Sunday, January 25, 2015

Adventures in Cooking and Baking in Ethiopia

We knew cooking and baking in Ethiopia was going to be different because of the high altitude, so we expected to have to make adjustments. Baking is far trickier than general cooking, especially if you have to use rising agents (yeast, baking soda, baking powder). You usually have to lower the amounts of rising agents, increase the temperature and/or increase the baking time to compensate for the lower air pressure at high altitudes. We have tried a few things now and our results have been mixed.

First, we tried making my favorite fruit muffin recipe with papayas instead of the tried and true apples I usually use. Papayas are readily available and are inexpensive, while apples are imported, very expensive and usually not very good. I don’t yet have my muffin tins, so we made the recipe in a rectangular pan, brownie style. The result was, well, suboptimal at best. The thing baked on top and on the bottom but the middle was undercooked. We increased the baking time but that just made the whole thing very hard and the middle still didn’t cook properly. It was edible but not at all what we usually get. Fail #1.

Then we tried to make our own yogurt. Yogurt is a staple in Bulgaria and we’ve made our own in Bulgaria, the U.S. and India without issues. When you make yogurt at home, it’s important to start with good bacteria (starter). We tested several different Ethiopian brands. Some were not thick enough, others didn’t taste right but we found one, which tasted good and had a nice thick consistency, so we decided it was a good candidate for our homemade yogurt experiment. We bought local milk which has 2.5% fat and comes in 500 ml plastic baggies. We heated about 2 liters of milk, added about 400 ml of the starter yogurt, mixed the starter in well, covered it and let it sit several hours. The resulting homemade yogurt is usually very similar in taste and consistency of the starter yogurt. We weren’t so lucky this time. Almost half of what we got was juice – you know the clear liquid that forms on top of yogurt. Usually, you get a table spoon or two max per 400 ml container. The little actual yogurt that we ended up with was kinda thin and had a grainy consistency. The taste wasn’t great either. It was edible but not enjoyable. Fail #2.

We weren’t going to throw it away though. Perfectly good milk and yogurt had gone into it. Plus, we are cheap. The next morning, we decided to make palachinki (Bulgarian crepes – click on the hyperlink for a recipe). I make them with milk or yogurt. You can use water instead of milk or yogurt but they are not as good, so the only time I use water is when I have no milk or yogurt. We were out of milk because we had used it in the yogurt experiment but we did have the ill-fated yogurt. So we decided that making palachinki with it was a good way to use it. We were wrong. The batter looked good but stuck to the pan and you couldn’t flip them. We added more oil hoping that would unstick them but no success again. Fail #3.

We set that batter aside (did I mention we were cheap?) and made the palachinki with water because the milk was gone and the darn yogurt was sticky. The resulting second batch of palachinki worked fine and we enjoyed them with fresh strawberries, Nutella and honey.

Then we had to figure out what to do with the first palachinki batter. After a little online research, my Mom found a recipe for these feta cheese pastries we could maybe work into the sticky batter. It was very improvisational, you know, a little bit of this and a little bit of that but (surprise, surprise!) it worked! They rose beautifully and looked and tasted great. Success was our b!+ch at last! Don’t ask us to do it again though, because we couldn’t recreate that masterpiece.

The kids helped too – they had a blast kneading the dough into “fun” shapes . They even named the final products. They called them (ahem) “poopies” (after their favorite shape in the kneading game – the height of sophistication, I know) but hey, they ate them, the name notwithstanding, so I am not going to complain:

We have had better success with general cooking. The major challenge usually is finding the right-ish ingredients. We’ve been able to find good avocados. They are not the same as the ones we have in the U.S. but they work very well for my favorite guacamole recipe:

I already mentioned that you can find good yogurt in the stores (though we have yet to figure out how to make good yogurt at home). You can also find nice cucumbers and they are not very expensive, which means we can make decent tarator, a Bulgarian cold cucumber yogurt soup with dill and garlic – yum!:

In addition to the cucumbers, we have been able to find decent tomatoes (though it is a challenge to find nice ripe ones sometimes) and overpriced feta (both Turkish and Blgarian!), so we have been able to make Shopska, a Bulgarian salad made with the above ingredients (no picture – sorry!)

Between the commissary (a small store at the U.S. Embassy) and the local stores, we can get most of our basic meat needs taken care of. There isn’t a wide variety but that’s not the end of the world. Though I did see a turkey in a local store one day and got real excited. I told Paul and since we didn’t get a chance to cook a turkey of our own while we were in the U.S., we decided, we’d get one and cook it for Ethiopian Christmas. He was on board, so the next day, off we went to the store. I was a little bit worried that the turkeys would be gone, since it was right before one of the largest holidays in the country. We got to the store and to my delight, there were still four turkeys in the freezer. I took one out confidently and handed it to the sales clerk because we were buying it, right? Wrong! The dude weighed the bird and said it was 4 kg (a little over 8 lb), which meant we could take it home for no more, no less than $90!!! We were both like WTF???!!! But there was no mistake - $90, he said. We had to very quietly and gingerly put the damn turkey back in the freezer and walk away broken-hearted and turkey-less. We just couldn’t believe it. We could have paid maybe $30 for it and told everyone what big spenders we were but $90, that’s just nuts! Or we are really cheap (nah). Either way, it wasn’t meant to be…

Alright, that’s enough for tonight. Later!


  1. милинките изглеждат чудесно и вкусно, браво за тях, и наистина мисирката е скъпа, но да ви кажа good news - познавам един човек в България, който може би ще се навие да ви изпраща от неговите заешки суджуци...

    1. Mersi, Rozke! Prava si za choveka sys zaeshkite sudjuci, no za syzzhalnie nyama chalym da se ispratyat dotuk, zashtoto sa perishable...

  2. Hi From Delhi! Loving your updates--sounds really interesting, and the food posts are making me Hungry!--NT


Locations of visitors to this page