Many locals complain about the limited diversity of restaurant cuisines in Napa Valley, and I am one of them.
Things have improved significantly in the years I’ve lived here — we now have Vietnamese, Argentine, high-end Japanese, and several Indian and Nepalese spots — and most of our top chefs regularly incorporate worldly flavors and techniques into their menus, sure.
But we still don’t have a single source for Eritrean or Ethiopian cuisine within an hour’s drive. As we settle into a mostly homebound winter, cooking it ourselves is the only way to get our fix of this wonderfully fragrant and warming cuisine. Fortuitously, nearly all the iconic Ethiopian dishes I love are actually pretty simple (and inexpensive) to prepare. At the top of that list is doro wat.
Doro wat is the national dish of Ethiopia — a spicy, saucy stew made of slow-cooked onions, berbere spice, chicken, and hard-boiled eggs. It’s unbelievably flavorful, with complex layers of sweet and hot spices melding into a rich sauce that’s a bit like a Mexican mole without the nuts. When you’re sick of your own cooking and nothing sounds good, doro wat is here for you.
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As chef Yohanis Gebreyesus writes in “Ethiopia: Recipes and Traditions from the Horn of Africa,” doro wat is actually much more about the sauce than it is about meat, even though the name literally means “chicken stew” in Amharic. Since you cook the sauce before you add the chicken, vegetarians can enjoy it, too (same with vegans, if you use vegan cultured butter).
I can tell you from personal experience that this sauce is dynamite on fried eggs, burrata, chickpeas, toast, roasted veggies, smoked duck breast, pork, and straight-up on a spoon, still cold from the fridge. It’s outrageously versatile and always delicious.
If you’ve had Ethiopian food before, you know that the absolute best way to sop up doro wat’s luscious sauce is with injera, Ethiopia’s most famous flatbread made of fermented teff flour, which serves as both serving plate and utensil.
Injera is nutty and tangy like sourdough, but wonderfully springy and light when it’s done right. Unfortunately, it takes four days to make injera worthy of the name (if you want to try, check out my simple recipe on the Hedonism Eats blog), so you have to plan ahead. But doro wat is also fabulous served with naan, pita, rice, polenta and, as we’ve already discussed, anything else you want to put it on.
The biggest (and, really, the only) challenge of making doro wat is the spicing. Besides onions and chicken, the primary ingredient is berbere (pronounced BEAR-berry), a fiery blend of many different spices and aromatics that, like injera, takes multiple days to make in the traditional manner.
Berbere recipes vary across different regions of Ethiopia, but they’re all ferociously spicy. (The name berbere itself means “hot” in Amharic.) You can buy pre-made berbere spice mix from Whole Spice in Napa’s Oxbow Public Market, from African grocery stores, and certain fine food purveyors, but these might be too spicy for the uninitiated.
I’d recommend making your own medium-hot version to start and working up to the Scoville level of the real deal. This Berbere for Beginners recipe is an accessible way to ease into doro wat, with the option of amping up the heat to Ethiopian levels at the end.
Traditional berbere recipes involve several harder-to-find spices like ajowan seeds, nigella seeds, and besobela; my non-traditional version here omits those for convenience.
Authentic doro wat recipes also call for a second, non-spicy spice mix called mekelesha, which you add near the end of cooking to freshen up the aromatics. I’ve cut that step out of my doro wat recipe, too. Instead, I put a little extra cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and allspice in the berbere mix to compensate, and just stir in a little black pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg right before serving for that final fresh spice flourish.
If you haven’t had Ethiopian food before, a whole world of exciting new flavors awaits you — and many of them aren’t spicy at all. Check out some of the many amazing vegetarian and vegan dishes from the region to get you through this 2020 winter.
My favorite easy dishes to accompany doro wat in cold weather are kik alicha (yellow split peas cooked with ginger and onion), gomen (braised greens with ginger), and a tangy salad of cut up kiwi with fresh ginger, salt and olive oil, all served on a plate of homemade injera... if you dare.
