The two words that come to my mind when I think about lunch in New Haven are Ethiopian and Mexican. For most of these past three years that I was in New Haven, my favorite places to have lunch were a Mexican food cart and an Ethiopian food cart, located just outside the ice hockey rink, a few hundred feet from my department. The Ethiopian cart, Lalibela, in particular, has a special place in my heart both because it offered a variety of vegetarian options, and some of the dishes reminded me a lot about Indian food. And even though I’m not that big a fan of injera, or the bread that is eaten in Ethiopian cuisine, I still miss that cart when I moved to Charlottesville. When I further found out that there was literally no place serving Ethiopian food in Charlottesville, I decided it was time to experiment and try making some on my own.
So I started with one of my favorites – mesir wat. Its main ingredient is red lentils, also sold in Indian stores as masoor dal. The stew has a kick to it, which comes from berbere, a chili-spice blend. The main heat in berbere comes from paprika, which is not a particularly hot spice (like cayenne), and can therefore be used in large amounts without fear of making the dish too hot. Though I purchased a pre-made blend of berbere, you can also make it on your own – here’s a recipe for berbere by celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson, whom I had the luck of talking to for a few minutes at his restaurant in Harlem, Red Rooster! As someone who is fascinated by his Ethiopian and Swedish influences in his food (besides his good lucks which make me swoon!), I highly recommend reading his autobiography, which details his journey from Ethiopia to Sweden to Harlem. He also frequently uses berbere in many of the dishes at his restaurant, including one of my favorites, the Fried Yard Bird.
Mesir Wat takes less than an hour to make, and is quite healthy, with red lentils being high in protein and iron.
- 1 tbsp oil
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 3/4 cup tomato puree
- 1/4 tsp ginger paste
- 1 and 1/2 cup red lentils
- 1/2 tsp ground cardamom
- 3 tbsp berbere spice
- 1 tsp paprika
- 1 and 1/2 tsp cumin
- 2 cups water
- Salt, to taste (Most berbere seasonings already contain some salt, so be wary of adding any salt to the dish before tasting it)
- Heat 1 tbsp oil in a medium sauce pan. Add onions, cook until translucent, about 4-5 minutes.
- Add garlic and ginger paste and cook for 1 minute. Next add tomato puree and berbere spice, cardamon, paprika and cumin, cook for 3-4 minutes.
- Add lentils and water to the saucepan. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, and simmer until lentils are cooked through and fall apart, about 30 to 40 minutes. Add water if necessary to keep the lentils from drying out. Add salt, if needed, and cayenne, if an additional kick is required.
- Serve with injera or rice.