How Ethiopian Food Became Weeknight-Friendly & My Love Affair with Papa Tofu Loves Ethiopian

Papa Tofu Loves Ethiopian cook zine by Kittee BernsIt is no secret that I love Ethiopian food.  (Although wouldn’t that be a weird thing to try to keep secret?  Psst…  Don’t tell this to anybody!  I love Ethiopian food!)  The spicy stews with layers of complex flavor, the spongy sour injera bread for scooping, the tactile pleasure of eating hand to mouth, the communal experience of sharing a platter with friends, and the combination of textures makes it my favorite cuisine.

However, in the past Ethiopian fare has been mostly limited to restaurant outings.  That was fine when I lived in a place where I could reach my favorite Ethiopian restaurant via a 40-minute car trip, but now the closest Ethiopian restaurant is 3 ½ to 4 hours away.  That moves a dinner of wots & basket of injera very much to the special occasion category.

Papa Tofu Loves Ethiopian cook zine by Kittee BernsI’ve made Ethiopian meals at home many times, but it requires a lot of steps.  The first step requires making niter kibbeh (infused vegan butter or oil) that is the base for the stews (called wots).  Then, while a person can eat the wots on their own or with rice, it’s simply not the same experience without the injera for scooping.  I’ve never tried to go all out with one of the traditional recipes that require letting the batter sit for days until sour.  Instead I’ve used recipes calling for a yeast packet, and then waited for an hour for the batter to be ready (while hoping that the packet of yeast was good and I wouldn’t have to start all over again).  I’d stand over the stove, as if I was making pancakes, making each injera one by one.

Next, I’d have to make a couple of different spice blends, and then after that was all done, it was time to start cooking…  For a real meal, you need at least two stews, and all of that took time.  I’d typically have about one or two days a year when I felt like going to all of that work, and then I was pretty much spent.

Injera freezes well for an Ethiopian feast on a weeknightThen two things happened.  First, I realized that when I was traveling to places with Ethiopian restaurants, it wasn’t difficult to find grocery stores that also had injera for sale.  (I’m sure I could have bought it from those restaurants as well.)  I could take the injera back home with me, separate it into batches of three, and then freeze them.  If I wanted Ethiopian for dinner, I’d just have to pull a grouping of three out of the freezer and put it on the counter for a few hours, or in a pinch, I could take it straight from freezer to warm oven for thawing.

Three injera was enough for dinner that night for two and for one person to finish off leftovers the next day.  The injera wouldn’t be quite as moist as it was freshly made, but when you go the thawing-on-the-counter route, it thaws remarkably well.  And it’s certainly better than standing over the stove making hot injera when you’re hungry and ready to eat.

I’ve picked up injera in Chicago at Kukulu Market, in Minneapolis at Midtown Global Market, and yes, I even had two big packages of injera in my carry-on on my return trip from Los Angeles.  In L.A. I purchased it in one of the little markets in Little Ethiopia across the street from Rahel.

Papa Tofu Loves Ethiopian cook zine by Kittee BernsThe second thing that happened was that I finally cracked open my copy of Papa Tofu Loves Ethiopian by Kittee Berns that I bought long ago.

Kittee and I became blog buddies during some Vegan MoFo in years past, and then we met in real life at Vida Vegan Con last year.  One of the best and most unforeseen benefits of blogging has been creating friendships with readers and other bloggers.  Kittee is a good example of that.  In addition to loving her colorful and unique blog, Cake Maker to the Stars, that feels like such an extension of her own playful spirit, I’ve gotten to know Kittee over the years.

Papa Tofu Loves Ethiopian cook zine by Kittee BernsSometime last fall I asked her where she found her big Ethiopian platters that decorate the walls in her kitchen, and on which she also serves Ethiopian food for large groups or uses for bake sales.  She said that they could be found in Ethiopian markets, and offered to keep an eye out for me since none of those exist in Iowa.

After many texts and pictures, she sent a platter my way along with berbere, one of the spice mixtures essential for Ethiopian cooking.  She told me that it was “the good stuff.”  I’d planned on paying Kittee back, but she surprised me by offering these as gifts.  (I can only imagine how hard it must have been to box up that huge platter!  It’s not exactly a size people just have laying around!)  It was such a wonderful surprise and so generous.

