My Home Cooked Bat Mitzvah

Warm memories of community collaboration.

Keeping up with the Steins (or the Hassons, or the Bar-Els for that matter) was not the issue when I celebrated my Bat Mitzvah; collaborating with them was! In 1980, in Caracas, Venezuela, no one in our circle of friends catered. People from the community got together and cooked! With the current downturn of the economy, families in the United States are looking for alternatives to the expensive parties they may have had in mind. Coming together as a community to prepare for a simcha is a very old tradition in many Jewish communities around the world. Not only are the resulting menus more interesting, but the bonds formed between people, and the sweet memories, remain strong for many years after the festivities.

When we celebrated my Bat Mitzvah we were living in Venezuela, fifteen hours away by air from all of our relatives in Israel. In 1980, the Jewish community of Caracas was evenly divided between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews. My parents befriended people in the community from many different backgrounds. For my Bat Mitzvah, my mother, her friends, their daughters, and I all got together and cooked. As a result, the menu for my Bat Mitzvah was much more diverse than it would have been had my relatives in Israel been the ones doing the cooking.

More after the jump.

For me, the rejoicing began weeks before the big day, when everyone joined us around the dining room table to assemble the appetizers. We were making Moroccan Cigars (for eating, not for smoking!). As we sat together carefully spooning the meat filling onto the dough, we told jokes and talked about the upcoming party. The house was redolent with the smells of garlic, cilantro, and cinnamon. My mother fried up a batch of these crisp appetizers for us to taste. We could all hear them sizzling in the hot olive oil. So impatient were we to try them that we burned our fingers, lips, and tongues as we bit into the spicy delicacies. We played simcha music to enhance the excitement and anticipation in the air. The time our friends spent with us helping with the preparations was the best gift that I received for my Bat Mitzvah. To this day I carry the feeling of warmth and gratitude toward them for devoting their time and attention to me. My Bat Mitzvah celebration would not have been possible without them.

I would love the opportunity to give today’s B’nai Mitzvah what was given to me. There are many ways to achieve this. It can be a potluck, where people are assigned dishes. Friends (including men and boys!) can congregate in one home and work together. When a bigger kitchen is needed, there are some synagogues that will accommodate members who would like to cook their own food for a simcha. At my synagogue, Germantown Jewish Centre, we have two kitchens. One is small, and is only for dairy and pareve dishes. If the party is held on that side of the building, then celebrants are allowed to bring pareve or dairy dishes from home. On the other side of the building is a much bigger, professional kitchen. Dairy or meat meals may be prepared in it. A mashgiach, or kosher supervisor, is required, and is contracted from the Rabbinical Assembly.

Now that my own children are going through the B’nei Mitzvah phase, it is my privilege to be asked to bring something to their friends’ celebrations. I try to make the most memorable dish that I can. Most people in the States feel awkward about imposing on their friends and acquaintances, and yet I sense a yearning in many of the people that I know to give of themselves. My gratitude has not abated over the years. Our family friends’ example has stayed with me. I feel that by celebrating as I did in Venezuela, we can recapture the warmth of being part of a community. Family recipes are shared, and traditions mingled. A Bar or Bat Mitzvah celebration should be a time of pride and joy, not stress and pressure over money. I believe that I remember my home cooked Bat Mitzvah with more love and warmth than I would have any catered affair.

Ronit’s Bat Mitzvah Menu

Moroccan cigars are appetizers served only on special occasions. Our friend Mercedes, who came to Caracas from Morocco, taught us how to prepare them.

