Eritrean lentil stew – travelling around Europe

Erithrea lentil stew

My lifestyle lately has been a bit weird. My partner is travelling a lot because of work, and I’ve been mainly alone with my cats,  spending weekends off to reach him wherever he is. I’m still trying to put together my thoughts on all the things I’ve seen. I’ve seen a lot of friends, and this always feels good. I guess a positive side of this crazy lifestyle of ours is that, although there is no place I can go to where all my friends are, there are a lot of places where some friends are. That’s good, isn’t it?

In this period I cooked much less at home: I am not used to cooking for myself alone, although I like to try now and again some ‘extreme’ experiments when no one is there to watch.  Being out at weekends means that long, complex projects are not feasible. I ate out many times when travelling. I had really great food, and the funny part is that all of it was ‘ethnic’ food, although I was travelling around Europe. For someone coming from Italy, whose food is indeed seen as ‘ethnic’ in the rest of the world (the first time I found they store Italian ingredients at Tesco in the ‘world’ section, I did not know whether to laugh or cry, it just seemed so weird to me), this is very positive. There is much more in Italian cooking than greasy pizza and overcooked pasta, and this is true for all other food of the world. I felt a tangible wave of energy coming from these restaurants. They were all original, with high quality ingredients, populated by locals and by co-nationals alike (my number one criteria for choosing ethnic food when I don’t have recommendations).

One of the best dinners was at an Eritrean restaurant in Geneva. Geneva is weirdly full of ‘non official’ places: bars that look like normal houses from outside, a restaurant you can only access by entering in the toilet of another, official restaurant… I did not expect that in one of the more expensive and formal cities in the world. The Eritrean restaurant was not that excessive: at least it looked like a proper legal establishment, although it lactually was just an old bar with just one room, and not a very big one. Since it is always very crowded, we reserved a place and got to sit very close to each other, which is only a good thing. In Eritrea you eat with your hands. The role of plate, fork and knife is played by the bread, a spongy, sour-fermented pancake called injera. At the center of the bread, covering one big communal plate (this is why it is good to sit very tight, so everyone has access to food), the rest of the meal  is served: a stew, in this place you could choose between beef, chicken and lentils, and a few vegetables. I almost argued with one of my best friends: I never noticed how quickly he eats until we had to share one single dish and he was always picking from my side! Communal eating may bring out a few nasty surprises.

We tried both beef and lentils and although I liked the beef stew a lot, it was the lentil one I could not wait to reproduce. Hot and spicy, not in the least bit greasy, it had a haunting, complex flavour I could not pin.  I definitely want to make injera, but I have not managed to track down teff flour yet, so I have put this project on hold. If you have teff flour you most likely already know how to make injera, however if you are curious, have a look here for a method. There is a less traditional recipe for it also on ‘Good to the grain’ (which I can’t wait to try of course) .

But what made me rush to the kitchen as soon as I could was the lentil stew. I turned again to Sasha’s for information on Eritrean food.  Her reader’s note about the technique of making an onion paste was a revelation. That was the flavour. While I was eating the stew, I knew there were spices in it, the typical mix called berbere. But the richness and the thickness of the sauce reminded me of Hungarian goulash, and I was confused because the lentils were vegetarian. Now I know. The onion paste thickens, gives body and depth to the lentils.  It is a brilliant technique, and I can see millions of uses for it, wherever the strong, sweet flavour of onions will work, more or less everything in my book.

I was really happy today when I nailed it down at the first try. The spices tasted a bit different – I think the ones at the restaurant were roasted before grinding and contained definitely less chilli. But still, I really loved my version (I would not cut back the chilli at all, although the next time I’ll give the spices a quick roast).  I was very proud of my network of sources, this great ‘blog’ world, so effective in teaching me about food I would not have known otherwise.

The recipe is not difficult at all. The only big problem is the crying involved in cooking the onion paste. I tried the bread trick discussed at Chocolate and Zucchini, but it did not work too well, unfortunately. Ventilation was the only relief available. It does get better after a few minutes, anyway. For some reason the lentils took ages to cook – a good half an hour with a pressure cooker. I never believed in the theory of not salting your pulses before cooking, but I never do it anyway (I nearly always add salt at the end); this time I did add some salt at the beginning and this may have caused the long cooking time, so maybe in the end the theory is true. Another theory is that the acidity of tomatoes causes  lentils to cook much slower. I do occasionally cook lentils and tomatoes together and have not noticed it so far. Anyway, a reason more to be happy to have used a pressure cooker. s

I served the stew with some sourdough bread, but any carb will work, rice, potatoes… Of course injera would be the ideal match, with its slightly sour and nutty flavour and spongy consistency. I paired  the stew with some sautéed spinach and yoghurt, like they did at the restaurant. They were a perfect finish for one of the best lentil stews I’ve ever made. I’m sharing this recipe with My Legume Love Affair number 36, the brilliant event founded by Susan of The Well-Seasoned Cook and hosted this month by Aqua at Served with Love.

Eritrean lentil stew with onion paste

Note: as a shortcut you can probably mix a ready-made  curry powder and chilli powder in equal parts to replace berbere ,  but it won’t taste as rich. Anyway it is a great time investment to make this powder, it works with a lot of things and has a fantastic flavour.


