapolis, we scrape the pot clean of shiro, the wooden spoon hollowing the clay down to the bone. What we do not consume in one sitting, we hide in our Styrofoam to-go containers, safely to be devoured later.
Of all of Ethiopia's gorgeous cuisine, shiro is my favorite.
I remember my first encounter with Ethiopian food. A recent college graduate and newly-dubbed missionary, I was nearing the end of training with my mission in Charlotte, North Carolina. Gathering my breath, sip by sip, for the great plunge into an unknown place: Ethiopia. More than a little petrified. It would be my first experience of Africa, which in my naïve imagination darkened to sunless, dirt-floored huts and children without shoes. Those of us missionaries with airline tickets booked for the capital had gathered around a table in the cool, spiced restaurant. We were daring a foretaste of our new lives.
I had no categories for this kind of edible nourishment. The scrolls of injera, that sour spongey bread, rolled in woven baskets. The smell: pungent spices I could not place, suggesting as gently as an Ethiopian whisper, that I was not at home anymore. There must have been music, the repetitive synthesizer beating strange meters. There must have been air-brushed posters of women in magnificent braids and pearly dresses pouring coffee into miniature porcelain cups. It all set me on edge, shifted me out of the neat, square world I knew. The server (I am sure she was soft-spoken, hiding secrets behind her lit smile) placed a platter in the center of the table. It was the largest platter I'd ever seen, lined in a layer of injera and dolloped in sauces and stews like an abstract painting: yellow chickpeas and orange carrots and green spinach and red lentils and browned bits of tender cut beef. And I do hope there was shiro.
Beyond the unfamiliar tastes and arrangement, the whole method of eating itself seemed bizarre. No spoon or fork or knife in sight. Unscrolling the bread and ripping off an edge, dipping it into the wats, the page of injera suddenly flamed in the piquant stew as if dipped in a pot of paint. The oil and spice soaking deeply into the bread, staining my fingers scarlet—then, pop—the flavor like stars in the pink of my mouth.
Whether or not I fell in love with shiro that fateful day in Charlotte, I do know by the time I'd passed some months in Ethiopia, I was hooked. At the international mission school where I taught, I would often order shiro for lunch—the silver tray, spread with one round of injera and doused with a generous ladle-full of shiro, glinting in the bright mountain sun. In a corner of the tray, I would spoon a little round of mitmita, and dip each bite into the flame-colored spice. Many days I would sit under the blue bolt of sky on the steps leading to the green football pitch and gather strength in the tiny rolls of nourishment.
It wasn't until my third year living in sun-shot, labyrinthed Addis Abeba, when I first tried my hand at shiro-making. Normally my house-helper made a pot, left it cooling on the little electric stove when I arrived home hungry from a day in the crowded classrooms, the bottle of canola oil depleted on the counter. But this time—now that I had met the man I would marry, an Ethiopian named Dagi—I wanted to try it myself. I had opened up a spiral-bound missionary cookbook (entitled something like, With All My Heart) to the Ethiopian section. I had my plastic bag of shiro powder the color of sunset, my onions, my oil. I suppose the result was passable.
SHIRO WAT (CHICK-PEA STEW)— Carlo Person
1/3 cup chopped onion
3+ cups cold water
2 cloves garlic (or to taste)
4 TBSP shiro powder (dried chick pea powder)
3 TBSP oil 2-3 tsp berbere or 1 bouillon cube
Cook the onions and garlic in 1/2 cup water. About 5 minutes after the water starts to boil, add the oil. Continue cooking until most of the water has boiled away and the onions are quite soft. Measure shiro powder into separate bowl. Add 3 cups of cold water and stir well. Slowly add this mixture to the boiling onions and oil, stirring constantly. Bring to a rapid boil and then turn heat to low. Let cook for at least 20 minutes, adding water as needed. Cook covered for a thicker wat. Add more water for a thinner wat.