Moroccan Cigars

  • 1 pound phyllo dough
  • 1 onion
  • Olive oil
  • 1 pound ground lamb
  • 1/2 cup chopped cilantro
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
  • Salt to taste
  • Ground black pepper to taste
  • Red pepper flakes to taste
  • 5 eggs
  1. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F.
  2. Chop the onion, and sauté in one tablespoon of olive oil. When the onion is soft and translucent, add the lamb and stir. Add the salt, cinnamon, allspice, ginger, black pepper, and red pepper flakes. Fry everything until the meat is cooked through. Add the cilantro.
  3. Whisk the eggs and then add them to the meat mixture. Cook for about two minutes. Set aside and allow to cool.
  4. When the meat mixture has cooled down, cut the phyllo dough into rectangles. Brush with olive oil, and then arrange some of the meat filling along one of the edges. Roll into a cigar shape and pinch shut. The cigars may be frozen until ready to cook.
  5. Fry the cigars in hot olive oil, then keep warm in the oven until ready to serve.

Moroccan cigars are typically served with a Hummus dip.

Hummus Dip

  • 1 can chickpeas
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • Lemon to taste
  • 1 garlic clove
  • Salt
  • Ground cumin
  • Ground paprika

Put all the ingredients except the paprika in a food processor. Blend everything together until very smooth. Scoop into a bowl, and sprinkle with paprika.

A very fun dish to prepare with a group of friends and family is Israeli Salad. Each participant will need his or her own cutting board and sharp knife.

Israeli salad.

Israeli Salad

  • 2 tomatoes
  • 1 cucumber
  • 1 pepper
  • 4 green onions
  • 5 radishes
  • 1 bunch Cilantro
  • Juice of 2 lemons
  • Juice of 2 Limes
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt
  • Black pepper
  1. The cucumber needs to be peeled, and the peppers cleaned. The tomatoes, cucumber, pepper, green onions, and radishes need to be washed and diced. The cilantro should be very finely chopped.
  2. After all the vegetables have been chopped, add the lemon and lime juice and olive oil. Finish with salt and pepper to taste.
  3. This quantity of vegetables serves 6. If you have helpers, have each veggie prepared by one individual. All the salads can be joined in one big serving bowl at the end.

One of the main courses served was my mother’s festive beef dish. It is an Israeli recipe that we would usually enjoy for Passover.

Mediterranean Braised Beef with Artichokes

  • 2 onions
  • 5 cloves of garlic
  • 2 carrots
  • 2 stalks of celery
  • 5 pounds beef chuck, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • Olive oil
  • 3 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon pepper
  • Artichokes in brine
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Chop the onions, garlic, celery, and carrots.
  2. In a heavy pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Sauté the vegetables until the onion is translucent.
  3. Add the meat, salt, and pepper while stirring. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Seal the pot with aluminum foil, and place in the oven for four hours.
  4. Take out the pot and allow to cool enough to handle. Place the meat in a separate baking dish.
  5. Arrange the artichokes over the meat. Pour the sauce and vegetables into a food processor, and puree. Taste the sauce and check the seasonings. Pour the pureed sauce over the meat and artichokes. Cover the baking dish with aluminum foil and return to the oven. Serve when hot.

Esther, a family friend and neighbor, prepared her special Shabbat dish. This chicken recipe came to Caracas from Tunisia:

Tunisian chicken with lemon and olives.

Tunisian Chicken with Lemon and Olives

I found a great version of Esther’s recipe on the Palm Beach, Florida, website


  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 8 skinless, boneless chicken thighs
  • Salt
  • 1 teaspoon dry red pepper flakes
  • 1 lemon
  • 2 carrots
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 2 onions
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1/2 teaspoon coriander
  • 1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
  • 1 teaspoon ginger
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 1 tablespoon paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 3/4 cup cracked green olives in brine
  • Fresh cilantro
  1. Heat the olive oil in a wide pot. Thinly slice the onions, lemon, and carrots, and chop the garlic. Add to the pot and stir for a couple of minutes.
  2. Add the chicken and sprinkle the red pepper flakes, turmeric, coriander, saffron, ginger, cumin, cinnamon, and paprika over it. Add the olives and two cups of water, and bring to a boil.
  3. Cook over low heat for about 20 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through. Finely mince some cilantro, and sprinkle over the chicken. This dish may be refrigerated and reheated when ready to serve.

