Saturday, March 24, 2007

What's Wat? An African Repast


I collect spices the way other women collect shoes. Our kitchen has pretty much been re-ordered around the spice cupboard. This is not to suggest that the cupboard itself is orderly; there are scores of zip-top bags and bottles, tiny tins and packets. No matter how I periodically sort and position them on the shelves, they are an unruly crowd. I do not need any more double-decker carousels; I need a Ferris wheel. This, of course, is all my doing, but I will not hang my head in shame, but poke my nose into Penzeys catalogue searching for the fragrant grind that got away.

I have always had a weakness for Eastern aromatics, cultivated by my early child introduction to lebkucken, the hard, chewy German cookie of ginger, clove and cinnamon highlighted for the Christmas season. Over time my tastes expanded into uncharted territory; there was paprika, then turmeric and mustard, the “gateway” powders. By this time, I had found my dealer in the historic splendor of Grand Central Station, the jewel in the otherwise dismal grid of midtown Manhattan. I could be found there on any given lunchtime in the food market, at the spice merchant, Adriana’s Caravan (now Penzeys), squinting my way through hundreds of temptations. I’d spent so much frozen time behind the dried capsicum column that the proprietress thought I was shoplifting. I wasn’t. I was contemplating Scoville Units. She made a particularly good sale that day.

It was Scoville Units that lead me to Africa, all over Africa. From my stovetop I’ve been to Tunisia, Morocco, and I just got back from Ethiopia, where I made doro wat and injera, the unique, sour pancake used as the chief table utensil. It wasn’t my first journey there, and it won’t be my last. I still have a lot of territory to cover.

Doro WatAdapted from Dinner Co-op
(This recipe, with the addition of peanut butter, is different, and in my opinion, better than one I’d used a while back. The peanut butter creamed and sweetened the sauce just enough to take the edge off the punishing heat, and lent even greater complexity to flavors that were already on the top of my hit parade.)

3 pounds boneless, skinless chicken pieces (thighs work best)
1/3 cup butter or Niter Kibbeh*
1 large clove garlic, minced
2 large onions, chopped
3 ounces tomato paste
1 tablespoon berbere seasoning**
½ teaspoon black pepper
1/3 cup peanut butter
½ cup chicken stock


In a large skillet, cook onions in butter over low heat until soft and translucent. Add the berbere, black pepper and tomato paste, stirring well after each addition. Cook for 10 minutes over VERY low heat to avoid scorching the paste. Add chicken pieces, turning to well coat each side. Pour in chicken stock. Cover skillet and simmer over medium heat for 20 minutes. Remove 1 cup of liquid from skillet, stir all the peanut better into the liquid and pour mixture over the chicken. Re-cover skillet and cook at least another 20 minutes until chicken is thoroughly cooked. If using chicken with bones, you will have to allow even more cooking time.
Injera (1 recipe of batter prepared 24 hours in advance)

While the chicken is stewing, oil the largest skillet or griddle that you own and turn heat to medium. The batter, after growing and fermenting for 24 hours, will be thick with a mind of its own; this certainly supports my theory that living yeast is indeed a free and rebellious thinker. Add one ½ cup batter to hot griddle, spreading it out as large as you can. Do not turn the injera, but allow it to cook and steam through the raw top batter. I was tempted to speed things along by flipping it over, but I feared I would loose the characteristic spongy texture. Instead, I briefly covered the skillet to confine the steam, then removed the pancake to a warm oven to grill the others. The authenticity of my method can be challenged, but it’s the best I could manage first time out. Besides, I was getting hungry.

As often the case with the first pancake, the coordinates of batter and temperature often turn out less than desirable though quite edible results. My injera did not look anything in color or texture like the photos of experienced native cooks. The consistency should be thinner than a traditional pancake, but thicker than a crepe. The batter behaved very badly no matter how much additional water I added to thin it out. My attempts to spread it to the maximum proportion resulted in a Pollock painting. I attribute this to my inaugural use of teff. Practice will make perfect, but probably not for your first attempt, either. Do not let this discourage you, for great rewards are to come.

Assembly and Dining

Place an injera on a plate, top with the wat and serve. Injera and accompanying dishes are traditionally eaten out of hand as you tear, roll and scoop your meal up with the pancake. I've read that injera is sometimes used as a tablecloth with various wats placed on the giant surface. I don't know if this is fact or hyperbole, but another dictate to mind your Western manners and not put your elbows on the table unless your hostess tells you otherwise.

