So far I’ve written about fairly food-centric Christmases. Now I’m going to tell you about a Christmas that doesn’t really have a special traditional meal the way, say, a Swedish Christmas does. In Ethiopia, Christmas is less about extravagant food and gifts, and more about religious observance. Nevertheless, they have a kind of “traditional” meal.
Christmas in Ethiopia is called Ganna, which, according to Ethiopian elders, comes from the word grennan, meaning “imminent” (as in the imminent coming of the Lord). The country still follows the Julian calendar, so Christmas is celebrated on January 7th rather than December 25th. After fasting for 40 days, Ethiopians go to Christmas services where they stand for three hours, then head home to celebrate with family, friends, and a humble feast. The meal they eat every Christmas is called injera and doro wat.
Ethiopians cook using a hearth. The stove part is generally three stones that a cooking pot, stone, or metal griddle is balanced on. It’s fueled either with wood or charcoal. Occasionally a charcoal brazier is used, but that’s mainly to make coffee. Modern homes have Western style ranges fueled by bottled gas.
The glue of the meal is injera, a type of flatbread made from slightly fermented teff flour batter and cooked over an open fire. Teff is a tiny, ancient grain that is thought to have been cultivated between 4000 and 1000 B.C. It grows primarily in Australia, India, and Ethiopia, where it’s ground into a flour to make the injera.
Preparing injera requires advanced planning. The flour is mixed with water, placed in a pottery jar, and allowed to ferment for 3 to 4 days. After, more water is added and it acquires the consistency of pancake batter.
The bread is cooked either on a stone slab or an iron-sheet griddle called a mogogo. The stones in the hearth support the slab or griddle. There are also electric injera makers available for easier injera production.
The griddle, stone, or maker is heated to a high heat, around 400 to 500 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s greased and the batter is poured and spread over the griddle to make large, thin bread that reaches about 20 inches in diameter. The goal is to spread the injera as thin as possible without tearing it.
After several seconds, the injera is covered, cooked for another 20 to 30 seconds, and then peeled off the griddle and slipped onto a woven platter. They will be cooked through but not crisp. Injera have a spongy texture and lots of little bubbles, which are called “eyes.”
Also, here’s the greatest injera commercial of all time. I have no idea what’s going on, but I love it.
The second part of the meal is the wat, or stew. It’s slightly different from the Westernized stews. It’s prepared by slow cooking chopped onions in a pot without adding any oil or fat. This allows most of the moisture to cook off the onions and helps to thicken the stew later on. Once the onions have cooked down, a fat called niter kibbeh (seasoned clarified butter) is added to the pot, as well as the rest of the stew ingredients.
The stew might be a combination of meat and vegetables, only vegetables, or pulses (legumes such as lentils or dried beans). These stews are highly spiced, more than a typical Westerner could stand. The onions (and sometimes shallots) and other vegetable ingredients are cleaned thoroughly, prepped, and chopped. Occasionally, hard-boiled eggs are added to the stew just as it finishes cooking.
Meat preparation varies depending on the location. A woman in a village making a chicken wat would slaughter, clean, and butcher her own chicken, while men would do the same with larger animals. Women living in towns can buy their meat pre-cut and ready to cook. Spice combos and pastes are added to the stew to give it some kick. And by some kick, I mean a lot of kick.
On Christmas, Ethiopians eat a specific wat called doro wat, or zegeni. It’s a spicy chicken stew made with red pepper paste that’s not actually specific to Christmas, but it’s the wat that everyone makes for the Christmas feast.
Doro wat is prepared the same way as any typical stew, with a spice combo called berbere added to it (another everyday ingredient). Berbere is a combination of ground ginger, cumin, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, allspice, nutmeg, fenugreek, coriander, turmeric, cayenne pepper, paprika, black pepper, salt, finely chopped onions, minced garlic, and water.
The round, flat injera is placed on a mesob, which is a decorated, woven stand. The injera serves as both plate and fork and the doro wat and any other dishes are placed on top in little piles. Pieces of injera are broken off and used to scoop up the stew. Everyone eats from the same “plate.”
A drink called tej accompanies the meal. It is a sweet honey-wine that can be bought ready made or made at home. Ethiopians buy gallons of honey at a time to produce the mead and its taste can change depending on who makes it. There is a general recipe for the drink, but it’s easy to improvise so that each glass fits your own personal tastes. Extract from the Gesho tree is added and gives the drink a bitter quality. Tej is surprisingly strong.
So that’s what Ethiopians do for Christmas. The same thing they do every night. TRY TO TAKE OVER THE WORLD!!
Just kidding, I couldn’t resist.
Go eat some stew.
Keep eating and asking, my friends.
-Railey, Karen. “Teff – a Healthy Wheat Alternative.” Natural Health: Chet Day’s Huge Collection of Healthy Eating Recipes and Natural Health Articles. Health and Beyond Online. Web. 07 Dec. 2011. <http://chetday.com/teff.html>.
-Albala, Ken. Food Cultures of the World Encyclopedia: Africa and the Middle East. Vol. 1. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2011. 63-69. Print.
-Bowler, G. Q. The World Encyclopedia of Christmas. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2000. 79. Print.
-“Christmas in Ethiopia.” Around the World at Santa’s Net. Australian Media Pty Ltd. Web. 07 Dec. 2011. <http://www.santas.net/ethiopianchristmas.htm>.