Right in the heart of LA, there’s a small strip of Ethiopian eateries lined up to each other for several blocks. It was just a matter of time until this little neighborhood, appropriately called “Little Ethiopia,” was on our radar for one of our monthly Ethnic Explorations. We decided this was the month to venture into the African cuisine. Immediately, Merkato Ethiopian Restaurant and Market stood out among the many options in the area for its quaint market and gift shop filled with goodies.
Since neither of us was that familiar with Ethiopian food, we began our explorations with a proper meal at the restaurant. We were lead to taste their awaze tibbs, a plate of beef chunks with onions, tomatoes, hot red peppers, and spiced butter. And, yes, it was spicy! To help mellow out the awaze, we munched on the yemisir and yesega sambusa appetizer, a fried pastry stuffed with lentils and ground beef respectively. It may have been the late morning, but we definitely had to try an imported Ethiopian beer-–two bottles of St. George Beer please. Everything was rich and full of flavor. Perhaps the most pronounced taste in the whole meal was the bread traditionally eaten with just about every Ethiopian dish, injera.
If you’ve never had injera before the taste and feel can be quite surprising. Injera is a light and soft flatbread that has a unique, spongy texture. Generally cooked with teff flour, ingera is made from a sourdough yeast starter, so it has a sharp, tart bite to it. Like much African dining, Ethiopian food is meant to be eaten with your hands. The injera is your main eating utensil, used to scoop up the food on your plate.
After lunch we ventured into the market, located just on the other side of the restaurant. We planned on making doro wat (sometimes spelled doro wot or doro wet), a chicken stew that is known as the Ethiopian national dish. Along with the doro wat, we hoped to make iab, a chilled, light cheese side dish that is regularly eaten as a finish to most Ethiopian meals. And well, it’s pretty safe to say no Ethiopian meal would be complete without injera. Whether we wanted to or not, injera had to be made to do justice to this cooking attempt.
The market had specialty spices galore! A whole wall was dedicated to a variety of ethnic dried herbs, ground spices, and raw grains and beans. In the same section you could purchase Merkato’s own injera bread packaged and piled knee-high. One customer whizzed by and did just that during our visit, very enthusiastically we might add! Other than this corner of spices, grains, and other snacks, there wasn’t much other food one could buy at the market. For the doro wat, we specifically needed the spiced butter niter kibbeh, along with berberé paste, which is a red pepper paste mixed with several other spices–cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, allspice, fenugreek, cloves, cumin, black pepper, turmeric, etc. They did have the berberé paste for purchase, but one of the staff members there told us we should use ground berberé for the doro wat. She suggested it would give it a stronger flavor than the paste. We, of course, submitted to her expertise and grabbed the ground berberé.
Just on the other side of the shop was a whole selection of African gifts and personal items. Varieties of soaps, toothpastes, candles, incenses, even a henna tattoo kit filled the small space to the brim. There were also exotic body oils, stylish hats and jewelry, as well as a whole wall of African CD’s and cassettes–-literally hundreds of music options.
Whether you want to shop for a few African specialties or just enjoy an authentic Ethiopian dining experience, Merkato is a prime choice. We left the shop with the doro wat ingredients, ready to commence cooking our dish.
Amir also couldn’t pass up a couple African soaps. At five bucks for each item purchased, including the soaps, we left the shop with only a couple items and spent roughly $20. We now have, though, more spiced butter and berberé than we know what to do with. Our recipe only called for a fraction of what we bought. Oh well, excess ingredients could be a good reason to throw together another dish very soon.
Merkato Ethiopian Restaurant and Market
1036 1/2 Fairfax Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90019
Okay, words to the wise: follow directions! Unfortunately, we don’t heed to this golden rule too often in the kitchen. You would think one would follow directions precisely to the ‘t’ when it comes to baking and making bread, right? Nope, not us. For the injera, we easily scored the teff flour at Whole Foods, but because of our direction-following-negligence, the bread did not come out right in any way, shape, or form actually.