For the spice mix (berbere):

3 cloves
1/2 tsp coriander seeds
1/2 tsp  fenugreek seeds
1 tsp cumin
1 Tbsp paprika
1/4 tsp peppercorns
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground turmeric
5 whole allspice balls
1/4 tsp cardamom seeds (removed from pods)
3- 4 tablespoons chilli powder

For the stew:

2 sweet, large red onions

200 gr small, dark lentils

1 can peeled or crushed tomatoes

3 teaspoons berbere (this yields quite hot a stew)


1 tablespoon clarified butter, or vegetable oil


For the spices (makes much more than what you’ll need): Grind al the spices together. I have bought a coffee grinder dedicated to the task and I can’t recommend it enough. Before that I made do with mortar and pestle.

For the stew: Chop the onions very finely, until they are almost a paste. I did it with a hand blender, trying not to overdo it. Grating them will work as well, or just use a knife and a lot of patience. Heat a pot with a good, heavy bottom (I used my pressure cooker). Add the onions without any fat, and keep stirring the paste over medium heat. The water will evaporate (making you cry, yes) and the paste will thicken and darken. After about ten minutes of almost constant stirring  the paste will start sticking to the bottom of the pan. At this point add the fat of your choice (I used clarified butter), the lentils, tomatoes with their juices (crush them with your fingers a bit if they are whole), and as much berbere’ as you dare. Close the pressure cooker, or cover with a lid and keep simmering until the lentils are just this side of soft. Don’t overcook them, you don’t want them turned into a mash. Serve with some yoghurt and wilted spinach, and any carb of your choice. Leftovers are just as good.

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17 Responses to “Eritrean lentil stew – travelling around Europe”

  1. This sounds absolutely amazing. I just spent the last half hour or so reading about Eritrean food and I can’t wait to try your recipe myself.

    Your “theory” about lentils and salt actually has solid scientific backing. Adding salt prevents the lentils from absorbing water, since salt molecules are larger than water molecules and will therefore block the entrance that water would otherwise be absorbed through. The same is true for beans. On a related note, you also should not add salt to meat before it is completely cooked, as the salt makes it dry and tough. Learning the science behind all the little things we do when we cook can be truly enlightening and I’d encourage you to read up on any of those specific things you’ve always been wondering about.

    • Thanks for the information Bren! I’ll definitely look more into it. It is sometimes difficult to find a reasonable explanation with all the information out there, and sometimes I’m just a little lazy, so your encouragement is really welcome and needed.

  2. Wow, onion paste ! That is really quite brilliant…and so simple. Can’t wait to try this. Just picked up some lentils and tomatoes tonight! Will report back on ….am sure it is delicious! Thanks for sharing this one. Also, would love to know how the “Good to the Grain” injera turns out!

  3. A good lentil stew is so incredibly satisfying and I must say the Africans do it really well. Your version sounds lovely and flavoursome!

  4. Yum, this stew sounds delicious and I loved reading about your discovery of non-official and ethiopian restaurants in Geneva 🙂 I would be very glad to know which one was the one you tried the dish as I live in Geneva 🙂

  5. Caffettiera, lovely to have found your blog after you found mine. You seem like a cook after my own heart- pedantic about technique and in search of great flavours. So pleased to meet you!
    I, too, haven’t tried making Injera, although I’ve always wanted to. I’ve spotted no teff as yet, although it must be around as the local Eritrean restaurants make injera… maybe they use a more conventional flour too?

  6. I have eaten at Ethiopian restaurants a few times and found the food quite good, especially injera and indeed, lentil stew. I read your recipe with interest, as I didn’t know about onion paste. Injera is on my to-do list and in fact I have some teff flour in my cupboard to remind me of my plan. Very interesting post, as always.

  7. The dish sounds perfect and I am in love with the idea of onion paste. Will have to try that!

  8. Hi Caffettiera:

    Glad you like the toned-down version of Ethiopian/Eritrean food that you tried. The real-deal (outside of Switzerland) is a good deal hotter. In most recipes, the berebere is hotter AND more of it is used (on the order of tablespoons). Sasha adapted one of the berebere recipes from me and had to tone it down because it hurt her more Western attuned palate. It is one of the hottest cuisines on the planet (perhaps the hottest – but there is always Bhutan to consider – where they eat chillies raw.)

    As to roasting spices, yes, roasting spices before hand does provide a nuttier, richer flavor to the berebere.

    If you go back to Geneva and have a hankering for French/Swiss food, try Chez Jacky on Rue Necker – I used to haunt that place in the old days. Quiet, good food, no loud ex-pats. . . you get the picture.

    Nice – in the moment post . . .


    • Thanks for the tip about the French-Swiss place, Laura. I will try it for sure when I go back there (not too soon, unfortunately). The stew version I tried was already much spicier than the one I tried in Geneva, and next time I’ll dial up the heat as much as I dare. My partner comes from Calabria, where chilli is used extensively: Italians eat a good amount of chilli when compared to other Europeans, but we can’t compare with seriously hot kitchens.

  9. I hate eating by myself and find it difficult to cook anything when my partner is not her for lunch… That dish looks wonderful! I know only a little about Eritrean food…



  10. Senti, mi piace molto questo tuo blog pieno di belle foto e di ricette interessanti. ma non trovo il bottone per i sostenitori… e non vorrei perderti di vista. M’ingegnerò… ma torno.
    A presto,


    • Ciao Sabrine, grazie della visita e dei complimenti! In alto a destra c’e’ una funzione ‘Subscribe’: se metti il tuo indirizzo email e premi su ‘Sign me up’, riceverai un’email ogni volta che combino qualcosa di nuovo 🙂 Spero di ritrovarti presto.

  11. I have never had Ethiopian cuisine but always been afraid to try the spicy berbere. The great thing though is that I could tone it down to my own tastes, which is perfect! I don’t eat out much, but when I do, I like when it is a source of inspiration for my own kitchen. 🙂


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