The beef and chicken entrees are so flavorful that all they need is a simple rice accompaniment:

Basmati Rice

  • 2 cups basmati rice
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • Salt
  • 4 cups water
  1. Heat the olive oil in a pot. Add the rice and salt and until hot.
  2. Add the water and bring to a boil. Cook on low heat for about 45 minutes, until the water has been absorbed. Fluff and serve.

For the grand finale, we prepared a dessert that uses some of the best products of Venezuela, chocolate and rum:

Pareve Chocolate Mousse with Venezuelan Rum.

Pareve Chocolate Mousse with Venezuelan Rum

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 6 eggs, separated
  • 1 pound bittersweet chocolate
  • 1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) margarine
  • 1 teaspoon instant coffee blended with 2 tablespoons boiling water
  • 2 tablespoons Venezuelan rum, such as Ron Anejo Pampero
  1. Boil water in a small pot, and place a bowl over it to be warmed by the steam. Mix the chocolate and margarine in this bowl until they melt. Add the coffee mixture and blend well.
  2. In a mixer, whip the egg whites with 1/2 cup sugar until very stiff.
  3. Add the yolks to the chocolate mixture.
  4. Add the rum to the chocolate mixture while stirring.
  5. Slowly fold the chocolate mixture into the egg whites.
  6. Pour the mousse into a glass container and refrigerate overnight

We live in a very fluid society, where families may live far away from their other family members. By cooking together as a community, we all become a little bit like each other’s family. A joyful, delicious celebration becomes possible for every teenager in the community. The Bar or Bat Mitzvah celebrant experiences the ancient Jewish tradition of “kol Israel arevim ze laze,” or “all of Israel are responsible for each other,” as part of their welcome into the community as adults. These memories last a lifetime, and the example is set of how to be a mensch. When someone becomes a Bar or Bat Mitzvah it is not just their simcha, it is everyone’s simcha. So let the cooking and kvelling begin!

Ronit Treatman was born in Israel and grew up in Ethiopia and Venezuela. She is fluent in five languages, and volunteered for the IDF where she served in the Liaison Unit to Foreign Forces. She currently lives in the Germantown section of Philadelphia with her husband and three children.

Celebratory Fall Harvest Soups for Sukkot

–by Ronit Treatman

Other than bread, we are not instructed to serve any specific dishes during Sukkot.  The point of this festival is to celebrate the fall harvest.  A wonderful way to connect to nature is to cook with what is in season locally.  In Pennsylvania we are blessed with a bountiful fall harvest.  Hearty homemade vegetable soups accompanied by an assortment of breads are a wonderful way for your family and guests to warm up during the chilly fall evenings in the sukkah.

You can source your local vegetables by gathering your own crops from your garden, picking vegetables yourself at a farm, being a member of a Community Supported Agriculture group, or shopping at your local farmer’s market, coop, or supermarket.  Fresh seasonal produce will result in the most flavorful soups.  

Soup and bread recipes after the jump.
Some fruits and vegetables that are harvested in Pennsylvania in the fall are broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, lima beans, peppers, pumpkins, and apples.  Here is a recipe for a pareve harvest soup that incorporates some of these fresh vegetables adapted from Casey’s Café.

Spicy Fall Harvest Soup

  • 2 or 3 of any kind of squash such as butternut squash, pumpkin, acorn squash, spaghetti squash, or hubbard.
  • 2 large onions
  • 2 sweet potatoes
  • 2 rutabagas
  • green onions
  • cilantro
  • olive oil
  • salt
  • black pepper
  • 2 cups of vegetable broth
  • 3 cups of coconut milk
  • 2 tablespoons fresh grated ginger
  • 1 cup sweet chili sauce
  • 1 tablespoon red Thai curry
  • 2 tablespoons Garam Masala
  • 1 tablespoons Ground coriander
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.  Cut the squash in half.  Remove the seeds and rub the inside with olive oil.  Place on a cookie sheet.
  2. Place the onion, sweet potatoes, rutabags, and turnips in a porcelain baking dish.  Add ½ cup of water, and sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Cover with aluminum foil.
  3. Bake all of these vegetables for 60 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.  Peel the squash.
  4. Puree all the vegetables in a food processor.  
  5. Place the puree in a stockpot with 4 cups of water, the vegetable broth, and coconut milk.
  6. Add ginger, chili sauce, coriander, curry, and garam masala to taste.

