The foundations of Ethiopian cuisine are onion, garlic and Ethiopian chilli (also known as berbere), says Saba Alemayoh, owner of the now-closed Saba's Ethiopian Restaurant in Fitzroy, Melbourne. "But Ethiopian chilli is not just ground-up chilli – it's an intricate mix of spices passed from mother to daughter. Depending on who is making it, it can have anywhere from 15 to 50 different spices," she adds.
Ethiopian chilli, which is more of an aromatic than a hot spice, is used generously in the Alemayoh's recipes. The dishes are inspired by the menu at her restaurant, which is created and cooked by Alemayoh's mother, head chef Tekebash Gebre.
Getting Gebre's recipes down on paper required some careful observation. "Like all great cooks, my mother follows no recipes but is a slave to her taste buds for measurements and adjustments," says Alemayoh. "I have watched her closely – hopefully it hasn't turned into Chinese whispers!"
As well as Ethiopian chilli, the recipes feature many other spices and aromats, such as garlic, ginger, fenugreek, nigella seeds and dried red onion, which make the overall flavours more rounded and complex.
Mostly vegetable-based – the majority of the Orthodox Christian community in Ethiopia eat exclusively vegan for much of the year – the collection also includes a couple of spicy meat dishes, reflective of how the community eats post-Lent.
"Ethiopian cuisine's development was influenced by availability and faith," says Alemayoh. "The non-colonial history of the nation meant that it developed in a vacuum, a unique cuisine, reliant on spices and slow-cooking methods."
The dishes are designed to be eaten together as a feast, but work just as well on their own. Whichever way you chose to eat them, Alemayoh believes they provide a snapshot of her culture. "Food is not only sustenance," she says. "It tells the stories below the surface."
Saba's Ethiopian Restaurant closed in October, 2020. Keep up to date about Saba's next moves on Instagram/@sabas_tigrian_restaurant
Recipes by Saba Alemayoh, introduction by Michael Harden
Ethiopian cooking revolves around injera, a fermented savoury pancake made with teff flour. At Saba's, they made 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 the injera, heat a little oil in a non-stick frying pan over high heat, then add ¼ cup of batter per serve and swirl around the pan to thinly coat. Reduce the heat to medium and cook until injera 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.
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