Later Dagi laughed at me when I told him I used a recipe. "Shiro doesn't need a recipe," he said. "You just make it." To him it was like needing a recipe for buttered toast or scrambled eggs. Now I laugh at myself, thinking of my anxiety for exact proportions, how carefully I read the instructions, typed step by step for the inept foreigner (with a berebere substitute no less). Shiro, like all Ethiopian cooking, is passed down not on yellowed index cards, but through hands.
The way I eventually learned to cook my husband's native cuisine, that jewel-bright nourishment, was from his mother. With her, I would learn not from a typed page, but from a beautiful breathing human being, moving before the burner's flame. She would enact the recipe for me, in the way she had learned from her elders in a southern Ethiopian village. After Dagi and I had married and lived a year in Addis together, we decided to move to the US for graduate school. There, we would have no house-helper to leave a fresh pot on the stove to be lustily consumed when we returned our aching heels from work. There would be no shiro served daily at the school café. Dagi's mom would no longer be able to send us home with her blue plastic bowls brimming full of doro wat and iybe and kitfo after a family meal together. I suppose Dagi and I wanted to carry as much of our Addis home to America as we could. I would carry it in my hands, with my new skill.
Kaki (the two "k's" are explosive, the sound firing like a pop from the back of the tongue) slid me into an apron and a hat like a Beatrix Potter nightcap printed in pink roses. Kaki moved fragrant, her shoulders always offering whiffs of Estee Lauder or Chanel. And her eyes embodied kindness. We began with shiro, which she knew was my favorite.
(Because my in-laws know I love shiro, they serve it with nearly every meal. "Shiro?" they will ask, looking at me part-way through the feast. I will nod, say ehshi, okay, and they will smile. "Elisiye loves shiro," Dagi's dad Girmesh will say, humor in his eyes, and I will mirror his smile with my own, saying, "Ow, shiro ehwedalahu." Someone will pass the little white bowl to me. Or more often, Kaki will gather the bowl herself and ladle me generous spoonfuls. The shiro soaks deeply into my unfurled injera, the bread instantly enriched with flavor, the soft cloves of garlic showing whole and white through the golden stew.)
"You see?" she said, her English slow and careful. "You chop the onion, like this." I watched her historied hands, worn deep enough to work magic. Voila! Shiro. Just like that. Though this magic was of the slow-moving kind. Even the kitchen itself was like a magician's secret workshop, set off from the main house. (In Ethiopia, the spices are so pungent, cooking must be done apart from the rest of the home or else everything will be drenched with the scent of berbere.) We stood there in the room the size of a walk-in closet, crowded with a refrigerator, a deep freezer, cabinets full of spices in recycled jars. The space dimmed cool (I believe it was raining that day, as it does almost daily in rainy season), and we worked over the flame of a two-burner gas stove, the small fount of years nourishing, nourishing, nourishing.
Kaki gave the recipes generously. Perhaps learning the secrets of Ethiopian cuisine is like learning divine wisdom: to find them is to seek them. I wrote down as much as I could in my journal. Kaki did not use recipes, measuring cups, or measuring spoons. She did not own any cookbooks. Like the druids whose religion forbade them from writing any sacred thing, Kaki's recipes were in her mind and heart, unwritten. They were in her fingers, inscribed by practice, over and again from a lifetime of serving mother, father, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, husband, sons, friends, friends-of-friends, daughters-in-law, the hungry welcomed from the street. I am from the land of cupboards stacked with Bible-thick tomes by Irma Bombeck and Betty Crocker, and I forget easily. As she cooked, I wrote.
At the little stove, she taught me how to make kitfo, derkwash fir fir, tikel gomen, tibs, miser wat. My legs began to ache from the hours standing, and I realized how Ethiopian cooking unlike American, is patient, slow. (Indeed, Kaki's famous doro wat takes two or three days.) Each step is prepared by hand, onions chopped by the tub-full. The berbere is ground from whole peppers dried in the sun. The injera is fermented at home, then poured over a mitad until the heat hollows the bread with holes.
