Genfo with ‘Sili’s Sauce’

Sili making ‘bunna’ (Ethiopian coffee)

This bad boy breakfast dish comes from Sili, who is one half of the dream team at Mulu Ecolodge and responsible for making a simple sauce of onions, garlic, niter kibbeh (Ethiopian spiced butter) and berbere taste so good that it has been affectionately renamed ‘Sili sauce’. The breakfast dish itself is ‘genfo’ (also called ‘ga-at’ in the Tigrinya region of Ethiopia), which is a porridge-like dish made from mixing together flour and water with a little berbere until it turns into a big blob of comfort. A deep well is created in the middle of the blob and a sauce, in this case Sili’s sauce is poured into it; the whole dish is then eaten with a spoon. Before we get on to the recipe, a little more about Sili.

Sili preparing lunch for everyone at Mulu. She is holding an injera table

Sili isn’t sure how old she is (birthdays aren’t a thing in Ethiopia, especially in the countryside) but through process of elimination and guess-work, she reckons she’s mid-20’s. In some ways Sili is like any other mid-20 woman I know; on the hunt for a boyfriend, is keen to move to the hustle and bustle of a city and loves a cold beer at the end of the day. Yet when I ask more about her past, I am reminded of how different it has been from mine. Sili has been working in kitchens for most of her life, before working in the kitchen at Mulu she helped her mother run the family tea-house, which sold tea and imbecha bread in the mornings and tella and araki (home-made beer and spirit) the rest of the time. She started working at Mulu after they were forced to shut the café because her mother was too ill. Although her mother’s illness is difficult for the family (her father is not around), Sili much prefers working for Mulu, at the cafe “there used to be lots of drunk people, breaking things and refusing to pay”.

Preparing the onions for Sili Sauce

Luckily, Sili enjoys cooking, but when I ask her what she wants to do in the future she looks at me oddly, I don’t think that question is something she has ever had the luxury of considering. Sili left

school about four years’ ago after she failed to pass 10thGrade exams (a king of equivalent to GCSE’s in the UK) and although she enjoyed it, by secondary school she “didn’t understand anything”. The reason being, once children reach secondary education all lessons and exams suddenly switch to English. Whilst this sounds like a sensible idea, the reality is far from it. Teachers, especially low-paid ones in the countryside, speak very little English themselves; regional languages across the country make learning English harder; and many children who reach secondary school are unable to recognise the English alphabet.
The kitchen. Confession: I’m really wanting to show off the kitchen hanging rack that I made whilst volunteering at Mulu

The product of this flawed system is someone like Sili, who, having had very little English taught in primary school, is suddenly expected to read and understand a chemistry textbook in English. The national exams are also in English and multiple-choice which Sili used to prepare for by looking at the English textbooks and trying to memorise shapes of words and letters. If she then recognised those same word shapes in any of the multiple-choice answers, she would choose it. A massive game of chance. No surprise then that she failed to pass 10th Grade and on into further education, along with 48% of the rest of the country.

Without education Sili can’t afford to make choices about the kind of job she will do in the future, if she manages to move to the city, her ticket there will probably be because she’s found an eligible husband, rather than a job.

For the moment though, life is pretty good for Sili. She works alongside her cousin Kalima and because Sili is older, she’s the boss. They live relatively independent lives for two unmarried, Orthodox Christian women, and there is a constant stream of visitors and volunteers to Mulu, making it a lively and fun place to work.

Daily life at Mulu: collecting spring water with Valerie (Manager at Mulu) and Kalima

 

Life at Mulu: Cass and one of the farmers mud plastering the walls of the new dining room

 

Daily life at Mulu: local farmers building a new Guard house

Although Sili enjoys genfo, her favourite thing to eat for breakfast is bread and tea because “it’s a real treat to have”. I find this strange considering she grew up baking and serving bread to customers in their tea-house, but Sili explains they were hardly ever allowed it themselves as it was so expensive. Because of its simplicity, genfois considered a poor person’s dish and not a favourite amongst the locals at Mulu, but I loved the comfort of it and most of all the sauce on top. Whilst we were there we ate two variations of genfo, one made with wheat flour and one from tef flour. Once, in homage to one of my all-time favourite Ottoloenghi recipes, we plonked the sauce on top of some polenta that had gouda (courtesy of some Dutch volunteers) melted into it. Now that was a Good Food Day.

The success of a good Sili sauce is on trusting your instinct and knowing how much water to add. Oh, and you can’t forget the secret ingredient of niter kibbeh.

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Genfo with Sili Sauce

Serves 6 hungry volunteers

 

Ingredients

For the Sili Sauce:
7 onions, finely diced
6 tablespoons berbere spice
9 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
Vegetable oil
1 teaspoon Niter Kibbeh
For the Genfo:
400g flour
1.5 litres water
Salt
Method
First boil the kettle so that you have a constant supply of hot water throughout the cooking process.

Now begin with the sauce. Add the chopped onions to a non-stick saucepan and allow them to sweat with a lid on until the onions are translucent. Check the onions a couple of times and give them a stir. If they are sticking then add a splash of the hot water.

Add the berbere spice to the onions, give them all a good stir then continue to cook with the lid on for another minute. Now add the oil and some salt, give it another stir and cook for a further couple of minutes, still with the lid on. If it all looks like its cooking too quickly or burning, turn the heat down a little and add a splash of water.

In 2 or 3 stages, add more hot water stirring it well each time. If the sauce looks too thin then keep cooking with the lid off, if there’s enough, then put the lid back on and allow to cook together. After the first bit of water has been added, stir in the chopped garlic. Don’t worry if the garlic doesn’t cook properly, the final sauce has slightly raw garlic in it.

Sili Sauce

Now stir in the niter kibbeh. Taste the sauce and add more salt or butter if necessary. Once you’re happy with it take it off the heat and let it rest whilst you make the genfo.

For the genfo, place a pan of water on the hob and bring to the boil. Just before boiling point add in the flour, stirring and mixing vigorously. Keep stirring, smushing the floury lumps against the side of the pan as you go to try and get a smooth mixture. You should be stirring for at least 10 – 15 minute. You know it’s done when the mixture stops tasting like flour and water, and  more like a cooked mixture. If you’ve made polenta before, it’s a very similar process.

Genfo

Serving suggestion: the sauce will keep for a few days and the longer you leave it, the better it will get. The genfo is another beast and should be eaten immediately.

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