If you're a local vegan, you're likely already obsessed with Kittee Berns' Ethiopian cooking. The plant-based Portlander keeps her popular Instagram packed with mouthwatering photos of vibrant Ethiopian feasts, featuring recipes with intimidating names like "Ye’tofu Kwas Be’siquar Denich Alicha." (For the record, that's savory tofu dumplings with sweet potatoes in a mild sauce.)
Now, Berns has demystified these dishes with the publication of her first full-length cookbook, Teff Love: Adventures in Vegan Ethiopian Cooking. Drawing inspiration from traditional Ethiopian fasting dishes—the country's religious majority observes vegan fasts for more than half the year—the book brims with recipes that are not only plant-based, but often gluten-free, soy-free, and incredibly healthful. Portlanders will have no problem sourcing basic staples like berbere (a red spice blend) and injera (the sourdough pancake that doubles as a plate) at local markets, making it even easier for locals to dive into this delicious cuisine. We chatted with Berns to learn where she shops for ingredients, why she went vegan, how she fell in love with Ethiopian food, and much more:
Please tell me a bit about how, when, and why you transitioned to veganism.
I went vegan in 1990 after two years of vegetarianism. One of my best college friend's mom gave my friend a copy of John Robbin's Diet For a New America, and it was pretty eye-opening. After graduating, we traveled around Europe for a month and ate a ton of cheese. It made me feel really bad emotionally, knowing how the dairy industry is linked in the chain of industrial agriculture, so I knew I wanted to go vegan when I got home and I did. Upon graduating, I immediately got a job in a natural foods store, because I figured it would be a good place to start learning about veganism—since this was before the Internet, getting info and meeting like-minded folks wasn't as easy.
Please tell me about your first exposures to Ethiopian cooking, and what attracted you to the cuisine.
My mom, who is a great cook, wasn't super adventurous about cooking or eating when I was little, so we ate the same things a lot. When we went out to eat, it was for pizza, Gino's salad bar, Roy Roger's, Chinese food, and sometimes Mexican, which was pretty adventurous for us at the time (especially the refried beans and soft corn tortillas). In college, I tasted hummus, tabbouleh and falafel on homemade flatbread for the first time and sort of had a religious experience; it made me realize I was missing out on a lot of really interesting and insanely delicious food and gave me the desire to find and learn more. In my 20s, after I went vegan, I had a best friend and roommate who took me to eat my first sushi, Vietnamese, probably Indian, and Ethiopian. Ethiopian was so delicious and so fun to share and eat with friends.
Please talk a little about the unique relationship that Ethiopian culture has with veganism.
There is no vegan culture (ethical vegetarianism) in Ethiopia. The religious majority, who are Orthodox Christians, participate in religious fasting in the form of abstinence from eating animal foods, but it is purely for ascetic reasons. Eating meat is a huge part of their culture.
Have you ever traveled to Ethiopia? How did you research the recipes in this book?
I've never been to Africa, but I hope to get to Ethiopia in the future. I researched for the book by befriending Ethiopians, talking to anyone knowledgeable about Ethiopian cooking (including folks working in grocery stores), watching videos in English and Amharic, reading a ton of books, reading a ton of menus (late nights on my phone in bed usually), experimenting, scouring photographs, reading Ethiopian adoption blogs, and eating in as many different places as I could.
What Ethiopian resources exist for Portlanders? Do you have a market you recommend?
Merkato (2605 NE MLK) has all the essentials including berbere, mild and spicy shiro powder, koseret, spices and freshly made injera they might in-house. Awash (2322 NE MLK) also sells some spices and injera, plus enameled trays.
What are your favorite Ethiopian eats in town?
We are lucky that there are lots of places to go out to eat Ethiopian in PDX. Where I eat is dictated by who has gluten-free injera, since I can't eat gluten and it's commonly used in injera in the form of wheat and barley flours. My favorite restaurant is Bete-Lukas, and I often eat at the cart Emame's downtown—you must ask for the pure teff injera if you want it.
I’m terrible about stocking my pantry and tend to skate by on the bare minimum. Which ingredients must I absolutely acquire before attempting a basic Ethiopian dish? And which dish should I try first?
Since we have access to Ethiopian staples like fresh injera and berbere, the work is mostly in making the seasoned oil, which takes less than 30 minutes, and picking up some injera and berbere. Most of the essential spices needed for the oil can be found in bulk at a co-op or grocery store here. Once you have the seasoned oil made and have scored some berbere, the recipes are a snap--they're mostly made from legumes and vegetables. The easiest dishes and most familiar for a beginner would probably be Ye'misser Wot (spicy red lentils) and Ye'ater Kik Alicha (mild split peas) since they're on every Ethiopian menu the world over.
Do you have a favorite recipe in this book, or one that you are most proud of?
I was probably the most excited with how great the Ayib came out (the uncultured cheese). The recipes that surprised me the most with how much I love them are all the fitfit recipes, especially the ones with toasted seeds, and the recipes with toasted flax. The recipes I make the most at our house would probably be the Ethiopian Style Hummus and the breakfast recipes (grits, tofu scramble, chickpea pancakes, and ful). Now that the book is out, I'm hoping some of my friends will start making me Ethiopian!
Any new endeavors in the works now that this beautiful cookbook has been published?
I don't have any immediate plans, although I have secret dreams about starting an Ethiopian Supper Club. I've been sitting on a lot of New Orleans recipes that might get some light one of these days, and I'm planning to help organize a Vegan Bakesale in April.