Like Ethiopian food? I love it! The spongy injera bread at the end that has soaked up the flavors of the spicy is my favorite part. I learned recently though that there is much more to Ethiopian cuisine than injera and stews. The cuisine of the Oromian region of Ethiopia for example is quite different as I found out and actually has a lot in common with Indian food.
A couple of Saturdays ago, I went on a day trip to area code 98118, ten minutes away from downtown Seattle. The trip was organized by Crooked Trails and the Horn of Africa Services to create “a cross-cultural journey connecting Seattle residents with immigrants and refugees from Eritrea, Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Somalia to meet, share and learn.”
When I heard about this trip, I was reminded of Chimananda Adichie, a writer from Nigeria who gave a TED Talk about the cultural misunderstandings that arise from knowing only a single story about a person or culture. The single story that we hear about Africa is one of poverty, famine and aid. I wanted a broader and deeper look into the lives of East Africans with whom I already had in common the immigrant experience. The trip also promised cooking with host families as part of the itinerary! There was no way to resist that.
I wanted to share a couple of things that I learned from my 98118 experience. After a big group session with all participants, we were divided into smaller groups and sent off with our hosts. My group of five people were hosted by an Ethiopian Oromo family. Almost anything that I’ve read about Ethiopia focuses solely on the Amharic culture. The Oromos are actually the largest tribe in Ethiopia and have their own distinct language and culture. Sadly, the Ethiopian government represses the Oromo politically and socially. The Oromo do not have the freedom to learn or speak their language.
Our lovely hosts showed us how to make marqqa or marka (cooked barley dough with a spicy ghee sauce), chapathis and chai. The chapathis and chai are an influence from the Indians taken to East Africa as indentured labourers and it was so much fun for me to trade techniques on the easiest way to roll out the dough! It also struck me how similar marqqa is to “ragi mudde”, a cooked dough dish made in some parts of the South Indian state of Karnataka where I’m from. Ragi or finger millet, is a highly nutritious grain that is originally from Ethiopia and used extensively in South India. It was an unexpected reminder of how much more we have in common with people from other countries than we think.
While the musician in the group brought out the guitar and played us soft cooking music from his perch on the colorful, sectioned couch, others took turns making chapatis, washing dishes, and checking how the chai was coming along. I’d never met any of these people before and I felt so much at home.
I feel compelled to share this simple recipe for marqqa which is the perfect dish for gloomy fall weather. And as I write this, I’m making elaborate travel plans to Ethiopia in my mind. Sadly, I know they will not come to fruition any time soon.
- Roughly 2 cups barley flour
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 4 tablespoons ghee
- 1-2 teaspoons berbere spice blend
Bring 4 cups of water to a rolling boil in a large pot. Add the salt. Have a wooden spatula handy.
While the water heats up, measure out 2 cups of barley flour. When the water boils, remove about a cup and put aside to add back as needed later. Slowly add flour to the hot water while stirring the water with a wooden spatula. This helps avoid clumps of uncooked barley and makes for smoother dough. You may not need all of the flour. Add till there is no water left and it is hard to stir the cooked dough. If there is uncooked flour or if the dough is too hard, add some of the boiled water you had put aside earlier. Use the tapered edge of your spoon to cut through the dough as you move the spoon back and forth. Remove from heat when the dough starts sticking to the pot.
Heat 4 tablespoons ghee (or butter) for 30 seconds in the microwave. Add 1-2 teaspoons of Berbere, an Ethiopian spice blend.
Transfer the cooked dough into a serving bowl. Pour the ghee sauce over it and mix it up. You could also serve the ghee sauce separately and let people mix it with the dough on their plates. We were served homemade yogurt with this dish.
I loved the utter simplicity of this dish. The barley dough ball tastes wholesome and the ghee sauce with the berbere is very flavorful. I went back for seconds and then thirds, not knowing of the rest of the food that we had yet to make and eat!
This experience not only gave me the chance to hang out with my neighbors in a different part of Seattle but also changed my single story of Ethiopia, its culture and its cuisine. I hope you’ll give this dish a try!