Pleasure Hunting / Eritrean Encounters

In the streets around Tel Aviv's old Central Bus Station, African refugees recreate the flavors, and feeling, of home.

Dusk on Thursday, the Neve Shaanan pedestrian mall in Tel Aviv. Efram Beyne, 27, and his friends rub shoulders in greeting. Westerners peck each other on the cheek or kiss, Eskimos rub noses, Eritreans rub shoulders to express affection and closeness. The small group heads for an after-work beer at the Horn of Africa bar. The area of the old Central Bus Station, where Romanian migrant workers and members of the Russian community used to hang out, is now studded with bars frequented by African refugees - plastic tables and chairs, cheap Christmas lights over the bar and a corner used as a mail drop, where those with no fixed address can receive letters and packages from home. Maqdi the bartender serves beer and arak and chats with the customers; Michael Jackson dances on television; and Zabib the waitress scoops a pitcher of batter - fermented and made with teff flour - from a big black tin and pours it into a large electric crepe pan. Two traditional Eritrean stews are served over fresh injera flatbread, but tonight Efram and his buddies are going to Yergelum's.

Eritrean cuisine, Nir Kafri
Nir Kafri

More Eritrean men, most of whom work as dishwashers and cleaners in Tel Aviv restaurants, mill around the entrance to the restaurant, on Hagedud Ha'ivri Street. Yergelum Gahsai came to Israel three years ago and four months ago she opened her small restaurant. The place and its all-female staff provide a sense of home to many. The aroma alone, which hits your nostrils as soon as you enter, is enough to afford a feeling of warmth and security to those who are cut off from their roots. No African could miss it, not even those condemned to live in the filthy streets surrounding the old Central Bus Station. The aroma, with its intimations of cumin, cardamom and hot paprika, is generated by the ubiquitous berbere spice blend.

Berbere's vibrant orange-red is also responsible for the sublime harmony of colors on the table. The menu, which offers almost 30 Eritrean dishes, is all in Tigrinyan - very few outsiders frequent the restaurant, despite the cordial hospitality - but Yergelum is there to help those who are unfamiliar with the dishes or the language.

Everyone eats with their hands, together, from a large metal tray in the center of the table. Yergelum pads the tray with a large injera, tearing a second into large pieces that she scatters on the first. The various dishes, cooked in small iron pots on a household range, are spooned onto the edges of the flat, spongy bread, whose bubbly surface seems made to envelop the flavors of the various sauces: zigni, a beef stew spiced with berbere; doro, a deep red, almost crimson stew of chicken thighs served with slices of hardcooked eggs; shiro, an orange vegetarian stew made of chickpea flour, seasoned with onions and garlic and cooked with tomatoes; or fried bread in a tomato-sour cream sauce. Gaat, a tasty wheat porridge reminiscent of the Tripolitanian asida, is served in a separate bowl. On its own, it is a marvelous base for various thick stews. Hollows made in the gaat balls, which are formed with quick, nimble hands, are filled with samneh - clarified butter - and berbere. The spiciness of the dishes is offset by fresh vegetables wrapped in injera slices.

The afternoons are quieter in this modest restaurant, whose walls feature an Eritrean flag and scenes of African village life depicted in colorful cloth hangings.

The traditional coffee ceremony, a serious affair that can take up to an hour, is conducted on the floor, with a small case of Kinley soft drinks taking the place of the traditional low stool, but it is carried out as it has been for millennia in the same remote villages.

First, one of the kitchen workers feeds the burning coals in a square iron brazier built into a beautifully carved low wooden table. After the coffee beans are roasted and ground coarsely, a little is poured into a jebena, a fat, long-necked clay pitcher. Water is added, the jebena is placed on the coals and everyone waits calmly, watching Eritrean television. When the coffee threatens to boil over from the narrow opening it is poured into a metal finjan and back into the pitcher and returned to the coals. This sequence is repeated at least three times, until the texture and aroma of the coffee are deemed satisfactory. The potent brew is poured from a height and with exaggerated abundance into two rows of small glasses, symbolizing the host's generosity and delighting the guests.

Throughout, Yergelum moves deftly between her restaurant kitchen and her grocery next door. The store, like similar ones nearby, sells hair extensions and embroidered Eritrean wedding dresses. But foodstuffs, some local and some imported from there, fill the crammed shelves: plastic boxes of homemade yellow, saffron-flavored samneh; bags of teff and chickpea flour; and mountains of berbere and whole and ground spices.

Yergelum's restaurant and grocery, 36 Hagedud Ha'ivri St., Tel Aviv (open daily, noon to midnight ). Restaurant dishes NIS 20-NIS 70.

The recipes of Itay Har-Gil and Maoz Alonim

We began learning about Eritrean cuisine through Effi - Efram Beyne, an Eritrean refugee who works in the kitchen of Habasta. We discovered a cuisine similar to Ethiopian and other African cuisines, but with its own distinct characteristics. We discovered genuine soul food - made from the ingredients of the poor, seasoned with love and eaten with the hands. The first encounter may be based on the exoticism of the foreign and unfamiliar, while a second and third reveal food that is simply tasty. Effi's recipes have been adapted to Israeli palates and cooking techniques.

