Eritrea is a country in East Africa, located by the Red Sea in the north-eastern part of the continent. Eritrean cuisine is varied and rich in flavour and tradition. Eritrean food culture values sharing food together. It is common to eat with your hands, using the pieces of injera to pick up and dip food.
Eritrean cuisine has been influenced by several cultures, including Ethiopian, Arabic and Italian cuisine. This is because of its location and because it was an Italian colony until the end of World War II. Then a British protectorate and, between 1952 and 1962, a federation with Ethiopia. In 1962 it was, against its will, incorporated as a province of Ethiopia. This led to years of strife and war. In 1991, Eritrea became an independent country.
Despite its complex history and challenges, it has a rich culture, diverse cuisine and a unique heritage that makes it worth exploring and understanding.
Cuisine is known for its use of olive oil, spices, vegetables and pulses. In addition, there are 2 particular essential ingredients.
Berbere is a very spicy herb mix or spice paste that forms the basis of Eritrea’s cuisine. It is composed of several freshly ground and roasted spices, including red chili pepper, paprika, garlic, ginger, cumin, coriander, fenugreek, cinnamon and more. The exact composition can vary from recipe to recipe and region to region, but the result is always a complex and spicy flavour. Berebere can be prepared as a dry mixture or as a paste with oil or water and onions. It is also called the “queen of spices”.
Berbere is often used to flavour stews. It can also be used as a seasoning for grilled meats, vegetables, sauces and soups. It not only gives dishes a spicy kick, but also a deep and rich flavour with layers of spiciness and heat.
Mitmita is another spice mix that is widely used, it tends to be even more spicy and is often used when preparing meat dishes.
Fresh and dried chilies are often used as seasonings and garnishes in Eritrean dishes. They can be added to salads, sauces and side dishes to add extra flavour and spiciness. They have an important role in creating the distinctive flavours of Eritrea. The choice of chili pepper type depends on the desired spiciness and the specific flavour sought in a dish. Some of the most commonly used pepper types are:
Red chili pepers
Red chili peppers are often dried and ground into a powder to make berbere, a key ingredient in Eritrean stews and sauces. In fresh form, it is used as a seasoning and garnish. They s not only give dishes their characteristic spiciness, but also contribute to the depth of flavour and aroma.
Bird’s eye chili / Rawit
Bird’s eye chili, also known as “azebo gomena”, are small, very hot chilies used to give dishes extra spice. They are sometimes added whole to stews or ground into a spicy sauce.
Jalapeño & green chili peppers
Jalapeños and green chili peppers are also used in Eritrean cuisine, usually in fresh form to add a mild spiciness to dishes. They are often used as a garnish and can be added to salads, stews and other dishes.
In Eritrea, they do not eat from their own plate but collectively from a very large bowl/plate. The table is not set with knife, fork or spoon but they eat with their hands. Many dishes are therefore served with injera, a bread similar to a pancake with a spongy texture and a slightly sour taste. The pieces of injera are used as a kind of cutlery to pick up and dip food.
Traditionally, injera is prepared from a batter of teff flour, a local type of millet with a very small grain. But sometimes other grains, such as barley or maize, are also used. This mash will naturally ferment within one to three days because teff is the only cereal that contains a symbiotic yeast. Usually, some of this already fermented batter is held back as leaven for the next batter. The injera is baked in a metad, a special pan with a heavy lid. Once the top of the bread is full of air holes, the lid is put on the pan so that the bread is steamed until tender without browning the bottom.
Stews, known as wats or tsebhi, play a central role in Eritrean cuisine. ‘Wats’ is the general term referring to different types of Eritrean stews. It can include meat, vegetables or lentils simmered in a sauce based on herbs, onion, tomato, berbere and other herbs and spices. There are also many vegetarian dishes prepared with vegetables and potatoes; for example with cabbage, pumpkin (dubba) or okra (bamja).
Popular wats are Doro Wat (spicy chicken stew with eggs), Misir Wat (vegetarian stew made of red lentils) and Atkilt Wat (stew made of mixed vegetables).
Tsebhi is a more specific type of Eritrean stew and usually refers to meat dishes. Tsebhi is traditionally prepared by stewing meat in a sauce based on specific herbs and spices. It can be prepared with beef, chicken, lamb or even fish. Tsebhi often has a rich flavour due to slow simmering and the use of spices such as cumin, cardamom, garlic and onion.
Popular tsebhi are Doro Tsebhi (chicken stew) and Zigni Tsebhi (spicy beef stew with berbere). These are usually served on special occasions, such as feasts or festivals, and are dishes known for their rich flavour and aroma.
Suwa is a traditional local beer popular in Eritrea. It is usually made from barley and sometimes corn. Suwa has a slight sourness and is often brewed at home. It is a social drink enjoyed on special occasions and gatherings.
Tej is associated with Ethiopian culture, but it is also drunk in Eritrea. Tej is a traditional honey wine that can be either sweet or spicy, depending on the method of preparation and added spices. It is often a favourite choice during celebrations and festivals.
Coffee has a special place in Eritrean culture. The coffee ceremony is an important social ritual where fresh coffee beans are roasted, ground and brewed for guests. This ceremony brings people together and symbolises hospitality and community.
The two countries have a long history of political and cultural differences. There are unique aspects to both cuisines, but they also share many common dishes, elements and flavours.
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