Exploring Ethiopian Cuisine

Lentils are such a versatile food. Rarely does one ingredient star so beautifully in soups, salads, main dishes, appetizers, and even breads. And rarely does a culture incorporate them so well into their cuisine as Ethiopia. This time around, I'm sharing my own tweak on a traditional Ethiopian salad called Azifa:

Azifa is an Ethiopian lentil salad and, like chili in Texas, there are as many varieties out there as there are cooking making it. So the personal tweaks I've added to the recipe below are in keeping with the tradition of making it your own. I begin with red lentils, which get just barely cooked until they are tender. If you cook them too long, they will get mushy and turn a golden yellow color, perfect for soups, but not for salads. Here's a place where I highly recommend setting a timer the moment the lentils begin to boil and rinsing them thoroughly in cold water to keep them from becoming softer as they cool.

The dressing for this salad is sautéed on the stove with onions, garlic, and ginger and then bathed in a bevy of spices and a splash of lime juice. The flavor that comes with this dressing cannot be overstated. If you don't want the heat that comes with the Berbere seasoning, you can omit it, but it adds a great touch, in my opinion.

I opted to include carrot, tomato, and cucumber as the main vegetables in the salad. You can use whatever you have on hand and/or prefer. I like the sweetness these brought to the dish and the extra crunch offered by the cucumbers. A little sprinkle of almonds on top gives it a little protein and crunch, too. And, while olives and feta aren't remotely traditional, I thought they paired well with the dish, so I added them as options for the recipe. However you opt to assemble it, I really hope you enjoy this unique and delicious salad.

Ethiopian Lentil Salad (Azifa)

  • 1 cup dried red lentils
  • 1 cup grated carrot
  • 2 small tomatoes, coarsely chopped
  • 1 small cucumber, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 T. finely sliced scallions, white part only
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 teaspoons minced ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon black mustard seeds
  • A pinch coriander seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon Berbere seasoning, optional
  • 2 teaspoons garam masala
  • 1/4 teaspoon cardamom seeds
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • 8 oz. mixed salad greens
  • 2 T. sliced almonds
  • 1/2 c. kalamata olives, optional
  • 1/2 c. crumbled feta cheese, optional

Put the lentils in a medium saucepan and cover them with cold water. Place the pan over medium-high heat and bring to a boil and cook for 2 minutes, until they are just barely tender and still quite red. Drain and rinse with cold water to halt the cooking process. Shake out all excess water and then put lentils into a large bowl. Add the carrot, tomatoes, and cucumber. Set aside.

Pour the oil into a small skillet and when it is hot, add the scallions, garlic, and ginger and cook for 1 minute. Add the spices (cumin seed through cardamon seeds) and cook for 1 minute. Add the lime juice and then pour over the lentils and vegetables. Season with salt and toss well to combine.

Line a serving platter with overlapping salad greens and then mound the lentil salad over them. Sprinkle with toasted almonds, add olives and feta cheese to the side, if desired, and serve.

  • Yields: 4 servings
  • Preparation Time: 15 minutes

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