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Why the Food of Ethiopia Tastes Like Home (Even Though I've Never Been)

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I fell in love with Ethiopian food on a perfect weekend almost thirteen years ago. My not-yet-husband and several friends and I were on a four-day pass from our Army unit in Georgia and decided to drive to Washington D.C. for Veterans Day. By happy circumstance, my father (a globe-trotting neuroscientist) was in town for a conference so we agreed to meet him for dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant he recommended.

I don't remember what the restaurant was called. I don't remember where it was in the city. But I remember the food: the giant spongy rounds of injera bread, the burning red heat of what I found out later was berbere sauce, tiny nubbins of tender meat and piles of lentils and sauces and greens. I ate myself silly.

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Ethiopian-ish Griddle Cakes
Ethiopian-ish Griddle Cakes

That whole weekend was magical. I was in love. Crazy in love. And captivated by the city with its museums and monuments. Our host was a Capitol Police Officer and a history buff. He gave us the "Super Secret Tour of the Capitol," pointing out traces of the fire that raged when the British burned the city all those years ago. We took a goofy picture, my soon to be husband and me, on the upper steps just below the dome. My dad, a bone-deep political junkie, ditched the Dalai Llama's keynote speech at his conference to come on the adventure.

But then the weekend was over and Army life called. We were transferred to Colorado. My now-husband deployed (again) and I was at home, first-time parent of a six-month old, realizing that I would much rather have been deployed (again) then left behind.

The picture of us outside the Capitol during our magical weekend was framed on a shelf in our living room. Every time I saw it I remembered being at that softly-lit restaurant with the bright rugs and eating new foods and laughing and laughing. Amid the awfulness of that deployment, I decided I wanted those flavors back.

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So I tried. I researched on the internet. I learned about teff flour and fenugreek seeds. I fed the injera starter in the fridge. I clarified butters that made my home smell like a busy marketplace rather than a lonely house in the middle of suburbia. I am sure that what I did was not authentic, and I am sure that there were ways in which I did a disservice to the cuisine and the culture. The cooking I did at that point in my life was an act of self-preservation more than anything else.

After thirteen interminable months, my husband came home. After holding my breath for over a year, I finally exhaled. The compulsion I felt to make Ethiopian food eased a bit. But it left an indelible mark on the cuisine of my family. It is not out of the ordinary for us to have doro wat for a weekend meal. And potatoes get sautéed in niter kibbeh as frequently as in duck fat.

Almost by accident, and certainly in ways that lack authenticity, the foods of Ethiopia have become "home" to me as much as any New England boiled supper. And I am profoundly, deeply grateful to the people of a land I have never been to for the gift of their food.

My husband and I celebrate our tenth anniversary this week and he is still the best friend I have ever had (and we are still crazy in love). We both left the Army and moved on to other things. We have two sons who have their father's wicked sense of humor and their mother's love of Calvin and Hobbes. We moved to a different home when we realized that Colorado was going to be where we stayed and not just another duty station.

But the picture of our weekend in D.C. on Veterans Day thirteen years ago is still on our wall. And the jar of homemade berbere sauce is still in our fridge.

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Ethiopian-ish Griddle Cakes

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Serves 10 as an appetizer

For the griddle cakes:

  • 1 cup red lentils
  • 1/2 cup long grain white rice
  • 1/4 cup black rice
  • 1/2 cup walnuts (unsalted)
  • 1 sweet onion
  • 2 teaspoons cumin seeds, toasted and ground
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 to 1 1/2 teaspoons cayenne (depending on your heat tolerance)
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • niter kibbeh (recipe to follow)
  • 1 egg, if needed
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons flour, if needed
  • 1 cup Greek yogurt (plain, full fat)
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons honey

For the niter kibbeh:

  • 1 pound unsalted butter (the best you can find)
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1/8 teaspoon fresh ground nutmeg
  • 4 cloves
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons fenugreek seeds
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 3/4 teaspoon freshly grated ginger
  • 3 cloves garlic, smashed
  • 4 cardamom pods, smashed
  • 1/2 teaspoon tumeric