We are nuts about spices. We always have been. Around 50 AD Pliny the Elder, referring to the spice trade, complained that “there is no year in which India does not drain the Roman Empire of fifty million sesterces.” I’m not sure how much a sestercius was worth, but fifty million of them must be a lot. In Britain in the 17th century, cloves were worth their weight in gold (now, I like cloves, but I don’t like them that much).
There it was. One side of the world had wealth, empire, armadas, and fabulously bland food. The other side of the world had spices – those little dried flower pods and seeds and barks, free for the taking off the very trees. A deal was struck, and cuisine was saved.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, let me explain that this is My Week of Eating Chicken. I don’t actually adore chicken. In fact I think it’s the third blandest meat there is (after turkey and fugu, the toxic pufferfish the Japanese pretend to like). The blandest cut of this whole bland bird is the breast. The only appeal of a chicken breast lies in its potential as a vehicle for the sauce.
However, yesterday I was at my farmers market, marveling at the few proud Olympians who braved the wind and rain to stand around in wools hats and gloves for the sake of buying the last of the season’s fruits and vegetables. I had some notion about making yakitori, which a Japanese dish involving chickens and leeks, and so I bought a couple of chicken breasts. Maybe it was end of the season for chickens, too, I don’t know, but my couple of chicken breasts were the size of footballs. That’s four meals for me and my wife. All I could do was devote the week to discovering the most interesting things I could do with chicken breast.
Goofing around, looking at the history of the domesticated fowl on Wikipedia, I happened upon a link to Ethiopian cuisine. I’ve only eaten Ethiopian food once, in a restaurant in Berkeley, and I had a notion it was entirely vegetarian and eaten without plates using only the right hand, or something. Turns out I was wrong about the vegetarianism! I learned about a ubiquitous stew called wat, and, based only on Wikipedia’s terse description, determined to recreate this dish myself.
The immediately interesting thing about wat was it immediately required two ingredients I didn’t have but could make myself: niter kibbeh, which is spiced, clarified butter, and berberé (not to be confused with beriberi), which is a fiery spice paste. My wife bravely volunteered to go out in the rain to the supermarket to collect the couple of ingredients we lacked (or, possibly, to escape a tiny apartment occupied by a man raving about chicken), and I set to work clarifying some butter.
Before we get into this rather long and involved description, let me inspire you by saying that my chicken wat was one of the finest things I have eaten in a long time, and berberé was instantly my favorite spice paste. I wanted to eat it on crackers.
Niter Kibbeh (Ethiopian Spiced Butter)
4 oz (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 minced garlic clove
1 tsp chopped ginger
½ tsp turmeric
1 cardamom pod
¼ cinnamon stick
Put all the ingredients in a pyrex measuring jug, and put it in a 350° oven for about half an hour. This is by far the easiest way I know to clarify butter. First the butter will melt and milk solids will settle out like white foam thoughout the liquid. After a while the milk solids will cook, and eventually most of them will brown and settle at the bottom of the jug. Take the jug out of the oven and let it cool. For Christ’s sake, don’t touch it! It is hotter than the sun, and it looks so innocuous, sitting there. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve reached for it to move it to a different counter or something, only to snatch my hand away when I felt the radiating heat.
When it is cool but still liquid, pour off the golden, clarified butter. You can filter it through a sieve, or through cheesecloth. I have cheesecloth, because I hate not having cheesecloth when I’m making an interesting dish that suddenly requires it. I won’t say cheesecloth is most useful item in my kitchen, but it’s good to know it’s there. You can buy a thousand miles of it in a tiny bag at the supermarket.
Berberé (Ethiopian spice mixture)
Berberé, as I understand it, is one of those foundational flavors, the Ethiopian equivalent of dashi, or fish sauce, or ras el hanout. Naturally the ingredients vary wildly, depending on who you ask, or what part of Ethiopia you are in, or what time of day it is, or what’s on hand, and this is as it should be. The essential ingredients are fenugreek and red peppers; everything else is more or less optional. Here is what I made:
1 tsp fenugreek
4 dried chilis (I used anchos)
Four cardamom pods
1/8 tsp ground cinnamon
The heads of six cloves
½ tsp ground coriander
½ tsp ground cumin
¼ tsp ground nutmeg
½ tsp coarsely ground black pepper
¼ tsp turmeric
1 Tb paprika (I used Spanish smoked)
1 Tb salt
1 tsp fresh grated ginger
Toss in all the spices into a heavy skillet over medium heat. Dry roast them for a minute but don’t burn them – you want them dark brown but definitely not black. Remove the skillet from the heat, and transfer the toasted spices to a mortar and pestle (or blender, or electric spice grinder…). Add a clove of garlic and a drizzle of olive oil. And then pound away. Pound, pound, pound! As the spices pulverize you can add more olive oil until you have a chunky paste. This paste is to die for and you’ll wish you made more. I do.
Doro Wat (Ethiopian chicken stew)
Since you now have niter kibbeh and berberé on hand, this stew is a snap.
3 red onions
1 large chicken breast
1 cup brown lentils, soaked
¼ cup niter kibbeh
3 Tb berberé paste
Finely chop up three onions and cook them. You just want them all nice and soft, not browned or caramelized. Add about 1/8 cup of your clarified, spiced butter. Then add the cut up chicken breast, sear it a little, and stir in your berberé paste. The amount depends on your tastebuds; I’d say I added about 3 Tb and could have added more. Same remarks for the niter kibbeh: as the stew neared completion, I tossed in a bunch more just to get full benefit of the spicy creaminess.
Add the soaked lentils (minus their soaking fluid) and enough water or wine to make a stew, about two cups. I’m pretty sure they don’t use white wine in Ethiopia, but I just hate adding water to stews. This would be a good place for real chicken stock, too.
Stew it away on low heat until the lentils are cooked, about half an hour. Garnish with cilantro and serve with flat bread. Eat with your right hand only.