You can chop up green onion and cilantro to garnish.

Serve with whole grain corn bread for a gluten-free feast.  Here is a recipe adapted from The Fresh Loaf.

Whole Grain Corn Bread

  • 2 cups ground corn meal
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 egg
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 ¾ cups of soymilk
  • 1 ¾ tablespoons of vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons raw honey
  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.  
  2. Mix all the ingredients in a bowl.  
  3. Oil an 8X8 inch porcelain baking dish.  
  4. Pour the batter into the dish.  
  5. Bake for 30 minutes.

Pennsylvania is one of the largest growers of mushrooms in the world.  The rich variety of mushrooms we can get in Kennet Square is not to be overlooked.  Phillips Mushroom Farms grow White, Portobello, Baby Bella, Crimini, Shiitake, Oyster, Maitake, Beech, Enoki, Royal Trumpet, and Pom Pom mushrooms.  Below is an adaptation of Ina Garten’s mushroom soup recipe.

Mushroom Medley Soup

  • 2 cups thinly sliced assorted fresh mushrooms
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 carrot, diced
  • 2 leeks, diced
  • 1 cup minced cilantro
  • 1 tablespoon minced thyme
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 cup white wine
  • salt
  • black pepper
  • ¼ cup flour
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 cup half and half
  1. In a large stockpot, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil.  Sautee the onion, one cup of mushrooms, and carrot.  Season with salt, pepper, and thyme.  When the vegetables have softened, after about 15 minutes, add 6 cups of water.  Bring the mixture to a boil, and then allow to simmer for 30 minutes.
  2. Take another stockpot, and heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil.  Add the leeks.  Let them soften slowly over low heat.  After 20 minutes, add the remaining mushrooms and cook for 10 minutes.  Stir in the flour, and then add the wine.  Pour in the mushroom stock from the other pot and stir.  
  3. Simmer for 15 minutes.  Add the heavy cream and half and half.  Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Serve hot, with a crusty baguette.  Here is a recipe adapted from

Fresh Baguette

  • 4 1/2 cups unbleached flour
  • 1 packet active dry yeast
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 1/2 cups warm water
  1. Mix water, sugar, and yeast together.  Allow to foam, and then add flour and salt.  Knead well.  Place in an oiled bowl and cover with a kitchen towel.  Allow to rise for 1 1/2 hours.  
  2. Preheat oven to 500 degrees Fahrenheit.  
  3. Form loaf on a cookie sheet.
  4. Prepare an ovenproof bowl with water.
  5. Place cookie sheet with loaf and bowl of water in the oven.
  6. Bake for 30 minutes.

A warming, sweet, cinnamony fall fruit soup is the perfect end to the Sukkah feast.  

You may use freshly harvested Pennsylvania heirloom apples that are good for cooking such as:

  • Red Gravenstein:  An apple variety that was brought to Pennsylvania from Germany in the 1600s.
  • Grimes Golden:  This apple variety is believed to have been planted in West Virginia by Johnny Appleseed in 1795.  
  • Cox Orange Pippin:  This apple was brought from England in the 1830s.  It matures to a beautiful red color, and is excellent for cooking.
  • Calville Blanc:  A French apple grown for King Louis XIII, it has a tart flavor.
  • Newtown Pippin:  This variety was grown for export by Benjamin Franklin in the 1700s.

You can order these apples from #1 Farm, at [email protected].  

Fall Fruit Harvest Soup

  • 1 apple, diced
  • 1 pear, diced
  • 1 cup fresh cranberries, diced
  • 3 plums, diced
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • Raw honey to taste (optional)
  1. Place the apple, pear, plums, and cranberries in a pan.  
  2. Cover with water and bring to a boil.  
  3. Add the cinnamon stick.  
  4. Lower the heat and allow to simmer for about 30 minutes.