Papa Tofu Loves Ethiopian cook zine by Kittee BernsPapa Tofu Loves Ethiopian cook zine by Kittee BernsThen I pulled out my copy of (the now sold-out) Papa Tofu Loves Ethiopian cook zine, and I started by making a big batch of niter kibbeh.  Using the recipe in the zine, this infused butter or oil can be made with vegan butter or canola oil.  In Kittee’s upcoming cookbook (more info on that to follow at the end of this post!), the niter kibbeh recipe will be made with a coconut oil blend, which sounds so good.  She advises making a big batch, so that way you always have it on hand for making wots.  This very cold winter, I’ve already worked my way through one batch of niter kibbeh and made a second batch last week!

Papa Tofu Loves Ethiopian cook zine by Kittee BernsHaving easy access to this very flavorful base of Ethiopian cooking has been life-changing.  Now instead of Ethiopian being pushed to a rare treat, it’s seriously one of the simplest things to make during the week.  Most of the time it takes 30 minutes or less.  I just sauté onions and garlic in her niter kibbeh, add whatever other ingredients the recipe calls for, and plate it up with some thawed and heated injera.

It also makes for a tremendously inexpensive dinner, because the ingredients are really cost-effective things like red lentils, brown lentils, split peas, potatoes, carrots, collard greens, and the like.  Sometimes I’ll make one or two wots one night and then finish off the leftovers with a new wot the following night.

Papa Tofu Loves Ethiopian cook zine by Kittee BernsAll of the Ethiopian platters in this post were made using various recipes from Papa Tofu Loves Ethiopian.  Recipes I’ve made include azifa (brown lentil salad), ye’abesha gomen (mild collard greens), ingudai t’ibs (sautéed mushrooms), ye’takelt allecha (gingery mixed vegetables), ye’kik allecha (mild split pea puree), ye’miser allecha (mild red lentil puree), ye’kik w’et (split peas in a spicy gravy), and ye’miser w’et (red lentils in a spicy gravy).

Papa Tofu Loves Ethiopian cook zine by Kittee BernsI’ve also started adding the niter kibbeh anywhere I can in my own recipes.  I love having Great Northern beans sautéed with garlic and onions in the infused oil since the flavor of the beans is very mild.  It just lets all of the spices shine through.

Polenta made with Ethiopian infused butter, niter kibbehMy most recent favorite way to use it is by making my easy breakfast polenta, but then sautéing the garlic in niter kibbeh instead of extra virgin olive oil before following the rest of the recipe as is.  Sometimes I’ll have that for breakfast, or I’ll make it a hearty lunch by adding greens and chickpeas.  (The chickpeas are dark here, because I added Indian gooseberries to this batch when I was making them from scratch.)

Seriously, every recipe I’ve tried in Papa Tofu Loves Ethiopian has been fantastic.   I don’t know how Kittee is going to improve on them for her Ethiopian cookbook that’s coming out late this year or around New Year 2015, but somehow that’s happening along with a lot more recipes than were in her zine.  (All of the recipes will be gluten-free and vegan just like she is.)

In the meantime, the zine is not available for purchase any longer, but I highly recommend picking up a copy of the cookbook when it comes out.  I know I’ll be preordering when the opportunity presents itself!  I’ll keep you posted when the time comes!

My Favorite Restaurant: Rahel Ethiopian Vegan Cuisine in Los Angeles

Rahel Ethiopian Los AngelesIf I had to name my very favorite restaurant anywhere, it would be Rahel Ethiopian Vegan Cuisine in Los Angeles.  Rahel was the first restaurant where I ever tried Ethiopian fare, and it set the bar very high.   They introduced me to slow cooked stews called wots and spongy, sour bread made from protein-rich teff flour called injera.  It was there that I discovered the joys of using that pancake-style bread as a utensil, scooping up each bite of stew from a large shared platter, using a torn bit of bread to encase it.

