Thursday night I got a little drunk on Ethiopian honey wine. It doesn’t take much to get me drunk, because I never ever drink. I made Ethiopian food for my friends, which I’d never done. It all started with a little teff flour, this dark sort of heavy flour milled from the teff grain of Ethiopia, by Bob’s Red Mill, a big red mill outside of Portland that you pass on the freight train on your way to LA.
Anyway. I had this teff flour and I put it in a bowl with some water- and mixed it up with a fork. Enough water to make it runny and thin. I wanted to make injera, which if you’ve ever eaten at an Ethiopian restaurant is the spongy, sour bread you use instead of utensils to eat your little piles of strongly spiced stuff, lentils and cabbage and whatnot. I wanted to make injera, but I knew it would be different than the injera I had eaten before, because US restaurant injera is made with a mix of wheat flour and teff, not just teff alone, like the traditional stuff. Teff, by the way, is gluten free- and after I tell you how wonderful and simple this bread turned out to be, you’re going to want to make this shit all the time, keep a ceramic bowl of the batter bubbling on your kitchen counter under an old dishcloth.
So I had the flour and water on the counter, in my friends’ house, where I’m staying. They haven’t turned the heat on yet, and so even though I stirred the batter faithfully whenever I thought of it, after a few days it had but a few small bubbles. As the batter slowly soured I waded around on the internet, looking for injera recipes that might be authentic, but mostly I found recipes that included things like self-rising white flour and required giant teflon injera-cookers you could buy at target. Then, at long last, on the bob’s red mill website, I found this recipe-
1 cup Teff (Tef, T’ef) Flour
1-1/2 cups Warm Water
1/2 tsp. Sea Salt
Mix flour and water together in a large bowl.
Cover with paper towel for 24 to 48 hours at 75 to 80 degrees.
Pour off liquid that will rise to top.
Add 1/2 tsp. sea salt and stir.
Pour 1/2 cup batter onto a medium hot skillet and cook for approximately 2-3 minutes. Cook until holes appear on the surface of the bread. Once the surface is dry, remove the bread from the pan and let it cool.
Makes two Injeras.
SWEET, I thought. Nice and simple. Injera like you’d make on a rock, in the sun. A nice hot rock. You know, like you’re lost in the desert with only a little teff flour, and you know you don’t want to eat that shit plain. So you mix the teff with a little water and let it get nice and bubbly, and then cook it on a rock, until tiny holes form on the surface. And then you peel it off with a piece of flint, and when it cools it becomes magically spongy and deliciously sour, and you stuff it with some lentils with berbere you happen to have and eat it like a little taco. Delicious.
On the third day, the stuff on the counter finally took off. Bubbling up like no-one’s business, smelling nice and sour like rye bread. I showed it to the folks I’m staying with and they got super excited, because they’re food nerds like me. We couldn’t hardly stand the wait. It was like Christmas. I invited Lark, who’s in town, to the dinner, and Sam, because we’d hardly hung out in like forever, and I was leaving soon.
Finally Thursday afternoon came around, and I found myself at the store, cart littered with oversized carrots and a few red onions, staring at the glass jars of spices. According to the internet, I needed berbere spice mix, whatever that was. Apparently, Ethiopian food is just like the food I already eat- lentils and onions and carrots in a pot, cauliflower and cabbage and carrots sautéed in butter, cooked nice and soft. Just like the blur-fries of my vegan “wilted green bell-pepper from the trash” years, Only in Ethiopia they have this crazy spice mix they add to the business, and that is what makes it taste so special. The spice mix contains approximately twenty-five thousand different spices, including a heavy dose of dried red pepper, and its preparation involves lots of toasting and grinding and pulling seeds from pods and filling the kitchen with fragrant, spicy smoke, smoke which is a distant cousin of the pepper spray cops will use on you at protests.