Berbere spice blend

This Eritrean spice blend flavors a wide range of foods, in the manner of North Africa's ras al-hanout or India's garam masala. Few Eritrean dishes are made without berbere, and its strong, pungent aroma is the typical smell of Eritrean restaurants and shops. It can be found in the Eritrean grocery stores around Tel Aviv's old Central Bus Station, but when you make it at home you can control the degree of pungency.

2 tsp. cumin seeds

5 cardamom pods

1 tsp. fenugreek seeds

1 tsp. coriander seeds

8 whole cloves

1 tsp. black peppercorns

20 dried shata peppers

2-cm. long cinnamon stick

1/2 tsp. dried ginger powder

1 tsp. turmeric

1 tbsp. sweet or hot paprika

Roast all the whole seasonings (cumin, cardamom, fenugreek, coriander, cloves, black pepper, shata pepper and cinnamon ) in a dry skillet for about two minutes, until they give off an aroma. Grind into powder in a spice grinder and mix in the remaining ingredients. Store refrigerated, in a sealed jar.

Gaat porridge

Classic poor people's food. A soft, wonderful porridge made with flour and water and seasoned with melted butter and berbere. It's all in the wrist.

Serves six.

2 cups water

1 cup flour

salt

100 gm. butter

1 tbsp. berbere (or paprika )

Heat the water in a pot. Sift the flour and in a skillet, dry it for a few minutes on very low heat, taking care not to let it brown. When the water comes to a simmer, add the flour gradually, stirring with a wooden spoon. Continue to stir vigorously over medium heat, taking care not to let the mixture stick to the bottom of the pot. After a few minutes of vigorous, continual stirring you will have a smooth, flexible, somewhat sticky mixture. Salt to taste, add 50 grams of butter and continue to stir.

Melt the remaining butter on low heat. Place the gaat in a serving dish and make a well in the center. Pour the melted butter into the well, sprinkle berbere on top and serve.

Mutton curry

In the 15th century the Portuguese sailed to India for the first time via the Cape of Good Hope. Until then the international spice trade was conducted via the Red Sea. The people of Eritrea, located in northeastern Africa, on the Red Sea, were exposed to exotic ingredients from Asia, the largest spice-growing region in the world. Although the following recipe comes from the other side of the Indian Ocean, it uses spices that are common in Eritrea. The bright red color, from an abundance of paprika and tomatoes, is also typical of Eritrean dishes.

Serves six.

500 gm. mutton (or lamb ) shoulder, cut into large cubes

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1 heaping tsp. fresh, grated ginger

2 garlic cloves, grated

5 cardamom pods, crushed slightly

1 cinnamon stick, half a finger in length

2 tsp. cumin seeds

2 bay leaves

12 black peppercorns

1 tsp. turmeric

2 tsp. sweet paprika

2 tsp. hot paprika

6 very ripe tomatoes, finely chopped

oil for frying

2 tbsp. yogurt

1 tsp. garam masala

salt

50 gm. butter

Pour a little oil into a heavy-bottomed pot and brown the onion. Now, work quickly: Add the ginger and the garlic. When they begin to brown add the cardamom, cinnamon, cumin seeds, bay leaves and black pepper. Roast the spices for a few seconds and add the turmeric, sweet paprika and hot paprika. Stir and add the tomatoes. Cook for at least an hour on low heat, stirring occasionally and adding a little water if needed.

Pour a little oil into a large skillet and brown the meat on high heat. Add the meat, with its pan juices, to the pot with the sauce. Cook for an additional 90 minutes or so on low heat, until the meat is very soft. Make sure the meat is submerged in the sauce throughout the cooking process. Add the yogurt, garam masala and salt to taste, and stir. Add the butter, remove from heat and let the curry sit for a few minutes. Garnish with chopped fresh cilantro and serve with rice.

Shiro

A very popular vegetarian dish, and one of dozens of types of foods that is served on injera. We discovered that it also makes a wonderful sauce for fish cakes or for hraimah, spicy North African fish. Shiro powder, which is sold in Eritrean grocery stores, consists of chickpea flour, dried onion and garlic and a little berbere.

Serves six.

1 onion, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, sliced

10 ripe tomatoes, finely chopped

1 very heaping tbsp. shiro (or chickpea flour )

olive oil for frying

salt

In a saucepan, saute the onion and garlic until translucent. Add the tomatoes and cook for at least 20 minutes, until you have a thick sauce. Add the shiro and stir until smooth. Add salt if needed. Serve hot.

Injera

The flat, slightly sour pancake that is the foundation of every Ethiopian or Eritrean meal. It is made with teff, a grain exclusive to Africa.

Makes five to 10 pieces.

200 gm. teff flour

1 tsp. salt

1 cup water

1 tsp. baking soda

oil for frying

In a large bowl, mix the flour, salt and water. Cover with a damp towel and let sit, at room temperature, for three days.

After three days, the dough will form bubbles and smell sour, as it ferments. Add half a cup of water and one teaspoon of baking soda, and you're ready to cook.

Heat a pan over high heat and grease lightly. Pour one ladleful of batter into the pan to create a thick pancake. After about a minute, bubbles will form at the edges of the pancake. The injera is done. Do not flip it over! Remove from the pan and keep going until the batter is gone.

Meet the Chefs

Itay Har-Gil and Maoz Alonim live, eat and drink in Tel Aviv. In 2007 they opened Habasta, a market restaurant in the Carmel Market whose ever-changing menu is built around the fresh offerings of the surrounding stalls.