The platters of wots are reminiscent of a Jackson Pollock painting with loud splashes of colors.  The bright trays give a glimpse into the array of flavors that lay across the trays with chickpeas, collard greens, lentils and split peas, dashes of turmeric, and sautéed ginger and garlic.   Each stew has complex layered flavors and nuance with none of the oiliness that can easily dominate when infused oil (niter kibbeh) provides so much of the flavor.

Rahel Ethiopian Los AngelesOver the years, I’ve made many wonderful memories at Rahel.  When I lived in Los Angeles, it was a regular stop for birthdays, anniversaries, or Valentine’s Day.  Even though Ethiopian cuisine wasn’t something that I ate growing up, it’s now very much comfort food to me.  A plate of soft injera and warm, enveloping stews feels like going home.  Plus, there’s something very intimate about eating from the same platter with a significant other or group of close friends.  So obviously I couldn’t go to the West Coast and not eat at Rahel.  I invited some friends to join me, picked up a couple of bottles of wine from Trader Joe’s, and made sure to leave plenty of room in my stomach for the deliciousness that awaited.

To drink, they offer juice, tea, and coffee.  They don’t serve liquor.  However, you can bring in your own bottle(s) of wine or beer, and they will bring you an opener and glasses.  They don’t have a corkage fee.

Menu Rahel Ethiopian Los AngelesOn the walls there are large, dramatic black and white photographs, giving the restaurant a clean, open feel.  There’s a mixture of standard tables on one side of the room, and on the other, traditional Ethiopian tables are available with basket-like messob and short, low-backed chairs.  Because of the size of our group, we ate at one of the standard restaurant tables.  However, if our group had been a little smaller, it would have been fun to eat in the one semi-private hut that is available.

Before the meal, a server comes to the table with a pitcher and basin to rinse guests’ hands since dinner will be eaten from shared platters and without utensils.  (Although, plates and forks are available upon request if you’re feeling squeamish about a shared dinner or if you’re nursing a cold that you don’t want to give anyone.)

Rahel Ethiopian Los AngelesWe usually order one of the combination dishes to get a mixture of flavors, and the Hudade Special Combo is my favorite since it doesn’t include an appetizer.  (Their lentil-stuffed sambussa appetizers are very good, but I always walk away from Rahel stuffed to the maximum.  Instead of getting full right away, I want to keep as much appetite as I can for devouring their wots with injera.)  Gluten-free injera is available upon request.

We ordered two large platters for our group, and everyone walked away satisfied with even a bit remaining for leftovers.

Rahel Ethiopian Cuisine Los AngelesThe Hudade Special Combo comes with:

  • Shiro wot & Yeshimbra assa – two different chickpea stews
  • Yemisir kik wot – a spicy lentil stew
  • Yeatkilt stew – a mild dish made with potatoes and carrots that is wonderfully earthy
  • Yeater Alica – a homey, mushy yellow split pea stew with onions and garlic
  • Yefasolia wot – a mixed vegetable dish with soft string beans and carrots
  • Yebagela siljo – broad beans paste
  • A green salad
  • Sunflower mixed with injera
  • And my favorite of the bunch – greens that have been slow cooked until tender and seasoned with garlic

All of the wots are packed with spices but not spicy hot.  However, they do have trays of hot sauces if, like me, you prefer things on the mouth tingling side.

Rahel To go WrapsAs I mentioned in my post about Viva La Vegan, David and I also picked up a couple of Rahel injera wraps when we were at that all vegan grocery store for the plane ride home.  It was such a delightful treat eating a Rahel wrap while flying over Nevada.  We both chose the wrap with yellow split peas.  (The one with greens is my favorite, but they didn’t have any of that type at Viva La Vegan when we were there.)

Rahel To Go WrapsThe wraps are made with gluten-free injera and were filling without being overly heavy.  When you’re flying, it’s nice to have something that feels healthy and substantive.  On the label, the ingredients for the filling are listed as yellow peas, olive oil, sea salt, turmeric, onion and ginger.  For the injera wrap, the ingredients are teff, buckwheat, and water.  It is amazing what they are able to do in terms of flavor with a few simple ingredients.

If you should ever find yourself in the Little Ethiopia neighborhood of Los Angeles, I can’t recommend a trip to Rahel highly enough.