The store did not, of course, have such a thing as berbere seasoning. Undaunted, I headed back to the house with my onions and carrots, to rifle through my friends’ spice collection and see if I could make it myself. I pulled open two drawers of small glass spice jars and started pulling things out, referencing the notes I’d taken off the internet. Allspice, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, nutmeg, black pepper, turmeric, salt, red pepper- my friends just happened to have every spice I needed for the mix, except for fenugreek. What the fuck is fenugreek? I thought, sliding the drawer shut. And not only did they have all the spices, but they had many of them whole- cumin seeds, cardamom pods, whole cloves, cinnamon sticks, coriander seeds. I couldn’t believe my luck. I also couldn’t believe that somewhere in the world, people thought to mix the pumpkin-pie family of spices with the pot-of-black-beans family of spices, and that it had actually turned out tasting alright. Who knew?
I put Walter to work cracking cardamom pods and started toasting the seeds, tossing them around in the little cast-iron. After they were all toasted Walter ground them up with a mortar and pestle, mixed in the requisite dash of onions and fresh grated ginger, and poured some olive oil in the whole mess, to make a nice thick paste. There was more red pepper in the mix than anything, and I probably hadn’t gotten any of the proportions right, what with using whole seeds and not having any fenugreek.
The soaked yellow lentils were bubbling, now, with a spoonful of the new seasoning paste and a few chopped green peppers, and on another burner cauliflower sautéed in hella butter and some coconut oil, for good measure. It was time to start the injera.
Now, if the internet has taught me one thing, it’s that to make big, plate-sized injeras you need a big, plate-sized skillet, and all I had was a trusty cast-iron pan. So I decided to make little, pancake-sized injeras, thin and stretchy like some sort of sour Ethiopian crepe. A sort of injera for the american frontier, log-cabin style. And there was another major rule of injera that I had decided to break- I would flip my injera. Oh yes. You see, popular thought has it that injeras are just supposed to bubble a bit, and then you take them out of the pan, top side somehow miraculously cooked from below. But I did a little test run and mine would do no such thing- top side stayed gooey and raw. Maybe it’s the damp piedmont breezes, nothing like that good dry air of Africa. Either way, I decided to flip them. At which point they browned beautifully, and I had to wave Lark away with the spatula, because she kept eating them hot, and you’re supposed to eat them cold. When they’re hot, they’re sort of damp inside and stiff on the outside, like they’d break in two if you bent them. But as they cool they become magically strong and flexible, stretchy and resilient like a tortilla made of soft rubber.
As I flipped Injeras I also browned some mung-bean patties, assembled using a recipe I’d made up when I worked as a cook in the woods this summer. You just take whatever leftover beans you have, already seasoned, and mash them up with a potato masher, adding garbanzo bean flour until they stick together as patties when you cook them. I then put Sam to work flipping the patties in a hot steel pan, which he hated. The lentils bubbled some more. I added carrots, onions and some leftover cabbage soup that Walter had made to the cauliflower that was sautéing, along with a spoonful of the berbere spice paste. I tasted the lentils, to which I’d added a good three spoonfuls of the spice paste. My god, the lentils were hot. Turns out, the spice paste I’d made was really, really hot. Like, burn your throat and make you cough hot. But whatevs! We still had mung-bean patties seasoned with sage and vegetable stew, and of course the injera. The lentils could be a sort of garnish, if need be. A kind of legumey hot-sauce.
While I was bent over the stove, fucking up injeras, Miriam made truffles in the food processor. Or at least, these things I’ve always called truffles. But maybe “truffle” is not the right word. And in fact, I’m not sure I know what a truffle even is, other than a mushroom. Some sort of chocolate? What Miriam was assembling in the food processor was a distant cousin of a creation a friend of mine once brought to a potluck in Portland- a dusty little ball of equal parts soaked cashews, pulverized goji berries and raw cacao, all blended together with some shredded coconut, coconut oil, and agave nectar, then rolled in the palm of one’s hand and tossed in a shallow bowl of more cocoa. These “nuggets”, as we’ll call them, were good, but then I changed the recipe- I used dried figs instead of goji berries (because goji berries are expensive, trendy, and besides- they come from the rain forest) and switched the raw cocoa for carob- carob has its own, special, sweetness, so you don’t even need to add the sickly-sweet agave and besides- raw cocoa gives me anxiety attacks. When Miriam made these nuggets for the Ethiopian dinner she used fresh figs, too, in addition to dried, because we had some laying around, and added a few spoonfuls of almond butter for good measure. She then scooped the black mess out of the food processor, rolled it into little balls and stuck them in the freezer to get firm.