Stir in honey if desired.  Enjoy hot.

This soup goes well with fresh, hot pumpkin bread.  It is a pareve recipe adapted from Simply Recipes.

Pumpkin Bread

  • 1 cup pureed pumpkin
  • ¼ cup water
  • 2 eggs
  • ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 cup sugar
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon nutmeg
  • ½ teaspoon allspice
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 ½ cups unbleached flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ cup chopped walnuts
  • ½ cup roasted pumpkin seeds
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Mix all the ingredients except the roasted pumpkin seeds in a bowl.
  3. Pour into a 9X5X3 inch loaf pan which has been coated with olive oil.  
  4. Decorate the top with roasted pumpkin seeds.
  5. Bake for 60 minutes.

As the fall days grow shorter and cooler, the yearly ritual is upon us.  We celebrate the fall harvest together in our sukkot.  Whether you are hosting or visiting, offering a delicious, homemade warming soup and a fresh loaf of fragrant bread is the perfect way to bond with friends and family.

For Your Next Kosher Occasion: Chef Joseph Poon!

Ronit Treatman

Did you know you could have your kosher simcha catered by a kung fu master who studied with Bruce Lee?  Chef Joseph Poon offers fascinating tours of Chinatown, fruit sculpting lessons, and of course, fabulous kosher food.  

Whether your guests want matzah ball soup that tastes like your Lithuanian grandmother just cooked it, or authentic cuisine from Hong Kong, this master chef can do it all.  Best of all, he can help you plan a fun, exciting, and original celebration.

More after the jump.
Joseph Poon was born in Hong Kong, and attended elementary school with Bruce Lee.  They studied kung fu together.  At school, he also learned the art of Chinese calligraphy.  Joe started his culinary career at Cathay Airlines.  At age twenty-six, he set out to see the world.  In 1972, he visited Israel, spending time in Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem.  It was here that he saw his first tabun, and tasted his first loaf of bread straight out of the wood-fired brick oven.  In Hong Kong, food is steamed or stir fried, but not baked.  Chef Poon loved the crusty loaf, and the soft, spongy interior.  After spending some time in England, he settled in the United States.  He studied nutrition and classical Italian cuisine at SUNY College at  Oneonta. Chef Poon had lots of Jewish classmates in Oneonta.  “I’m a Chinese Jew!” he tells me.   Joseph cooked for many of their simchas. He taught himself traditional Eastern European Jewish recipes from cookbooks in the Oneonta library to please his friends families’ palates.  Following graduation, he settled in Philadelphia.

How does he make sure everything is kosher?  Joseph Poon starts every Kosher catering assignment with a brand new wok and cooking chopsticks.  It is possible for his clients to hire a mashgiach (kosher supervisor) from the Orthodox Vaad of Philadelphia (215) 725-5181.  Another source of mashgichim is the Rabbinical Assembly.  Chef Poon will follow the supervisor’s directions in order to comply with the rules of Kashrut.  Joseph Poon has experience working with synagogues, having taught cooking classes at Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, New Jersey and at Temple Sinai in Summit, New Jersey .  His specialties include gluten-free foods and dairy-free foods.   Chef Poon uses kosher fish to make traditional Chinese dishes.  One example is:

Chef Poon’s Steamed Whole Sea Bass With Ginger And Scallions  

  • One whole cleaned fresh Striped Bass
  • 1/2 cup diced ginger
  • Diced scallion
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 3 tbsp. light soy sauce
  • 3 tbsp. hot sesame oil

Sprinkle salt, ginger, and scallion on top of the fish.  Steam the Striped Bass for 10 to 15 minutes (depending on the size of the fish).  After cooking the fish, add the light soy sauce and hot sesame oil.  Serve immediately.

