Cooking with Halima: Exploring the spicy cuisine of the Eritrean homeland

The three women sparkled like jewels. Attired in colorful abayas and numerous bracelets, these lovely natives of Eritrea welcomed me with warm smiles. The Rainier Valley home of the hostess, Halima, would be the setting for an Eritrean Muslim cooking extravaganza.

Everything was ready: ingredients, utensils and a beautiful bouquet adorned the table. Each woman prepared a different dish while I observed, questioned and scribbled furiously. This would truly conjure tastes from their green and hilly homeland.

Eritrea is a small country on the northeast coast of Africa across the Red Sea from the Arabian Peninsula. Its nearby neighbors are Sudan to the north, tiny Djibouti and not-so-tiny Ethiopia to the west. Roughly two-thirds the size of Washington state, Eritrea is a hilly, pastoral country with a temperate climate. People farm and herd goats, sheep and cattle. Honey is a dietary staple.

Settlers from the Blue Nile River area of Sudan arrived in the Eritrean highlands around 2000 BC, followed a thousand years later by Arabian settlers. Eritreans are predominantly Christian-including Coptic, an ancient Egyptian form of Christianity-and Muslim, particularly along the Red Sea coast.

Colonized by Italy in the late 19th century, Eritrea came under British control in 1941; neighboring Ethiopia invaded in 1952. A bitter civil war lasting 30 years saw Eritrean rebels wrest control from Ethiopia; independence followed in 1993. This long conflict caused many Eritreans to flee elsewhere, including to the United States.

Eritrean culture and cuisine carry influences from Arabia and south Asia. The spicy sambusas, prepared for the meal by another guest, bore a strong resemblance to the Indian samosa. These crisp pastries contained a mixture of cooked ground beef seasoned with minced scallions, green chiles, parsley, cilantro, salt and pepper. A tablespoon of the mixture was placed at one end of an 8-by-2-inch strip of pastry; the strips were folded to form triangles and then quickly fried in hot oil.

Lamb is popular as well, especially among Muslims, for whom eating pork is prohibited. Seattle now has a number of markets that sell Halal meats, which have been slaughtered and prepared according to Islamic dietary law. The beef and lamb prepared at this party had come from a Halal market. Halima, the hostess, prepared a classic dish of lamb and rice.

Served at many special occasions, this dish can also be prepared without meat. Rinsing the meat first, Halima began with a large onion cut into coarse chunks, a couple of dried lemons (available in Middle Eastern shops) and five hot chiles cut into strips. Everything went into a deep cooking pot on the stovetop.

Next in was a pound of lamb bones; neck bones are good because they add meat and flavor. A pound of lamb chunks can be used as well, but bones add flavor and sustenance. Bringing this mixture to a brisk simmer, the cook added two cinnamon sticks, five cardamom seeds and five whole cloves as well as five whole black peppercorns and two tablespoons of minced garlic.

The house filled with a wonderful, spicy aroma. Turning to a low simmer, she covered the pot. Meanwhile rice was steamed, and red and green bell peppers were chopped for later. Fresh, chopped vegetables such as carrots, peas, zucchini and green beans or frozen vegetables can be prepared ahead for this dish as well. The seasoning, a moist paste called 'diluk,' was next on the agenda.

Diluk is the moist version of 'berbere' sauce used in Ethiopian and Eritrean cooking. Composed of toasted and ground seeds and other ingredients, berbere includes ginger, cardamom, coriander, fenugreek, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon and allspice. Chopped onions, garlic and salt are included with red wine, paprika, hot red pepper flakes and black pepper. Combined with water and a little vegetable oil, it forms a paste.

Berbere is the quintessential seasoning. Kept covered and refrigerated, it lasts indefinitely and is sold in Eritrean and Ethiopian groceries. Cooks keep it on hand.

Returning to the lamb and rice, Halima chose a Pyrex dish of 12-by-16 inches. A generous amount of the diluk was now stirred into the cooked lamb. Alternating the rice, lamb, cooked vegetable medley and chopped peppers, she layered each, pouring a half-cup of diluk over each addition followed by a sprinkling of curry powder. Sliced red and green pepper rings decorated the top. The dish can be served or covered and frozen at this point.

We began the feast with a fresh green salad and the just-fried sambusas. This was followed by the lamb, rice and vegetable casserole, and an okra dish. The grand finale was both coffee and a dessert in one tiny cup. Served with fresh fruit slices, it was a fitting end to a delectable repast.

Coffee originated in Ethiopia and is served hot, thick; some drinkers sweeten it with honey or sugar. Taking beans from her freezer, Halima toasted them in a large skillet with a 3-foot-long handle. She explained that "back home the beans would be roasted over an open cooking fire; the long handled pan kept people away from the flames." The beans were quickly cooled and ground.

The next part of the process was sheer magic.

Spreading a large piece of oilcloth on the floor, Halima placed a small electric burner in the center. She added 1/2 cup of ground beans to a small, enameled pot and filled it with water. Replacing the lid, she then stoppered the spout with a wad of black plant fibers resembling steel wool. Allowing the coffee to come to a slow boil, she quickly removed it from the heat and poured the thick, dark drink into miniscule enamel cups that she had earlier half-filled with sugar. We took tiny sips. It was heavenly![[In-content Ad]]