I’ve always wanted to learn how to cook injera, a spongy crepe served at Asmara, an Eritrean restaurant in Portland, with gorgeous piles of creamy orange lentils, cabbage and potatoes, kale, and spicy chicken. I’m thrilled that chef-owner Asmeret Teklu has agreed to teach me. Three ingredients are mixed together for ingera batter: The first is teff flour, made out of the protein-rich teff grain that grows in Ethiopia and Eritrea. The second is water. And the third is soured teff starter, which is responsible for the crepe’s wonderful tang and the air bubbles that make the surface look like pumice.
When Asmeret arrived here thirteen years ago, a friend gave her some starter. Ever since then, Asmeret’s been using the reminder of her batter as the starter for the next batch. “But where did your friend get her starter?” I asked. She laughs at my guessing, “There is no beginning.” I think maybe in addition to evolutionism and creationism we should be teaching our children injera-ism. There simply is no beginning. Mankind has been warring forever, and it has been giving the tricks of survival forever, too. When Asmeret left Eritrea, she passed dead bodies on the side of the road. Then she walked in a group of twenty strangers at night in the jungle for 7 days, hiding under big leaves and in forest caves from Ethiopian soldiers. She carried peanuts and dried fruit in her backpack. Now she teaches me how to make spicy chicken.
Saute about two cups minced yellow onion with a little water in a covered shallow pot. After a while, add 1½ tablespoons of ghee. (Ghee is butter that’s been simmered, its cloudy protein removed). Asmeret reaches into complete darkness under the countertop, and pulls out mixing spoon piled high with red powder. “Berbere,” she nearly whispers, not sure if it translates. “Berbere!?” I cry, not believing my circumstance. My former boss, chef Elizabeth Defranco at the Harraseeket Inn, had once muttered berbere like it was something the Indiana Jones of Cooking might go on mission to recover in order to save mankind from imploding once and for all. I dip my pointer finger in some of the red powder and suck it.
Berbere, I detect, “is really spicy chili powder, salt, and... and...” Asmeret laughs. “You can’t separate.” I can’t taste the scant black pepper, fenugreek, allspice, cloves, coriander, rue or ajwain, but any combination of them could be in there. Swipes of Asmeret’s wooden spoon leave silver trails through the dark red scene in the bottom of the pot. She peels the skins off 8 drumsticks and soaks them in water with half of a lemon. Then she loosens the thick paste with a cup of tomato sauce and 3 blended whole tomatoes and lets the sauce cook again covered. Finally, she adds the drumsticks to the sauce, 1½ Tbsp minced garlic, stirs, covers, and lets the chicken cook until the meat shrinks revealing the anklebones.
Suddenly I channel, quite to my surprise, the southern drawl of my grandmother from Oklahoma: “Well all be.” I think the saying was polite for “I’ll be damned.” I like her turn of phrase much better. “Well all be.” It leaves acknowledgement of the damned for the news, and salutes the wellness, goodness, and giving that constantly, forever and ever, and ever and ever, has been filling in between. Thank you, Asmeret.
51 Oak Street
copyright Lindsay Sterling 2010
Constance Kabaziga, a single mother of a large family, taught me this delicious rice and beans dish that cost just $6.00 to feed 6 people. That's a dollar per person for this meal! See? We don't need McDonalds. We need to cook like Constance. Click at right to see how she did it, and to sign up for a cooking class she's helping me teach.
1. Pre-cook beans.
Look beans over for stones in a sheet pan. Soak beans for 8 hours or over night in water. Simmer covered in water until soft, about 40 min. Strain and cool in a medium saute pan until you are ready to make the sauce.
2. Make bean sauce.
In another medium saute pan, fry onions in oil on medium high heat. When onions are tralsulcent, add green pepper. After another minute, add tomato paste, stir and watch the oil turn red. Add enough water to make a sauce out of the thick stuff in the pan. Cook for about five minutes. Rub a nutmeg nut vigorously back and forth on a fine metal grater over the sauce pan for 20 seconds. Add 1 tsp salt. Add some more water so the sauce is not watery, but not thick either. When the vegetables have dissapeared, pour it into the beans.
3. Cook beans in sauce, and rice and bananas.
Cook beans on medium covered for about thirty minutes with added bay leaves, stirring every once in a while. Cook rice as you usually would. Wash bananas, keeping skins on, boil whole until skins split, then remove skin and slice into pieces.
4. Serve beans and bananas on top of rice, or gently mixed together.
Really great with hot sauce.
copyright 2010 Lindsay Sterling
email the author with questions or comments about this recipe: firstname.lastname@example.org
A Congolese Feast
We began with beans and rice, boiled green bananas, and sweet Rwandan tea.
By Lindsay Sterling
I met Constance Kabaziga at the checkout at Mittapheap world market. She was buying frozen cassava root and dried beans, and I really wanted to know what she was going to do them. “You look like a good cook,” I ventured. She smiled, laughing, but couldn’t return any English. A bilingual young man walked in. I hid my nerves and asked him to translate: “Would she ever teach me how to cook?” Three days later I was in Constance’s small apartment kitchen, watching her slice red onion and green peppers really thinly, sauté them in a lot of olive oil, and then add tomato paste and water. She was making a bean dish that goes by the name of madeso in Congo and bishimbo in Rwanda. The secret ingredient is fresh nutmeg, which she rubbed vigorously on a grater for a whole 20 seconds, the fragrant powder falling into a pot of red sauce. A relative offered me some rich, sweet Rwandan tea, and told me the story of how Constance got here.
When Constance was 19, she moved across the border of Rwanda into Congo. This was like going from Kittery, Maine, over the bridge to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, because Rwanda and Congo were friends. She fell in love with a man there who was in the Congolese army. The two married and moved all over the Congo for his work, finally arriving in Kinshasa where Constance raised eight children. Kinshasa, Congo, is not the jungle. It’s a diverse, civilized, multilingual place of ten million people, Europeans, Indians, and people from all over Africa. Constance’s daughter who grew up there told me she has never in her life seen a lion or an elephant. The first time she saw a snake was in the refugee camp when she was sixteen. One major difference between Kinshasa and any major city in U.S. is that in Kinshasa, only men worked outside the home. For thirty years, Constance cooked for her family and friends there and raised her children.
When she was 45, civil war exploded into genocide in Rwanda. Over the next five years, the fighting crossed into Congo. As Congolese died, “street threats” about her being Rwandan came at her. She couldn’t go home to Rwanda – she was no longer a citizen. In 2000 the United Nations offered what seemed like (her relative’s words) “a miracle from heaven.” She did not believe she would come to the United States until she was on a plane of 200 refugees descending into New York. Six of her children were with her. Her husband, a soldier, couldn’t come. One young daughter went to live with a family in South Africa. The eighth child came on a later flight.
At 52, Constance got her first job in a hotel laundry room, washing and ironing sheets and towels. Her next job was sorting clothes at the Salvation Army, but she got laid off. Learning English at her age has proven to be a lot harder than it has been for her children. Today, she is 62 and having trouble finding work. I told her, “You don’t need a lot of English to teach cooking,” and invited her and a bilingual relative to be my guest teachers at Immigrant Kitchens cooking next class, September 10th. That way, thirteen people can be as lucky I was, and learn in person how to make a Congolese feast.
copyright Lindsay Sterling 2010