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Like the foods of many Jewish communities, the primary differences between Jewish Ethiopian food and the larger cuisine relate to holidays and to how and when certain foods are eaten. Doro wat, for example, is traditionally served for Sabbath dinner. “Throughout the week, we ate almost no meat or chicken, which was expensive,” Barhany said. “But on Shabbat, doro wat was standard.” Like the cholent eaten by Ashkenazi Jews, or Sephardic hamim, doro wat was prepared before sundown on Friday. “In Ethiopia, people would bury their pots to keep them warm, or eat food at room temperature,” Barhany told me.
The Sabbath also signals a departure from the everyday starch, injera. Instead, families break bread with dabo, a tender, yeast-risen wheat loaf that gets baked in a round pan. According to the “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food,” “before eating, Yitbarek, a special Amharic benediction complete with a traditional melody, is recited over the Sabbath bread,” much like Hamotzi. Likewise, instead of grape wine, Ethiopian Jews traditionally drink honey mead called tej. (While cooking, Barhany poured us glasses of Sheba Te’j, a locally-made honey wine.)
In Israel, Barhany said, lingering xenophobia toward Ethiopian Jews has largely stopped Israeli society from exploring their cuisine. There are still only a handful of Ethiopian restaurants scattered across the country, and a single stall in the Jerusalem market selling Ethiopian foods. “I remember residents of some buildings refusing to live on the same apartment floor as an Ethiopian family, saying the smell of their food was offensive,” she said. Meanwhile, some of Beta Israel’s customs — like baking their own unleavened bread for Passover — have faded over the past two decades.
But there are some signs of change. The Ethiopian Jewish holiday Sigd (which commemorates the annual renewal of the connection among Jews, God and the Torah) was instated as a national Israeli holiday in 2008. And younger generations of Israelis are increasingly open to embracing other cultures and cuisines, including those of Ethiopia. But for now, Barhany focuses her energies stateside. She hopes to open a cafe in New York that serves Ethiopian food, along with dishes from other Israeli subcultures. And this March, BINA will co-host a second annual retreat celebrating Ethiopian Jewish culture at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, in Connecticut.
In her kitchen, Barhany scooped up some kik wat on injera and fed it directly to me. “This is the customary way we serve guests the first bite,” she explained. Taken aback and then touched by the gesture (and the deliciousness of the food), I headed home full, warmed and plotting my next Sabbath dinner.
For recipes, visit The Jew and the Carrot
Leah Koenig writes a monthly column on food Contact her at email@example.com.