* Niter Kibbeh – Adapted from

4 ounces unsalted butter (1 stick)
1 1-inch piece fresh gingerroot, peeled
2 cardamom pods
2 whole cloves
¼ teaspoon turmeric
½ teaspoon fenugreek seed
1 small cinnamon stick
½ onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced


Melt butter with all ingredients in small saucepan over the lowest heat. Let simmer for at least ½ hour, stirring occasionally. Strain solids from butter before use.
** Berbere seasoning can be freshly made by following the recipe included in the Dinner Co-op link. In the interest of time, and since my countertops were fast filling up with a clutter of bowls, utensils and compost scraps, I opted for a commercial blend with good results. --


  1. Beautiful!

    I'm a Penzey's virgin, and a bit ashamed to admit it. This post is another reason why I have to get myself on their mailing list.

    Thanks for sharing these recipes.

  2. Being a virgin about something means discovery, about yourself as well as what you've found. Since you are a teacher, I'm sure you know about the joy of learning. It's just great fun and a positive view of the world. Glad you like the recipes -- what work! -- but it was worth it.

  3. P.S., Christina: Thanks for the enthusiastic compliments.

  4. I have been wanting to make these same dishes for some time. thanks for giving me the push (and the recipes)

    re my spice collection -- when we remodeled our kitchen, consideration for spice storage was at the top of my list. I went the drawer with inserts route myself.

  5. Thanks, FJK, for the drawer suggestion. If we ever decide to stay in our condo long term, a kitchen remodel is something to seriously consider, although I know it costs more than you think it will. The idea of being without a kitchen while the work is taking longer than expected is daunting, too. We may have to eat out of the blue box a lot. Glad you like the recipes.

  6. Susan, lovie - I am slowly making my way through your archive, not in any order, though - just what appeals to me on the day.

    I first heard about injera in 2002 after close friends of mine had gone to a restaurant in Little Ehtiopia in Los Angeles (yes, it exists, in the shadow of Hollywood no less!). They went on and on about the bread. I decided that it was like naan, a thick floury bread put to best use when soaking up sauce. I learned about its sourness, albeit slight, from reading Marcus Samuelsson's "The Soul of a New Cuisine". I have been curious to make it since.

    Thank you for not only talking your beloved readers through the method but also what to possibly expect first time around. Have you made it since this post?

    As for your love of spices, I think you and I are of the same pea pod. Though I was not exposed to lebkuchen as a kid, I had my fill of ginger crunch, which is a cafe treat that has a crumb base topped with ginger butter cream icing. It was the ginger that got my taste buds working, and I have since gravitated to all sorts of aromatic and spicy treats and dishes.

    When Eric and I moved to Long Beach, we coincided it with the purchase of Aliza Green's little yet densely-packed "Field Guide to Herbs and Spices" book. We found allspice, caraway, angelica, juniper berries, cumin...We are still making our way through the book (we also have her informative tome, "Starting With Ingredients") and have many a Penzeys item.

    A great post!!

  7. Thanks, Shaun. Mais non, injera's not like naan at all; it's indescribably spongey. I haven't made it since, but now that you mention it...I may have enough teff remaining for a half batch of batter. I'm not expecting great progress in the grilling of them, since I don't have the proper pan, but I mustn't let that discourage me.

    That ginger crunch sounds amazing. I'm going to have to research a recipe now. So many sweets, so little time.

  8. Susan - Thanks for steering me the right way re: the taste and texture of injera. Though my knowledge of most cultures' foods is lacking, I really am interested to learn more about the African spice route, particularly from Zanzibar, which was hugely influenced by Portuguese cooking (I like interesing hybrids).

    On the 6th of September, 2006, fellow NZ blogger, Bron wrote a post on ginger crunch. I have not yet made the recipe, but the result looks right. Her url is:
    I have been meaning to make it for a while and in fact wanted to do so when I was in the US. Now that I am back in NZ, it is pretty easy and quick for me to get myself to a bakery or cafe to have one.

  9. Bravo on the Injera trial. I go to a place in jersey city to buy them. 10 huge injera for $7. Where do you buy the teff flour - health stores ?


    P.S - you have a very nice blog

  10. Thank you, Anrosh. Wow, what a bargain! I bought the teff in Whole Foods, but it is usually available in regular health food stores that carry groceries as well as vitamins. Thank you for visiting my blog. You are always welcome here.