For Meskerem Gebreyohannes, all of the Jewish holidays bring doro wat, a luxurious chicken dish she makes with slowly cooked onions and a red chile sauce layered with flavors from the African spice trail.
Despite growing up in a Jewish family in Harar, a city in Ethiopia a few hours by car from Somalia, she never celebrated “modern” holidays like Hanukkah.
Gebreyohannes, 58, is the chef and an owner, with her husband, Kassa, of Taste of Ethiopia, a small restaurant in Southfield, Michigan. She is like many other Jewish immigrants from Ethiopia, who did not learn the story of the Maccabees defeating the Greeks. It appears in the oral Torah that was written down around A.D. 200, a time when much of the world was unaware of the existence of a Jewish community in Ethiopia.
Separated from Israel and the Diaspora for more than 2,000 years, Ethiopian Jews followed the Old Testament, which does not include the Hanukkah story, as a source for holiday customs. Gebreyohannes fled Ethiopia in 1981 as a refugee to Djibouti, then went to Canada in 1982, where she started observing the custom of lighting a menorah for eight days. She settled in Michigan in 2004.
Now, her Hanukkah traditions include candle lighting with tofe (a homemade Ethiopian beeswax candle with a big flame) as well as the doro wat, “chicken with sauce” in Amharic, a dish eaten by all Ethiopians. For her celebrations, Gebreyohannes serves it with dabo, a holiday bread made with flour, or injera, the daily bread made of teff.
“In Ethiopia, we were always surrounded by cooking,” she said earlier this fall, while pulverizing the onions and garlic for her doro wat.
Gebreyohannes uses oil rather than the more traditional ghee used in the dish. Bright red berbere — she uses a chile spice mix from Ethiopia that includes cardamom, ginger, fenugreek and thyme — lends more than color to the sauce.
“When you smell a good berbere, you can taste the spices are there, and you don’t need to add anything else,” she said. “The spices act like cornstarch or flour to give the sauce substance.”
Gebreyohannes learned in Ethiopia to use every part of the chicken: the bones for soups and the skin to enrich the sauces. She nostalgically refers to the birds from her home as “sacred.”
“We say that when a woman knows how to pull apart the 12 parts of a whole chicken, she has become a full woman and is ready to marry,” she said. (For the record, that’s a pair each of drumsticks, thighs, breasts and wings, and the chest, neck, ribs and giblets.) “As a child, I learned to prepare meals and dishes for many people. The idea of making a meal for less than 10 people is American.”
Her doro wat recipe may not last for all eight nights of Hanukkah. But it will add warmth, and a new holiday tradition, for one.
Doro Wat (Ethiopian-Style Spicy Chicken)
YIELD: 4 to 6 servings
TIME: 1 hour
Doro wat is a popular chicken dish in Ethiopia, and for Ethiopian Jews like Meskerem Gebreyohannes, it is also a fine centerpiece for a holiday like Hanukkah. Gebreyohannes makes her doro wat with a Berbere spice mix imported from Ethiopia, but for this recipe, it is not needed, as the spices are listed individually. Doro wat is easy to make and can be prepared ahead of time. You can lower the heat by ratcheting up the sweet paprika, rather than the cayenne.
8 to 10 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
Juice of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon white vinegar
4 to 5 large onions, peeled and quartered
Fresh ginger (1-inch piece), peeled and grated
1/2 head of garlic, peeled
1/3 cup olive oil
1 to 2 tablespoons hot chile powder like cayenne
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon ground fenugreek
3/4 teaspoon salt or to taste
Pinch of freshly ground black pepper
Injera, pita, naan or rice, for serving
Hard-boiled eggs, for serving (optional)
Heat the oven to 350 degrees and rub the chicken with the lemon juice and vinegar.
Put the chicken in a rimmed baking sheet and bake, discarding the juices after 20 minutes, then draining again after 10 more minutes. Remove meat from oven and set aside.
As the chicken cooks, put the onions, ginger and garlic in a food processor with a steel blade and finely chop until almost ground, leaving a bit of texture.
Heat oil in a deep skillet over medium heat. Add the onion mixture and simmer, stirring frequently, about 20 minutes or until the onions have turned golden. Then stir in 1 tablespoon of the chile powder, the sweet paprika, ginger, coriander, cardamom, thyme, fenugreek, salt and pepper.
Cook for a few minutes, taste the sauce, and if you prefer more bite, add more chile. Add the chicken and simmer, covered, for about 15 more minutes, adding as much as a cup of water to reach the consistency of a thick sauce. Add more salt and pepper, if desired.
Serve with injera, pita, naan or rice and, if you wish, hard-boiled eggs.