Joseph Poon is full of fun and energy!  That is what the occasions he plans are like.  While working at Cathay Airlines, Joseph Poon observed one of the master chefs creating beautiful fruit sculptures to garnish the dishes of the first class customers.  Joseph bought 50 lbs. of potatoes to learn how to make vegetable roses.  He experimented and discovered that if he submerged his potato roses in a water and white vinegar solution in a clear glass bowl, they would not oxidize, remaining white.  Chef Poon has elevated fruit and vegetable sculpting into an art form.  You can learn how to make some of his fruit and vegetable sculptures from his cookbook, Life Is Short…Cooking Is Fun.  For something different at a Bar or Bat Mitzvah celebration, he can teach the guests how to carve their own vegetable sculptures.  Teenagers growing up with the Iron Chef television program love the opportunity to learn how to make something special with food.  At the end of the party, the guests may know how to carve a pig out of a lemon, and then by squeezing it, make it “pee” lemon juice on someone’s hand.

Chef Poon organizes very creative bridal showers. Under his guidance, the bride and her guests learn how to make their own kosher sushi. The mothers of the bride and groom get to handle really sharp knives while prepping the ingredients!  This sushi makes for a lovely, light repast.  As a special treat, custom fortune cookies can be ordered.  Inside the cookies, Jewish blessings are inscribed!

The most special birthday party I ever planned was Joseph Poon’s  Wok’N Walk tour of Chinatown.  Joe loves kids, and they love him!  He took a group of 10-year old children on an insider’s tour of Chinatown.  First, we went to a restaurant supply store where he showed us the special equipment used in Chinese cuisine.  We saw woks, ginger graters, noodle strainers, and many other interesting items.  Chef Poon asked the children questions about what they were seeing, and awarded them prizes.  They loved that!  We kept going, visiting a Buddhist Temple, and standing on the sidewalk as the Chinese New Year Lion dance pranced past us, and really loud fireworks were set off.  Joe taught us how to say “gong hey fat choy” which means “happy new year” in Chinese.  He took us to a Chinese bakery, where we tasted bubble tea, a sweet, milky tea in which tapioca “pearls” are suspended.  Now that we were re-energized, we followed him to the bookstore, where he demonstrated the art of Chinese calligraphy using special brushes and ink.  We went to a secret underground Chinese supermarket, where Chef Poon showed us traditional herbal medicines, exotic fruits, vegetables, teas, and fish that were so fresh they were still swimming in an aquarium.  Where is this mysterious market?  My elementary krav maga skills are no match for Chef Poon’s martial arts abilities.  My lips are sealed!  Chef Poon concluded the tour with a visit to a fortune cookie factory.  We saw the special conveyor belts, which take round discs of dough through an oven, place a fortune on each cookie while it was still hot, and then pinch it into the familiar fortune cookie shape.  We tasted chocolate, vanilla, and orange flavored fortune cookies.  All this exploring gave us a big appetite, so we went back to Chef Poon’s restaurant.  He prepared crispy vegetarian spring rolls, two types of chicken, rice, and stir fried vegetables.  To conclude the meal, he not only served a beautiful birthday cake, but also his homemade almond cookies.  

Joseph Poon has been invited back to Israel many times since 1972.  His Jewish friends from Oneonta want him to attend their families’ bnai mitzvahs and weddings in Jerusalem.  I asked him, “What would you like to see the most on your next visit?”  He answered, “A menu in a Chinese restaurant, written in Hebrew!”

Berbere: The Ethiopian Curry

— Ronit Treatman

When the Ethiopian Jews began arriving in Israel in 1984, they brought with them a spice mixture called berbere.  Like curry, berbere is a combination of spices that gives Ethiopian cuisine its distinctive flavor.  These flavors are one of the newest additions to the fusion that is modern Israeli cuisine.

More after the jump.