Ethiopian food is made not as fuel, burned lightning-quick from the plate, but as nourishment enjoyed in community. Perhaps through western influence or practicality, many Ethiopians now serve injera on separate plates. But traditionally it is eaten from one platter, everyone reaching cleansed hands into a shared space—the shared space set apart from the day's grit, the exigence of survival. There is a sense of feeding not only yourself but others. Of recognizing and acknowledging the presence of those surrounding the nourishment. Constantly, Ethiopians encourage each other to eat: Bee, Belah, Belahu. It is a sign of love and affection to press a giant bite of wat into another's mouth. Ethiopians call this intimate motion gorsha (or when using utensils, "fork-sha" as Dagi jokes). Around the table, the stray souls are gathered in, no one left alone.
Ethiopian food is consumed with a variety of thanks rare in the all-too-fattened West. Unlike many Americans, most Ethiopians, whether through fasting or famishing, know what it means to hunger. Whenever Dagi's parents pray over a meal, they thank God, praise God, worship God, for the grace of food, and I am reminded again that to eat, to nourish oneself with food, is a daily grace.
For lunch that rainy rainy-season day, we ate the shiro I had watched Kaki create. "Look, this is Elisiye's shiro," Kaki announced to Dagi, his brother, and his father.
"No, no, I just watched," I protested. Really, I had at most stirred the shiro, kept it from burning at the bottom of the pot.
"It is your shiro," Kaki said with a smile, knowing full well I had nothing to do with the success of the dish, but for all that, brimming with grace. The family savored the dish with gusto. "Wow, great job, Elise," they said. "Look, I'm getting seconds," they said. What they were really saying was, "You are a part of our family," and "I love you."
In the recipe below, I have guessed at the measurements of each ingredient, eyeing the amount in the seconds it took Kaki to add them to the pan. Thus admittedly, this recipe is not perfect. But the method itself is fairly reliable. For some reason, I did not include salt in my journal entry, but at some point the stew should be seasoned according to taste.
2 1/4 cup water
1/4 cup oil
1/2 chopped onion
5 heaping tablespoons berbere [I would add 1 tablespoon at a time, according to your palate]
1/2 cup nech (unspiced) shiro powder [If you do use spiced shiro powder, which is already red with berbere, do not add more, unless you enjoy spice fireworks burning the mouth.]
1 tablespoon freshly minced garlic
Chop an onion. ["You can cut small, but Dagi likes big slices of onion," Kaki said. Some recipes even call for placing the onions in a food processer.] Pour the oil into a pan set over a burner at medium-high heat. Wait until the oil is hot, then add the onion. Sauté onion until translucent but not too soft. Next, add the berbere. Use more or less depending on your tolerance for spiciness. Add splashes of water to keep the onion and spices from sticking to the pan, adding continually little by little. Let boil and keep stirring. Add garlic. After boiling awhile, add two cups of water. Cover the pot and wait until it boils. Be careful as you gradually add the shiro powder. Stir until thickened, adding more or less powder or water depending on your preference for consistency.
Shiro varies from region to region, tradition to tradition. If bits of beef are added, it becomes bozena shiro. In Bahir Dar, a northern city on Lake Tana, where visitors glide in canoes to islands where ancient monasteries cool under palm fronds full of secrets, Ethiopians serve doke shiro, a thicker version made with less water and more kibe. The butter bulks the stew to the consistency of hummus, perhaps, or mashed potatoes. Some say the best shiro hails from Mekele, also in the north. I attempted to find a recipe for Mekele's famous shiro on the Internet but was unsuccessful, perhaps because such a recipe is hidden inside the mind, not yet translated from motion to words. Or perhaps because no one has bothered to write it down. I do know, however, the secret ingredient is again butter. (I recall Julia Child: "With enough butter, anything is good.") I prefer shiro this way, with generous helpings of butter, but most Ethiopians I know make theirs with oil, creating a thinner, sauce-like dish called feses. Tomatoes can also be added, though shiro purists say this is an Italian influence from Eritrea. I do love the additional, twangy nuance in flavor the tomatoes provide. It lightens the heaviness of the protein and fat. Sometimes I add a can of diced tomatoes or a finely chopped fresh one to the sautéed onions and garlic before sprinkling the shiro powder.
