One of my first memories of Columbus, Ohio — my home — involves Ethiopian food. Not eating it, exactly, but seeing it: it was late winter in Ohio, and I was visiting from Texas because I had applied to Ohio State, and I hoped to win some scholarship money in a big on-campus essay competition for high-performing students. (My complete inability to comprehend the poem we were given to analyze scuttled that possibility, which is ironic given that a decade later I’d walk away from Ohio State with a master’s in poetry, but hey, who’s counting? (Me, grudgingly, years later, that’s who.)) My uncle had picked me up from the airport, and we were driving through North Campus, trying to find our way, when the Addis Ababa Restaurant hove into view, a black lion standing proud on its sign bordered in red, green, and yellow. I don’t want to overplay the aw-shucks card, but Ethiopian food was not something I’d ever even thought about in rural East Texas: in hindsight, I think this was the moment I decided I was coming to Ohio State.
Ironically, I never actually ate at Addis Ababa, which closed right around the time I started my freshman year. But its near neighbor, Blue Nile, was a frequent destination for me and my friends, where the proprietor greeted everyone with “hello, my friends!” and the staff served a selection of richly-spiced stewed meats and vegetables, accompanied with chewy injera bread, fruit juices, and honey wine. I never made any Ethiopian dishes at home, however, until I bought Marcus Samuelsson’s Soul of a New Cuisine: A Discovery of the Foods and Flavors of Africa. It’s a great book — necessarily a bit of a survey, since it’s covering cuisines across the world’s second-largest continent, but with enough depth to lead the home cook onto a new and interesting path.
Which is all a very long way of explaining why I can blithely call for nit’ir qibe and berbere: they’re fairly common in my pantry, thanks to Samuelsson. (But never fear: they’re substitutable. It won’t be quite the same, but it’ll be good.) This recipe has been kicking around in my head for a while, and when I saw that the El Niño pattern was lessening enough for our first real snow this past weekend, I knew it was time.
I should hasten to disclaim: while I’m using flavors adapted from Ethiopian cuisine, this isn’t a recipe I’d expect to see from an Ethiopian home cook or restaurant. With the exception of some mixed-vegetable stews, the dishes I’ve encountered have had one star ingredient, not a legume plus tomatoes plus a leafy green as I have here. In a restaurant, however, you’d likely have multiple dishes all on a platter — this dish is, basically, me adapting the platter into a one-pot dish. Furthermore, while ground chickpeas (shiro) are a ubiquitous ingredient in eastern Africa, I don’t recall ever seeing whole chickpeas in an Ethiopian stew. (Though if someone knows differently, I’d love to hear of it!)
All that aside, and not to pat myself on the back too much, but: knocked it out of the park, first try. Not that it’s hard, when you’re layering in so many warm, comforting flavors: the hearty onions and garlic, the bright cardamom and ginger, the sweet fenugreek and basil. And all those flavors wrapping themselves like the softest sweater around tender chickpeas and melted-smooth spinach and tomatoes: I’m getting a little verklempt. As the snow has continued to fall along with the mercury, this stew has been a huge comfort in my workday brown bag: I’ve really needed it!
Chickpea stew with Ethiopian flavors
This chickpea stew is new in my house, but I see it coming back frequently: it’s warm and comforting, thick with spinach and tomatoes in a fragrant broth. It’s a very satisfying vegetarian meal, and it couldn’t be easier to put together.
Two complex base ingredients, nit’ir qibe and berbere, combine to get big results in a short amount of time. I give explanations and links in the Notes, and if you already know you like Ethiopian flavors I suggest you just make them both. If you’re not sure, though, I also give some substitution possibilities; the results will be a bit different, but should be no less delicious.
1 lb dried chickpeas + 1 tsp salt
(or four 15-ounce cans chickpeas, drained)
1 lg. red onion, finely diced
3 Tbsp minced fresh ginger (from a 2-3″ piece)
3 Tbsp minced garlic (from about 6 big cloves)
1/4 c nit’ir qibe (see Notes)
1-2 Tbsp berbere (see Notes)
2 tsp kosher salt
1 qt water (give or take)
1 small (15 oz) can diced tomatoes
10 oz frozen spinach (thawed if block-style; frozen is fine if loose)
Nit’ir qibe is an Ethiopian spiced, clarified butter. I use Marcus Samuelsson’s recipe from Soul of a New Cuisine, which is posted online here. It’s quite easy to make, but if you’re not in the mood to make your own nit’ir qibe, you can substitute store-bought ghee or, for that matter, plain butter.
Berbere is an Ethiopian blend of chiles and other spices. Again, I use Samuelsson’s recipe from Soul of a New Cuisine, handily reproduced in the same recipe as the nit’ir qibe above. (You can also sometimes find pre-made berbere in well-stocked spice stores, or you can substitute a medium-hot chili powder, along with a pinch each of cinnamon, cloves, allspice, and cardamom.) Depending on the exact chiles that go into the berbere, its heat can vary significantly; if you’re not sure, I suggest starting with only 1 Tbsp; you can always add more.
If you are using dried chickpeas, pre-soak them in one of two ways: (1) soak them overnight in room temperature water with a teaspoon of salt. (2) In a large pot, cover the chickpeas with water, add a teaspoon of salt, and bring to a boil; cover, remove from heat, and let soak an hour. Whichever method you use, drain the chickpeas before moving on.
Cook the onion, garlic, and ginger in the nit’ir qibe over medium heat for five minutes, until the onion has softened and turned translucent. Add the berbere and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
Add the drained chickpeas and 2 tsp salt, along with enough water to cover. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to very low and cook, covered, until the chickpeas are tender. This is about 2 hours if you began with dried chickpeas; if you are using canned, simmer very briefly to bring the flavors together, then move on to the next step.
Once the chickpeas are tender, add the can of tomatoes and the spinach. Increase heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, for another hour or so, until the stew thickens somewhat.
Check seasoning and adjust accordingly. Serve with injera or another flatbread. (Or, throwing tradition to the winds, serve with rice — I can testify from today’s lunchbox that this is very nice with brown rice.)
In addition to the substitutions noted in the Notes, this shouldn’t be too hard to veganize: for the nit’ir qibe, sub in coconut oil or a fruity, buttery olive oil. Bonus points if you take the linked nit’ir qibe recipe and adapt it to make a spiced oil.