Although modern Ethiopia is a landlocked country, it has a long history of spice trading. In the 5th Century BCE, the Kingdom of Axum included modern Eritrea, northern Ethiopia, northern Sudan, Yemen, and southern Saudi Arabia.  Square-rigged trading ships departed Axum via the Red Sea.  Unlike the Roman vessels, they did not follow the longer, slower coastal trade route.  The Axumites knew how to harness the Monsoon winds, opening up a sea route from Africa to India via the Arabian Sea.  This journey took only fourteen days!  The sea route to India enabled them to reach the Silk Road, giving them access to goods from China.  Cinnamon, black pepper, clove, ginger, cardamom, nutmeg, mace, cassia, and turmeric were some of the spices brought back by the Axumite galleys.

As these spices made their way to the Axumite open-air markets, local cooks were intrigued, and sprinkled them into the food.  By experimenting with what was at hand, each family came up with its own individual signature spice mix.  These recipes have been handed down from mother to daughter, and the recipe is a family secret.  The essential ingredients of berbere are fenugreek and hot red pepper.  Other spices that are commonly mixed in are allspice, salt, cardamom, ginger, cloves, and black pepper.  In modern Ethiopia, families traditionally make their own spice mixture.  Some families prepare a dry spice mix, toasting several spices together in a heavy pot over a fire.  These spices are then ground with a mortar and pestle, and are ready to flavor the food.  Other families prefer to prepare a wet spice mix, or a paste, combining the toasted spices with oil or water when grinding them with the mortar and pestle. The berbere mix is different in each region of Ethiopia.  I have adapted a recipe for berbere from The Congo Cookbook.  The Congo Cookbook is a collection of recipes from Africa compiled by epicurean Peace Corps volunteer Ed Gibbon.  The recipes posted “are not new, unless they are new to you.”

Berbere Recipe

  • 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground fenugreek
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 4 to 6 tablespoons of a combination of ground cayenne pepper (red pepper, dried chile peppers, or red pepper flakes) and paprika
  • 1 tablespoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon ginger
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder

It is traditional to begin with the whole spice, such as the allspice berries and cinnamon bark.  Dry roasting the spice releases its essential oils, maximizing its aroma and flavor.  To make a dry berbere mixture, take a cast iron skillet and warm it over medium heat.  Place the spices in the skillet and toast them, stirring continuously.  After about two minutes for whole spices, and a few seconds for powdered spices, place the spices in a bowl and leave them to cool down.  When they are no longer hot, grind them together in a food processor or a mortar and pestle.  To make a wet berbere mixture, substitute the powdered ginger for fresh, grated ginger.  Add 2 tablespoons of minced onions or shallots, and substitute the dry garlic powder for fresh, finely chopped garlic.  Add ¼ cup of vegetable oil or water to the food processor when grinding the spices.  The berbere will retain its flavor if it is stored in an airtight container, in a cool dark place.  The wet berbere should be stored in the refrigerator.

Berbere is the foundation of the wots or thick stews served in Ethiopia.  A special technique is used to cook them.  First, red onions are chopped and stirred in a hot, dry skillet until most of their moisture has evaporated.  Then fat, (usually clarified spiced butter called niter kibbeh) is added.  The onions continue to be cooked in the fat with added spices before any other ingredients are added.  By sautéing the onions in this way, they are dehydrated.  When the other ingredients are added, the onions serve as a thickener for the wot.

Doro Wot is the national dish of Ethiopia.  It is a stew prepared with chicken, hard-boiled eggs, and berbere.  Ethiopian Jews serve Doro Wot for Shabbat dinner.  Below is a recipe for Doro Wot adapted from Ethio-Israel — a kosher Ethiopian restaurant in Jerusalem.  

Doro Wot: Chicken Stew With Berbere

  • 4 tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 large red onions
  • 4 garlic cloves
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 1/2 tbsp. berbere
  • 3 lbs. chicken drumsticks
  • 2 cups of water
  • 4 hard-boiled eggs

Heat the olive oil in a heavy pot over low heat.  Chop the onions and add them to the pot.  Stir the onions until they become golden brown.  Mince the garlic and add to the pot.  Add the salt and berbere, stirring well.  Stir in the chicken.  Add 2 cups of water and turn the heat up until the pot boils.  Then lower the heat, allowing the chicken to simmer for about 40 minutes.  Check the seasoning and if necessary add salt or berbere to taste.  Add the boiled eggs, and allow to heat through.

