Mahalit’s Shiro

The town of Lalibela marks the end of our long trek through the Ethiopian highlands. We arrive in need of a shower and somewhere to shake the dust out of all our things. Also, just in time before I have a full-blown meltdown about having to walk up another hill. Lalibela is famous for its amazing churches, which are noteworthy because instead of building up, the King of Lalibela and his architects in the 12th century decided to carve down. The result are a series of rock hewn churches, ceremonial passages and trenches which lead to catacombs and hermit caves . Lara Croft eat your heart out.

Whilst in Lalibela, Cass and I make friends with a tuk-tuk driver called Ermeyus. We ended up going to his house for coffee, and then again the following day for lunch. True Ethiopian hospitality. It’s not our pal Ermeyus, but his wife Mahalit, who gifts her story and recipe for this blog.

Mahalit is 20, very shy and beautiful. She’s a killer seamstress, has a one-year old daughter with Ermeyus and can’t fathom why Cass and I don’t have babies too. The couple have known each other since school, Ermeyus was a few years’ above her and used to help Mahalit out with her homework, undoubtedly in a bid to win her over. It worked, by 15 Mahalit had left school and married Ermeyus.

Mahalit earns an income from running a laundrette from her home

They now live together, along with Ermeyus’ bothers and wider family, in a solid townhouse. Mahalit has painted nails, a TV, and two maids to help around the house and with the laundry business she runs. But life for Mahalit has not always been easy. She was born in the countryside 85km outside of Lalibela, the youngest of a very large, very poor family. By the time she was seven her older brothers and sisters were already married and had moved away, by eight years old, both her parents had died of HIV; she’s not sure, but her father probably contracted HIV whilst in the army in the late 80’s.

Shortly after, a relative took Mahalit to Lalibela to be looked after by another family and to go to school – the same one as Ermeyus. When I ask what Mahalit sees in Ermeyus, she tells me “he has always treated me with respect and kindness and has always looked after me” which makes complete sense, given her childhood.

Despite now being able to afford meat and spices, Mahalit’s ‘last supper’ is a basic (but delicious!) dish called shiro, why? “because it’s what I grew up on, it’s my background”. Shiro and injera were the only two things her mother could afford to cook so all she ate when she was a little girl; shiro reminds her of her family and her roots.

A variety of the spices that Mahalit is now able to afford and includes in here berbere spice mix

At its most basic, shiroconsists of chickpea flour, berbere pepper and water and is traditionally served on fasting days, which are every Wednesday and Friday and during lent. The dish is such a favourite here that people eat it on non-fasting days too – I can see why, it’s comforting, delicious and very cheap.

A much richer version of shiro includes a wider variety of spices in the berbere mix plus some vegetables, which Mahalit is now able to afford. The recipe below is the “rich person” shiro, the perfect marriage of Mahalit’as past and present.

Shiro (the one on the left) with injera and some other dishes (all to come in due course!)

Recipe for Shiro

Serves 4, or enough for a week of lunches

2 medium onions, pureed
120ml vegetable oil
3 tablespoons berbere spice
1 large tomato, pureed
3 cloves garlic finely sliced
65 grams chickpea flour
550 ml water, maybe more if needed
2 green chilli, chopped (optional garnish. If like me you like your food hot, then chop up more chillis)
1.      First, prepare all your vegetables by roughly chopping and then pureeing the onions and tomato using a blender (make sure you keep the onions and tomatoes separate) and finely slicing the garlic cloves.
2.      Add the pureed onions (no oil yet!) to a heavy bottomed saucepan and cook until they become dry and start to colour. Don’t have the heat up too high otherwise the onions will burn. After about 5 mins add all the oil and berbere and cook on a gentler heat until the onions are translucent and have mixed together nicely with the spice – about another 3-5 mins.
3.     Add the tomatoes and garlic to the pan and cook for another few minutes
4.      Now it’s time to start adding the chickpea flour and water to the pan, do this gradually and whisk as you go to ensure the mix is smooth. Squash any floury lumps out with the back of a spoon. The mixture should be the consistency of a thick soup, add more water if needed, depending on how runny you want your shiro
5.      Once all the flour has been added and whisked in bring the mixture to the boil then turn down and simmer on a low heat for about 10 minutes. Taste and season.
6.      Serve hot with green chillis scattered over the mix.

Serving: once again, this is eaten by pouring it over a large injera, then eaten communally. But I think this would be equally great as a hearty lunchtime soup, maybe with some bread. 

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