Say Wat: An Ethiopian Meal In Mumbai
Ananya Banerjee had her first taste of Ethiopian food in her former hometown of Washington D. C., which she found houses a large number of people from the East African country. “I was immediately struck by how close their flavours were to our native fare,” she said. “The dal-like, sabzi-like vegetable dishes and spicy gravies they eat are so Indian-palate friendly. [They’re] similar [to what we eat] yet distinct.” Banerjee is a home chef who shares her love for Ethiopian cuisine at The Injera Chronicles, a series of pop-up meals that she hosts at her Sewri residence with the help of food events company Trekurious.
When she returned to Mumbai ten years ago, she lamented the lack of African food in the city’s restaurantscape. Today, although Mumbai has a few restaurants that serve the small Nigerian community here, including The Green Onion in Marine Lines, Puku’s in Bhendi Bazaar and Wazobia Kitchen and Grill in Vashi, they are little known outside the expat community. To remedy this, six months ago, Banerjee, who also caters Bengali meals, decided to open up her home to adventurous diners looking to sample the zesty cuisine.
While most ingredients like lentils and spices were easily available, there was one major challenge. The hero of any Ethiopian meal is injera, a sour dough crepe made from teff, the seeds of a grass native to the country. Teff flour is fermented with water and yeast and then made into fluffy crepes that have the texture of set dosa and the sourness of appam. Banerjee couldn’t find teff in local stores, so she devised her own recipe for injera batter using cornmeal, whole wheat flour, all purpose flour and yeast, which she ferments for two days. Her version of the flat bread was thinner and lighter in colour than the teff flour crepes we’ve eaten at Ethiopian restaurants in Europe, but bore the same distinctive tart notes of the original.
A traditional Ethiopian meal doesn’t include starters, so at The Injera Chronicles, she improvises by creating appetisers imbued with pan-African elements. We began our meal with piri piri hummus, mutton cutlets and a lamb kofta made with harissa paste that she makes from a mixture of bottled piri piri chilies and Kashmiri chillies. It was reminiscent of the galouti kebab with a hint of warmth from the chillies. Banerjee makes harissa corn canapés as a vegetarian option.
Ethiopian clans eat from communal plates similar to the Bohri thal. The base of the plate is lined with injera, which acts like a sort of edible plate with the other dishes served on top. The juices soak into the injera, which diners tear off into morsels to eat and even feed each other in a gesture called gursha that is meant to strengthen bonds.
At The Injera Chronicles, we got individual plates, but it didn’t diminish the camaraderie stirred by our mutual delight over dishes like doro wat, a slow-cooked sweet and spicy chicken stew with a base of caramelised onion and berbere paste, a blend of garlic, cardamom, coriander, chilli, cloves and allspice. Berbere is the chief spice blend used in Ethiopian cooking and Banerjee makes hers from scratch using as a substitute local Kashmiri chillies that have a smokiness and colour akin to Ethiopian chilies. The resulting gravy is similar in flavour to the gauti chicken curry that you find in dhabas along the Konkan coast. Tibs, a stir-fry of lamb, onions, potatoes and red bell peppers, was relatively milder.
Vegetarians needn’t despair of being left out of the indulgence. They’re spoilt for choice between pickled carrots, lightly spiced cabbage, a dairy-free potato salad and a delicious dry side of boiled beetroot tossed with garlic and parsley with a heady drizzle of olive oil. Banerjee also serves a mildly spicy Ethiopian-style red lentil preparation called misr wat made with onion, garlic and berbere paste. And although it’s not traditionally Ethiopian, she threw in a tangy pearl couscous and sun-dried tomato salad to make up for the lack of other starches on the table. She says that while Ethiopian cuisine does not have courses, her Indian diners are used to a three-course meal and expect it for the prices they’re paying. That’s why she includes other elements to add heft to the spread. As far as authenticity goes, the meal was close to the Ethiopian food we’ve had on trips abroad.
Ethiopian cuisine is famous for many things, but dessert isn’t one of them. A sweet honey wine called t’ej usually follows meals. Banerjee remedied this omission by serving us baklava and a South African malva pudding, which deserves a mention for its delightfully moist, spongy texture. It was doused with a Cointreau spiked cream sauce and served with custard. In the near future, Banerjee plans introduce the city to more flavours from the African continent including Moroccan, Nigerian and South African food.
Ananya Banerjee serves an Ethiopian meal at The Injera Chronicles for a maximum of 12 people at her home on the last Sunday of every month. The meal costs Rs2,200 per head; you can book a spot on Trekurious.com. She also caters small house parties. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call on 022 2413 0571.