Recipes That Survived the Long Journey From Ethiopia

Beejy Barhany Held Tight to the Flavors of her Community

Tastes of Home: Barhany prepares a traditional Ethiopian Shabbat feast.
Elaine Tin Nyo
Tastes of Home: Barhany prepares a traditional Ethiopian Shabbat feast.

By Leah Koenig

Published February 13, 2013, issue of February 22, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

‘You want the onions, garlic and ginger to melt into one another,” Beejy Barhany told me while stirring a pot that would soon hold kik wot, a creamy yellow split pea stew from Ethiopia. On another burner, doro wat, a chicken stew studded with hardboiled eggs, bubbled under the lid. I stood close by, at a small table that doubles as extra counter space, chopping more onions and letting the heady scent filling Barhany’s Harlem kitchen bring me back to the handful of meals I have shared with friends at Ethiopian restaurants.

Sitting around a shared plate of injera (the spongy, fermented teff flour bread typical in Ethiopian dining), dotted like an artist’s palate with multicolored stews, those meals had always felt like unusual treats. In Barhany’s kitchen, the dishes felt familiar — in part because I was learning how to prepare them. But more significantly, while they were different from the chicken soup and kasha varnishkes in my own Ashkenazi repertoire, we were ultimately cooking Jewish food.

Barhany, 37, is one of 600 Ethiopian Jews (also called Beta Israel, or “house of Israel”) residing in New York City and one of 1,000 living across America. The community is minuscule compared with the one in Israel, which numbers 120,000. Yet, the network is growing. In 2003, Barhany founded the organization Beta Israel North America to assist Ethiopian Jews in moving to the United States and to introduce Ethiopian Jewish culture — particularly film, music, art and food — to this country. In doing so, she hopes to move beyond the narrative of “suffering, pity and marginalization” that has hindered the community’s development since its dramatic relocation to Israel from Ethiopia in the 1980s and ’90s, and highlight its unique cultural contributions instead.

Elaine Tin Nyo

Barhany’s own story mirrors that of many Ethiopian Jews. She left home in 1980, at age 4, walking unimaginable miles to Sudan with her family and fellow villagers. Three years later, they relocated again, this time to Israel, eventually setting in Ashkelon. And after traveling as a young adult, she moved to New York.

For some, the move to Israel was motivated by famine, harsh living conditions and a desire to escape a country wracked by civil war. But for Barhany’s family and others, it was also part of an ancient longing to reside in their spiritual homeland. “My family had land and lived a relatively comfortable life in Ethiopia,” Barhany said. “But my parents deeply believed that Jews should be in Israel.”

The foods that Ethiopia’s Jews brought with them to Israel include many of the classic elements of Ethiopian cooking — the legume and meat stews, the injera, which serves as both plate and utensil, and a reverential coffee culture that dates back centuries. Like their non-Jewish neighbors, Jews in Ethiopia seasoned their food with overlapping layers of spice — a tribute to the ancient Indian and Arabic trade routes that crisscrossed the country.

Many wots (Amharic for “stews”), like the ones Barhany and I made together, begin with garlic, onions and ginger. While Barhany prefers olive oil, typically these dishes are sautéed in butter that has been clarified and infused with cardamom, clove and cumin, among other spices. While simmering, dishes are also sprinkled with berbere, a fiery blend of toasted ground bird’s eye chiles, fenugreek, turmeric and several other ingredients. (Dishes prepared without berbere are known as alicha, which means “mild” in Amharic.) The use of berbere is universal, but each blend is distinctly personal — a balance of heat and flavor that a cook hones over a lifetime. Barhany uses her mother’s homemade version, keeping a hefty jar of it in the pantry and rationing it out until she can visit her parents in Israel and restock.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • British Jews are having their 'Open Hillel' moment. Do you think Israel advocacy on campus runs the risk of excluding some Jewish students?
  • "What I didn’t realize before my trip was that I would leave Uganda with a powerful mandate on my shoulders — almost as if I had personally left Egypt."
  • Is it better to have a young, fresh rabbi, or a rabbi who stays with the same congregation for a long time? What do you think?
  • Why does the leader of Israel's social protest movement now work in a beauty parlor instead of the Knesset?
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.