Berbere for Beginners
Yield: about 7 tablespoons
You can buy dried guajillo chilies at most mainstream and all Latinx markets in Napa. If you don’t have spicy Spanish pimentón de la vera, substitute a non-spicy smoked paprika plus ¼ teaspoon of cayenne.
7 (50g/1.75oz) dried guajillo chili peppers
2 tsp. whole cumin seeds (or 2½ teaspoon ground)
2 tsp. whole coriander seeds (or 2½ teaspoon ground)
14 whole cloves (or ½ teaspoon ground cloves)
4 whole green cardamom pods (or heaping ½ teaspoon ground)
4 whole allspice berries (or scant ½ teaspoon ground)
1½ tsp. coarse kosher sea salt
1 tsp. ground ginger
½ tsp. ground cinnamon
½ tsp. ground black pepper
½ tsp. ground turmeric
½ tsp. spicy Spanish pimentón de la vera
¼ tsp. dried thyme
Give the chilies a good wipe down with a dry paper towel, and cut off the stem ends with kitchen shears. Cut the chilies into two-inch lengths, and shake out the seeds.
In a small frying pan on medium-low heat, toast all the whole spices (if using pre-ground, skip this step) 1-2 minutes, until fragrant.
Remove the whole spices from the pan and spread out on a flat surface to cool. Add the chilies to the hot pan for 1-2 minutes until fragrant and toasted; stir often to avoid scorching. Remove from the pan and let cool in a single layer.
While you’re waiting, measure out the other spices and combine them in a small bowl. When the chilies are completely cooled, put the toasted whole spices and chilies (in that order) in a spice grinder, and process until finely ground. Add the remaining spices to the grinder and process again to combine. Transfer the mix to a clean, dry spice container and store in a cool, dark place.
Simple Doro Wat (Ethiopian Chicken Stew)
Serves 6 with vegetable side dishes; 3 without
Inspired by the extraordinary (but labor-intensive) version in “Ethiopia: Recipes and Traditions from the Horn of Africa,” by Yohanis Gebreyesus. A food processor makes short work of mincing onions, but don’t prep them more than 20 minutes ahead of time unless you love the taste of sulfur.
¼ cup packed (35g/1.25 oz) Berbere for Beginners (see preceding recipe)
6 Tbsp. butter, separated
3 cups finely minced onions (about 1 lb.)
1 heaping tablespoon chopped garlic
1 heaping tablespoon grated ginger
1½ Tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
1½ pounds boneless skinless chicken thighs
Pinch each ground cinnamon and freshly grated nutmeg
Freshly ground black pepper
Ground cayenne pepper to taste
2 hard-boiled eggs, cut into halves or slivers (optional)
Put the berbere in a small bowl and stir in ¼ cup water to make a moist paste. Cover and set aside.
In a sauté pan, cook the onions in 4 tablespoon butter over low heat with a big pinch of sea salt until they’ve given off their water and are turning golden (about 8 minutes).
Stir in the garlic and ginger and cook 1 minute, then add the berbere spice paste and stir it in for 30 seconds.
Rinse out the empty bowl of berbere paste with 1½ cups water and add that water to the pan. Stir well, bring to a simmer, then cook covered for 30 minutes on low heat, stirring once or twice to be sure the sauce is not sticking to the pan. Take the lid off and cook another 10-15 minutes, stirring more frequently, to reduce the sauce to a thick gravy consistency.
Meanwhile, cut the chicken thighs up into bite-sized pieces, season them generously with salt, and add them to the pan along with the lemon juice and the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter.
Simmer with the lid off for 5-8 minutes until the chicken is just cooked through, and still juicy. Stir in the nutmeg and cinnamon.
Taste the sauce for seasoning and add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste — plus cayenne if you like Ethiopian-level heat. Stir in nutmeg and cinnamon. Garnish with hard-boiled eggs (if using) and serve with your starch of choice.
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Deirdre Bourdet is a food and wine wordsmith, recipe developer and author of the Hedonism Eats cookbook series and blog. For more, visit hedonism-eats.com
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