My friend, Lol, and I traveled to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art recently. When the museum closed at 5 PM, we stopped in the nearby Little Ethiopia neighborhood to look for a place to eat.
Little Ethiopia refers to the two-block stretch of Fairfax Ave in Los Angeles between Olympic and Pico Boulevards. It was officially recognized as such in 2004. This neighborhood is filled with a significant concentration of residents of Ethiopian and Eritrean ancestry. Ethiopian businesses and restaurants abound as well.
We were hungry but seeing at least 5 restaurants in one block claiming to serve authentic Ethiopian food, we were confused as to which one to choose. After talking with a neighborhood local, Lol was satisfied that Nyala was where we should eat.
Nyala was unassuming from the outside but once we opened the door and stepped inside, it was as if we were transported to another time and place. This was my first experience with an authentic Ethiopian restaurant. As we were seated, I saw people eating with their hands and pieces of round, spongy looking bread. I asked the server for the name of this bread to which she simply replied, “Injera” with a quizzical look on her face that implied, Why do you not know this?
Injera is a staple in Ethiopia similar to a large spongy crepe. It is made with a starter of fermented teff flour that, some say, gives Injera a distinct taste similar to sourdough bread. The neat thing about teff is that it is gluten free and full of nutrition. One ounce of uncooked teff contains over 100% of the daily value of manganese, 12% iron, and 2g of fiber – and this is just one ounce! You eat several large pieces of Injera and you’re getting tons of minerals, fiber, and a healthy dose of vitamins.
I ordered the sampler plate that came with 5 different vegetarian dishes. Nyala’s menu describes each side dish as follows:
Yemisir Wot: Red lentil stew with red pepper sauce, fresh garlic, and ginger
Kik Alecha: Mild yellow split peas cooked with onion, fresh garlic, and ginger
Defen Yemiser Wot: Bean stew cooked in fresh garlic and ginger
Yatakilt Wot: Fresh carrots, potatoes, and cabbage cooked with garlic and ginger
Yabesha Gommen: Collard greens seasoned with fresh garlic and ginger
All of the sides above were served on a base of the round Injera bread with plenty of extra Injera delivered to the table in a separate basket. My favorite dish, in addition to the Injera, was the red lentil stew, Yemisir Wot. When I got home I did some research on Ethiopian cuisine.
I found that one of the main components of Yemiser Wot is an African spice blend called Berbere. Many of the recipes for Berbere spice blend are so incredibly hot that the heat can overpower the dish. My recipe includes a blend that has a nice balance of heat from chiles (sans seeds) and sweetness from paprika.
A note on Injera bread: making it can be tricky so I find it easier to purchase. Unfortunately, there are no local sources so I have to resort to the Internet. Here’s where I buy it online: Zelalem Injera. Although the Injera only costs $5.00 per bag, you are required to order at least two bags and shipping costs about $19.00. This is expensive by any measure but it is fun to try at least once if you can afford it. The Injera arrives within 48 hours and is fresh.
The goodness of lentils and African spices allow this to be a complete meal on its own, but it is equally good as a side dish. Either way you serve it be sure to include plenty of Injera.
Yemisir Wot Ingredients:
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion (chopped fine)
2 garlic cloves (minced)
1-inch slice fresh ginger root (grated)
1 Scotch bonnet chili pepper (seeded and ribs removed – finely minced)
2 tablespoons Berbere spice blend (see below)
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon salt
15-ounce can tomato puree
½ cup coconut milk
1½ cups vegetable stock
1 cup red lentils (rinsed to remove small rocks and debris)
Yemisir Wot Directions:
Using a large saucepan, heat olive oil on medium heat, add onion and cook until soft – about 10 minutes. Add garlic, ginger and Scotch bonnet and cook for another two minutes. Add Berbere spice blend, turmeric, and salt. Stir to combine. Add tomato puree, coconut milk and 1 cup of vegetable stock. Stir to combine.
Add lentils and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce to low heat and simmer for about 40 to 45 minutes or until lentils soften and mixture thickens. Stir frequently to keep lentils from sticking. If mixture gets too thick add additional stock and reduce. You want the consistency to be like loose mashed potatoes with most of the liquid absorbed (but still creamy). Serve on a bed of Injera bread with plenty of extra Injera on the side.
Tip: If you cannot find Scotch bonnet chile, substitute the same amount of habanero chile. Be sure to thoroughly wash your hands after handling either chile.
Berbere Spice Blend Ingredients:
¼ cup ground dried red chilies
¼ cup paprika
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon onion powder
½ teaspoon ground fenugreek
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground cardamom
¼ teaspoon garlic powder
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
1/8 teaspoon ground turmeric
pinch ground cloves
Berbere Spice Blend Directions:
Combine all ingredients in small mixing bowl. That’s it. Ready to use!