Doro Wot is traditionally served with injera, a sourdough crepe made from teff.  Teff is a type of grass native to Ethiopia.  The grain it produces is gluten free and rich in iron, fiber, protein, and calcium.  To prepare injera, you have to mix teff flour with water and allow the mixture to ferment for about three days.  It becomes a type of sourdough starter.  This dough is then baked into a crepe over a wood-fired clay oven. See this video of injera being prepared in Ethiopia.  

Injera: Ethiopian Crepe

Mix 1 1/2 cups of teff flour with 2 cups of water.  Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel and let stand at room temperature for three days.  Heat one tablespoon of olive oil in a skillet over low heat.  Pour 1/4 cup of batter into the skillet.  When little holes appear on the surface of the pancake, remove it from the skillet onto a platter.  Do not cook the injera on both sides!  The injera is supposed to have a slightly sour taste due the fermenting process.  

The way to present the Doro Wot is to place one injera crepe on a large, round platter.  Then, spoon the Doro Wot onto the injera, artfully arranging the chicken, eggs, and sauce.  This platter is placed at the center of the table.  Additional injera is served on the side, usually beautifully folded like a napkin.  The injera is the plate, the utensils, and the bread!  Everyone helps themselves from the communal platter.  The way to enjoy Doro Wot is to rip off a piece of injera, scoop up some wot with it, and eat.  The injera lining the platter soaks up the gravy.  As you eat it, you will experience layers of flavors and textures.  The slight acidity of the injera will be the perfect counterpoint to the flavors of the berbere.

I wanted to know where to buy berbere spice mixture in Philadelphia, so I headed over to Abyssinia Ethiopian Restaurant.   This is where many members of Philadelphia’s expatriate Ethiopian community gather to watch Amharic television, drink Ethiopian beer, and talk.  Among them, I have met members of Philadelphia’s minute Ethiopian Jewish community.  One young man shyly spoke Hebrew to me.  Another gentleman, whom everyone addressed as “Doctor” left Gondar as a child.  His family walked to Sudan, and was then airlifted to Israel during Operation Moses in 1984.  He has two brothers in Haifa, who “have become really religious and wear kippas!”  When I asked him where he gets his berbere, he said, “you should go to Mohamed’s Halal Center,” on 4525 Walnut Street.  Mohamed is from Tigray, in Northern Ethiopia.  Jewish and Muslim Ethiopians had a history of peaceful coexistence here.  My daughter and I wandered around his store discussing the products in Hebrew.  He welcomed us warmly, asked us what language we were speaking, and then showed us that all his products are Halal, Kosher, or both.  He sells berbere that is imported from Ethiopia.  You have to ask for it, because he keeps it behind the counter.  I prefer this imported berbere, because to me it has an authenticity that is very difficult to duplicate.  Mohamed’s imported seasoning includes ground korarima seeds, from the ginger family, and long pepper or pippali, a hot pepper from Indonesia.  This is the right place to avoid all the work involved in cooking your own injera.  Mohamed prepares fresh injera every day right at his store.  Most of Philadelphia’s Ethiopian expatriates purchase their injera ready-made from Mohamed rather than making their own.  They just warm it up in the microwave right before serving.

Follow these links to purchase ingredients online:

On one of these cold February nights, treat yourself to berbere-spiced Doro Wot with injera. If you would rather experience an Ethiopian dinner in a restaurant, you live in the right place.  Philadelphia has one of the bigger Ethiopian expatriate communities in the U.S.  There are many good restaurants to choose from.  Our “little Ethiopia” is in West Philadelphia. My favorite is Abyssinia Restaurant.  Other Ethiopian restaurants in the neighborhood are Dahlak Restaurant, Kaffa Crossing, and Ethio Café and Restaurant.  For something different, yet exotically Jewish, try berbere!