Monday, July 30, 2012

Berbere, A Spicy Scavenger Hunt, and A Runner's Strong Desire to Eat Ethiopian Food

My husband John found out last September that he loves Ethiopian food.  On my birthday we were in Tucson for Shakespeare in the Park.  Before leaving John did some research on the best places to eat in Tucson and found Zemams on Broadway, not far at all from where we were going for the production of "The Merchant of Venice" afterwards.  Nice work, honey. 
You already knew you were the best, but here is an award anyways....

Ethiopian food is eaten without utensils.  Diners use Injera, a special bread made out of an ancient grain called teff to convey their food to their mouths.  It has the unmistakable taste of sourdough.  For this reason, I did not immediately love Zemams or Ethiopian food.  I'm not the hugest sourdough fan, and after enough bites, everything starts to taste like it.  

I WANTED to like it though.  Over half of the dishes on the menu were vegan friendly, consisting of slow-cooked bean and pea offerings, and other delights of turnips, potatoes, carrots and cabbage.  The spices are amazing, a combination of which I could NOT identify.  More on that later. 

The rolls are the Injera bread.  The food comes to the table all on one platter, family style.  Diners tear off a piece of bread and use it to pick their food off of the communal plate. 

Fast forward several months (during which John kept asking to go back to Zemams because he loved it so much, and I refused because I still had the taste of sourdough in my mouth), John and I went to Boulder, CO for a continuing education week for his work.  We did a lot of research on restaurants before going and John found Raskassas, and insisted that we give it a shot.  I did like the food better, and loved the atmosphere.  Both Zemams and Raskassas have a homey vibe.  The people who wait on you seem genuinely pleased to see you and treat you so comfortably.  I started to thaw a little towards Ethiopian cuisine if for no other reason than I really liked the experience of eating there with John.

John was hooked after Boulder.  We started going back to Zemams again in Tucson, and when we were not there, he talked a lot about Ethiopian food.  Two weeks ago, during a rare weekend we were home in Show Low (where there are hardly any restaurants), I believe he wistfully mentioned Ethiopian cuisine about 20 times.  Why was John so obsessed with Ethiopian all of a sudden?  It couldn't just be that he loves the taste of the food, because his main food obsession is sushi, but he doesn't mention it with a faraway expression in his eyes nearly as frequently as he has been mentioning Ethiopian.  

Here is my hypothesis.  My husband is an awesome runner.  He has run a few marathons, has three ultra-marathons (one of which is a 50 miler) coming up in the next 6 months, and has plans to run the Grand Canyon rim to rim in one day this weekend.  Since moving to AZ he has challenged himself physically to the point that he's whittled his 5'10" frame down to 147 pounds.  He's lithe, strong and athletic.  And he's been watching the Olympic marathoners prepare for the Olympics (which of course just started and seem to be in our brains 24/7) with uncharacteristic (for him) intensity. 

Yes, my husband wants to be a Kenyan or an Ethiopian runner deep down inside.  That's my theory anyways.  
During the week that his cravings for Ethiopian reached their most feverish of pitches, John also posted two blog entries about famed marathoner Abebe Bikila, who won the 1960 Rome Olympic Marathon (on cobblestones) running barefoot, and also finished first in the Tokyo Olympics four years later.  
 As my husband is a barefoot runner himself and writes an awesome barefoot running blog , Abebe Bikila, and Ethiopian and Kenyan runners in general hold a fascination for him.  
I'm pretty sure that is why he has been talking about the food so much.  That, and he really loves how the food tastes.  So in my effort to be an awesome wife and support my husband in his endeavors to be the best distance runner he can be, I started to research recipes for Ethiopian food.  The first thing I found out was that I didn't have the most important spice called Berbere.  Every recipe called for it!  I searched online and I couldn't find anything that looked good. I went to our local Safeway.  No luck there of course.  I told him he would have to wait until next time we visited Tucson where I could go to Penzey's Spices and do some fact-finding.  

This Friday, John said, "Let's go to Tucson!  We can get the spices we need and also eat at Zemams.  And I won't have to do my long run in the mud." (Our trails are now a thick mud thanks to the monsoon season.)  We packed our bags and Saturday morning we started what turned out to be a two-day scavenger hunt for spices.  Penzey's did not carry Berbere, but they did have a printout of the recipe that included about 10 spices!  Luckily many were very common (cinnamon and nutmeg) but there were a few we didn't have.  They suggested we try the african grocery store in town.  We headed there.  (Before leaving Penzey's we did buy Garam Masala, a required spice for these dishes.)  
On our way, we met John's parents at Zemams for lunch so John could load up on his favorite dishes.  Here are some of them.  
  Shiro Wat (chickpea stew)
Kik Wat (split pea stew)

Gomen Alicha (potatoes, carrots and cabbage)

and our favorite....
Yemisir Kay Wat (a spicy red lentil stew)

After gorging ourselves (I have now started using a fork at Zemams to eat instead of the bread - which makes for an entirely different dining experience), we headed off to the african market which was awesome!  We found one of the main spices that we needed, fenugreek, which was inexpensive and super fragrant.  We also found cheap yellow split peas and red lentils.  One last stop at Penzey's for sweet paprika and I had all the recipes for the elusive Berbere spice blend that I needed to finally cook these yummy dishes!  

I decided against using the Penzey's recipe for Berbere and elected to use the Happy Herbivore version.  

Here it is!

2 tbsp Cayenne Pepper
4 tbsp Sweet Paprika
1 tsp Fengreek
3/4 tsp ground Cardamom
1/2 tsp ground Coriander
1/2 tsp ground Cumin
1/2 tsp Nutmeg or Mace
1/2 tsp ground Ginger
1/4 tsp ground Cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground Allspice
1/4 tsp Turmeric
1/8 tsp ground Cloves
I love this blend!  It is amazing.  I used it in my recipe tonight for Yemisir Wat.  I'll post that recipe tomorrow.  It is AMAZING!  
Suffice to it say, I can now make Ethiopian food because I am in possession of the elusive Berbere, and I think it's going to make my runner and wanna-be-Ethiopian husband very very happy.  
And for that I humbly give myself the best wife ever award......
Check in tomorrow for the recipe for Yemisir Wat, hands-down our favorite Ethiopian dish.  Pure yumminess!


1 comment:

  1. My husband and I had lunch at Zemam's today. I started searching for recipes and found this post. The Yemisir Wat, Gomen Wat, and Shiro are my favorites. P.S. I would also like to run like an Ethiopian :)