The stack of injeras grew taller. The mung-bean patties browned. The spicy vegetable stew simmered in its earthenware crock, and incredibly piece of cookery brought back from Chile by Micah and Gigi. Finally, at around eight, it was time to eat.
Sometimes I spend a long time cooking a thing, and when I finally sit down to eat I can hardly taste it, because I’ve been smelling it for hours. Not with this meal. We crowded round the long table in my friends’ middle room and scooped stew and lentils onto our plates with a wooden ladle, gathered handfuls of cool injera to eat it with.
It was incredible.
It was perfect. The injera was sour and hearty, the stew was salty and rich- with flavors of cardamom, cloves, and spicy red pepper. The face-burningly hot lentils were good, too- as a sort of garnish. We ate until we couldn’t eat one more bit, until all the injera was gone- and then out came the cold, dusty truffles, soft and sweet and rich, and a bottle of honey wine Gigi had made from some honey she’d helped harvest. A pot of mint tea, too- perfect with the truffles.
I don’t usually drink, but the honey wine was so fucking good, and I was so warm and happy from the food. I sipped my two inches of the stuff and for some reason we all started talking about eating insects. Lark & Sam told the story of the time they’d decided to eat some grubs they’d found, little wriggling white beetle larvae. So they’d put the grubs in the toaster oven and as they cooked, a terrible smell had filled the kitchen- Like burning plastic, said Lark, laughing. They’d eaten the grubs anyway, once they were nice and toasted, and of course they tasted just as bad as they had smelled- and were sort of soft and slimy on the inside to boot.
I told the story of how once I’d eaten a banana slug, a big black one I found last fall, on a leaf-ridden trail through the woods in western Washington. I was staying on a friend’s land at the time, and these slugs were everywhere. I took this one I found back to the cabin that held the collective kitchen, determined to cook it and eat it. I breaded it in some cornmeal and fried it in a little butter. It sort of sizzled and popped, shrinking in the pan. The cornmeal held the slug-shape, while the insides melted into black slime the consistency of snot. When the outside was nice and brown I pulled it open, and saw that what was once the slug had become but a puddle of flem, with one little piece of meat still intact- the “foot”, I found out later. The little muscle that moves the slug along. The foot was steaming, and smelled of butter. I ate it. It tasted like nothing. It was too small, I think, and too fried in butter, to taste like much of anything. My friends who owned the land, meanwhile, were disgusted.
The night went late- talked turned to the storefront Gigi and I want to open- with a clothing line we’d designed and a queer tailor and lots of nice newsboy caps with preppy coats of arms embroidered on them. One of us, of course, would apprentice with a tailor in order to become the queer tailor, (me), and the other one would be the sales clerk- being charming and guiding folks around the store (Gigi).
“Swimwear!” said a friend of Gigi’s, come late to the dinner.
“Swimwear?” we said.
“Yeah. Sports bras that dry fast and aren’t super heavy. That’s what I’d have. A swimwear line.”
“And cologne, too!” I said. “We can sell our own cologne!”
So we’d have swimwear and cologne, too. And lots of reclaimed clothing that could be altered to fit our clients, because there’s too much clothing in the world already to manufacture new stuff. We would hire our friends to pick at the bins, and pay them really well. All of our stuff would cost a lot of money, and the shop would have lots of dark wood, and mirrored stands where the cologne would sit. And I’d be in the back with my tape measure and grey wool cushion of straight-pins, waiting to take in the shoulders on someone’s favorite button-down.
Then Lark, Sam and I biked to a craft night at a friends, where we talked, among other things, about knuckle tattoos, which Lark hates. On the bike ride home we tried to talk in knuckle tattoos as much as possible.