Chefs' Recipes

Saba Alemayoh's birsen (red split lentil stew)

The owner of Saba's Ethiopian Restaurant in Melbourne shares the recipe for her favourite legume recipe of all time.

By Saba Alemayoh
  • 10 mins preparation
  • 35 mins cooking
  • Serves 4
  • Print
"Legumes are a big part of Ethiopian cooking, and my favourite legume dish of all is birsen, also known as mesir in Amharic," says Alemayoh. "My mother says short-cutting the washing process will give you indigestion. It also gives the lentils an earthy flavour, which you want to avoid."
A note on injera
Ethiopian cooking revolves around injera, a fermented savoury flatbread made with teff flour. At Saba's they make their own, but you can source them from select Ethiopian bakeries. We've found that a buckwheat version works well and has great flavour. Combine 1 cup each of teff flour and buckwheat flour with 2 cups water, then set aside to ferment for 1-2 days (this is optional and adds a light sourness). To cook injera, heat a little oil in a non-stick frying pan over high heat, then add ¼ cup of batter per pancake and swirl around the pan to thinly coat. Reduce the heat to medium and cook until pancake is cooked through (1-2 minutes). Flip the pancake to cook the other side (20 seconds). Alternatively you can use Lebanese-style flatbread, or serve with a side of basmati rice.


  • 200 gm (1 cup) red split lentils
  • 1 tbsp neutral oil, such as sunflower
  • 1 onion, finely diced
  • 1 large canned tomato with a spoonful of juice
  • 1 tbsp finely chopped garlic (2-3 large cloves)
  • 1 tbsp berbere (see note)
  • Injera or Lebanese bread, to serve


  • 1
    Wash lentils until the water runs clear.
  • 2
    Heat oil in a small casserole or heavy-based saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and sauté until it softens and starts to brown (8-10 minutes). Add garlic and sauté until soft (1-2 minutes), then add berbere and stir to combine. Add lentils, tomato and juice, and 1½ cups water. Season with salt, then crush tomatoes with a spoon to combine. Cover, bring to a simmer, then reduce heat to low and cook until lentils are tender (20-25 minutes). If mixture is too thick add 2-3 tbsp water. Serve with injera or Lebanese bread.


Berbere is an Ethiopian spice mix. It's available from specialist spice shops, or online from