The key ingredient to the injera is the starter, which is just the flour and some water. The only other ingredients to make the bread are just more water, teff and some salt. You can make the starter from scratch or use a sourdough starter. Any recipes for an injera starter, or even a sourdough one, has the batter ferment for a minimum of 3 days. Some recipes even suggest up to a full week. This allows the dough to pull yeast from the air, and is something that is integral to making these type of breads.
Well, clearly we missed the most vital ingredient to making injera–time! For various reasons including our conflicting schedules, work, life in general, we thought a day of fermenting would be just fine. We were wrong! Our injera looked okay, but it didn’t have that sour, tart flavor we just experienced at Merkato. Plus, the injera at Merkato was light, soft, and felt like a flat sponge. Ours was not. Surely, any Ethiopian food connoisseur wouldn’t even consider what we made to be injera. Rather, it was a teff flour flatbread of some sort. Again, follow directions, kids!
We also tried out a “quick” injera recipe that incorporated club soda, but found it was just as sad as the other batch. We must stress, though, that the doro wat and iab turned out spectacular. We were licking the bowls clean. The chicken was moist, the iab was refreshing, and the whole meal was just so flavorful–minus the injera. Dora wat also sometimes has boiled egg in it. This is an optional ingredient that we omitted from our dish. And, Doro wat is traditionally very spicy. We like enjoy a little kick, but feel free to adjust the heat to your liking.
Dora Wat – Serves 4-6 (adapted by What’s 4 Eats)
2 pounds chicken legs quarters
Juice of 1 lemon
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 large yellow onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, chopped
1/4 cup niter kebbeh, or butter
2 tablespoons paprika
1/4 cup ground berberé
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
3/4 cup water or chicken stock
1/4 cup red wine
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Marinate the chicken in the lemon and salt. Cover and refrigerate for about an hour.
2. Meanwhile, process onions, garlic, and ginger in a food processor to form a thick purée. If needed, add a tablespoon of water or stock to the mixture to help bind everything together.
3. In a large pan over medium-high heat, heat the niter kibbeh or butter. Mix in the paprika, berberé and cayenne and cook for about 3 minutes. Allow the flavors to seep into the oil but not burn.
4. Add the liquids, marinated chicken and bring to a boil. Reduce and simmer for 30-35 minutes, or until chicken is fully cooked. Be sure to add more liquid if needed to maintain a saucy consistency. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Iab – yields 2 cups (adapted from What’s 4 Eats)
2 cups cottage cheese
1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped (optional)
Mix all ingredients together in a medium mixing bowl, and chill in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour to let the flavors meld together. Serve as a side dish or the final course to your Ethiopian meal.
Injera – yields 4-6 whole injera (adapted from Apple Pie, Patis, Pate)
1/4 cup teff starter from the previous batch, or if making for the first time check out a starter recipe here
1 3/4 cups water, at room temperature
1 3/4 cups teff flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon vegetable oil
1. Place the starter in a large mixing bowl. Whisk in water until fully dissolved. Then add the teff flour and combine until smooth. The mixture should resemble a thin pancake batter.
2. Cover bowl and let stand at room temperature for 5-6 hours. Reserve 1/4 cup for the next batch of injera.
3. Using a paper towel, wipe oil over a large skillet, at least 10 inches wide, that has a tight-fitting lid. Then heat pan over medium-high heat.
4. Pour 1/2 to 3/4 cup of batter in the center of the pan, tilting and swirling it immediately to coat the pan evenly. Cook the batter for 1 minute, or until holes start to form on the surface. Cover with the lid and steam bread for an additional 3 minutes, or just until the edges pull away from the sides and the center of the bread is set. Do not flip the bread.
5. Transfer injera to a large plate or wire rack and cool completely. To store, cover tightly in plastic wrap and keep at room temperature for up to 3 days.
Click HERE for printable recipes.