From Living Within: July/August 2016
In a week where politics dominate, cooking may be as relevant to the discourse as anything else. Food is often the subject of the political but cooking seems to have entered the fray more recently too; there are flame wars going on around the world in areas of special interest that are divisive, deep-rooted and create difficult conversations - not my battles to fight, although their blueprints are reflected in the world I see around me.
My recent interest has been closer to home. I have been volunteering in a social enterprise where migrant and refugee women, from all parts of the globe, work together to provide employment opportunities, to educate each other, and to share their rich, developed food cultures via a roaming restaurant kitchen; a mutually beneficial exercise in generosity that enables all participants to live better lives in an inclusive world. I have been proud to lend my hands to these hardworking, multi-talented, mutually supportive women whose lives have not been easy, whose interests and ambitions are far-reaching, and for whom kindness and compassion seem instinctive.
On first meeting them I felt humbled and admiring; this last week or two I felt shame. Cultural mix and exchange have always been a part of our history and I am sad to see the results of the referendum include a rise in racism and xenophobia. A simple in/out referendum we are told has given a clear answer, even if the questions it answers are not yet clearly understood.
In response to all this I offer you not European fare - which is already a well established part of our food landscape and culture, the UK is European by geography regardless of any EU treaties - but instead an Ethiopian favourite, inspired by one of these inspiring women - a refugee from Ethiopia many years ago, now living in the UK as a proud European citizen, although one also now understandably concerned for her future here.
Berbere Lentils start with a simple unassuming ingredient - the everyday lentil - and owe their nuance and depth of flavour to multi-layered ingredients, careful preparation, a little time and commitment, and a wealth of history - they seem appropriate right now. I will keep the instructions to a minimum - this is not my recipe to give, I am borrowing it from those who are willing to share their culture and their skills and I am grateful for their generosity in so doing.
Wash and cover lentils generously with cold water, bring to a boil and simmer until they are on the al dente side of tender. I used green lentils, but you can choose red, brown etc. - any lentils that will yield and soften eventually are appropriate - their cooking times will vary.
Prepare some Berbere spice mix (it’s complicated! I won’t give you a recipe here - there are many online to pick and choose and learn from). When the lentils are cooked and with your spice mix ready, chop an onion and sauté it in lots of olive oil until softened and translucent. Grate some garlic and fresh ginger root to create a rough paste and add this to the onion mix and sauté gently until these two ingredients lose their raw pungency and start to turn fragrant. At this point, add a couple of tablespoons of Berbere spice, cook all together for a minute or two, add the drained lentils and a glass of water; season to taste, then cook, bubbling gently until you have a well homogenised stew that has absorbed most of the liquid (about 10 minutes).
Serve with a squeeze of lime, garnish with chopped coriander, and accompany with some salad or vegetables of your choice. In Ethiopia they eat with injera (a kind of bread), but serve and share any way that you would like.