After Dagi and I embraced Kaki and Girmesh goodbye in the rainy season dark and I was thankful how the night covered our faces like swaths of scarf, after we arrived in the US, after we found ourselves sealed in our little brick apartment humming from four lanes of Indianapolis traffic—we began to hunger for the tastes of our home in Abyssinia. Dagi and I both wanted to braid Ethiopian and American tradition into our lives. That culture which had seemed so strange was now woven into my fibers. Its food had entered my body, nourished my bones. Berbere made the buds in my tongue dance. And I was trying to get the recipes deep inside—so deep, time or place would not take them away. So deep, they would become part of my identity. With them, I could nourish others, as I had been faithfully nourished.
Perhaps herein lies some of the power of cooking, especially for exiles. How cooking allows the diaspora, hungering for their homelands, to maintain their culture within the shaded sanctity of their homes. Taste provides continuity with memories of a past life, the walls of their brick suburban homes reeking of berbere. No one can take these traditions away—they are hidden too deep.
Time was galloping towards Ghena, Ethiopian Christmas observed in January, and we decided to invite family and friends to celebrate. Studying my journal, the one where I had written all of the recipes Kaki had taught me, I realized how much I still had to learn. I had compressed the living experience of chopping, stirring, and laughing with Kaki in the kitchen to scribbles on a page. Intangibles compressed to numbers and letters. Un-druidlike, I had attempted to write the sacred recipes. Their power had cooled to the passivity of the page. I needed to imprint the recipes in my fingers. I needed to hold them inside, where the ink wouldn't fade. I closed my journal.
Dagi, gentle-fingered and generous-eyed, became my second teacher. Unlike many Ethiopian men, he had learned the rudiments of Ethiopian cooking. As a child, he would watch the stove, watch his mother's hands. Cooking Ethiopian food became a shared endeavor as we prepared for the party. Together, we played with the water-to-shiro-powder ratio. He taught me how to dip the spoon into the pot and dab a bit of the stew on the thick of the palm. To blow it lightly, then taste. More salt. He stirred, embodying the traditions passed for generations. He turned up the heat, and I protested as the shiro bubbled up lava-like, spitting russet dots over the stove, over my forearms. "It's too hot," I said.
"Shiro is known as the dancing stew," he replied. "It's supposed to dance in the pot." He placed on the lid, and I could hear the popping and partying. Dagi and I still cook Ethiopian together, still taste bits on our palms. Add more salt.
In preparing for Ghena, YouTube videos also helped. Stirring for hours at our gas stove, I attempted a small pot of doro wat, which unlike shiro, hails the commencement of feasting and celebration: the belly filled, the fasting banished. I was learning. And I suppose it worked. Whether out of kindness or otherwise, our guests deemed the dish delicious. The YouTube video I used for the Christmas doro was published by howtocookgreatethiopian.com, a site that has since disappeared. I learned from the video version, which differs slightly from the version published on their website (perhaps such is the disconnect between the experiential recipes and the written ones). Here is one of their recipes:
Doro Wat—Chicken Stew
2 pounds chicken legs & thighs
1 lemon, juice only
5 cloves garlic
cayenne pepper to taste
4 hard boiled eggs
3 tablespoonsNiter kibbeh
After your chicken is well cleaned, mix it together with lemon juice, salt bowl and marinate for 35 minutes. Heat the niter kibbeh in a large pot over medium heat. Add paprika and stir. Cook for 2 minute. Stir in berbere and cook for another 3 minutes. Now add your finely chopped onions (this dish has a lot of onion, so do not be surprised by the amount in the pan). Sweat these onions down, then pour water in and stir in the chicken pieces, cayenne, salt and pepper. Bring to boil, reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 60 minutes. Add water as necessary. Add whole hard boiled eggs and continue to cook for 15 minutes. You should now have a deep red sauce with a little oil showing on top.
Earlier that day, Dagi had called his parents to wish them a "Melkam Ghena," and he told Kaki how I had made my first pot of doro.
"Doro wat seresh?" she asked, after Dagi handed me the phone, after the shared layers of hellos and how-are-you's.
"Ow, doro serow." I replied.
"Gobez," she said. Clever.
"Ehwedeshalahu." I told her I loved her. Did my voice catch? I cannot remember.
"Enem, ehwedeshalahu," she replied. "I miss you."
When searching for Ethiopian recipes online, I recommend watching videos published by Ethiopians. Sometimes the videos are in English, some with English subtitles, some entirely in Amharic. Even the last are useful; I mimic what I see on screen, just as I mimicked Kaki that rainy dim day in Addis before we parted. Though oftentimes lacking in specific measurements, videos are especially helpful as written recipes are, I've found, difficult to find. (And at any rate, you will learn much more by trial and error, working without words. Memory will transfer to your fingers, rather than to a typed page.) Blogs or articles written by ferenges and claiming to be authentic Ethiopian (or worse, quick Ethiopian), I generally avoid.
Here is a recipe with garlic also written by howtocookgreatethiopian.com. They've also published a YouTube video based on a similar recipe. I find the visual aid helpful, especially in achieving the desired color and consistency.
3 cups mitten shiro
1 tablespoon berbere
3 large onion fine chopped
2 teaspoons salt
1 cup vegetable oil
10 cups water
5 teaspoons minced garlic
Niter kibe [clarified butter]
In your pot, simmer onion and garlic with vegetable oil. Add berbere and simmer for about 8 minutes at low heat while adding a dash of water to avoid sticking. Add the remaining water and mix the shiro by adding a small portion of the shiro flour at a time and continuously stirring. Let it cook until it becomes thick, but runny for about 25 minutes at low heat. Finish off by adding a spoon of Niter Kibe.
Like this recipe's author, I've taken to adding a bit of kibe to the shiro just before serving, the butter melting beautifully over the finished dish. (I am reminded of Meister Eckhart: "But goodness is the melting and running out of God, his diffusion to the whole of creatures.") Kibe is an essential ingredient for creating authentic Ethiopian dishes. Kaki's version:
1 kilo butter
3 tablespoons cardamom
1/3 cup wild celery
Bit of curry for color
Bit of black caraway
Melt butter over a hot stove. Add the spices. Purify the butter by running it through a sieve. Keep cold in the fridge. It will last months.
In our most recent trip to Ethiopia last summer, Kaki sent us back to the US with kibe, shiro, mitmita, berbere, injera, and doro wat. Weighed together it burst past Ethiopian Airline's 50-pound weight limit, so we had to balance the food in two different suitcases.
She told us to give some of the shiro powder to my mom, and I poured her a Ziploc full. One summer afternoon I tried to teach my mom how to cook a pot of shiro. (My mother is of the "shiro-is-a-delicacy" sort.) I heated the oil until prickling hot, then sprinkled in chopped onion. After the onions had turned translucent, I added a fresh-chopped tomato. Then garlic. Little by little, splashes of water. I waited. Allowed the shiro to boil, and cool with more water, boil, and cool. Then I took a measuring cup and, without measuring, sprinkled in the shiro powder, stirring. The shiro danced in the pot. Gurgled pleasantly. Bits escaped and landed on the stove, on my forearm. I dipped the spoon into the pot and placed a dab on my palm. More salt. In my explanation, I could not tell my mom the proportions. I worked by feel, the recipe written in my hands.