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The Spice Market of Addis Ababa is almost a city of its own — a serpentine stable where merchants hawk the raw materials that combine deliciously in Ethiopia's distinctive cuisine. In the spring, when the sun finally comes out after two rainy months and bakes the muddy streets into damp clay, the women of Addis Ababa emerge from their family compounds, ready to cook. Inevitably, they head to the market to buy a season's worth of grains and chiles, lentils and greens, garlic bulbs and ginger roots.
More than any other staple, though, the women come for chickpeas — chickpeas by the burlap bag, chickpeas by the cart. Once washed, dried, roasted, ground and seasoned, chickpeas are the primary ingredient in one of Ethiopia's most ubiquitous dishes, a tomato-and-garlic-fueled stew called shiro wat. Springtime is the time to make shiro, and that starts with chickpeas.
"Some women will go to the market with their guard," says Tsilat Petros, who was born in Addis Ababa and moved to the United States at age twelve; she introduced me to shiro after we met at the all-night Starbucks on South Colorado Boulevard, a hangout for young Ethiopian-Americans. "There are so many different kinds, and you want to get the best quality. Everything in the market has its own section, and you have to know where to go. Plus, the guard will help to push the cart."
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With a fluffy, creamy texture that recalls both gravy and whipped potatoes, shiro is best served bubbling, right off the flame of a kitchen fire or stove, sopped up by spongy injera bread. Although shiro recipes differ from house to house, tribe to tribe and cook to cook, you'll find shiro in nearly every house. Inexpensive and easy to prepare, the dish is popular because it's tasty, but also because it's there. Unlike the philosophy of the American locavore movement, which advocates buying and eating what is locally available as a conscious (and expensive) lifestyle choice, in Ethiopia — as in much of the rest of the world — it's simply a way of life.
I first got to try shiro in the homeland three years ago, while working with Ethiopia Reads, a Denver organization that builds libraries for kids across the country. On a return trip to Addis Ababa two springs ago, I amused a group of Ethiopian friends by ordering shiro wat in a nice restaurant just off Bole Road, the city's main business drag. Because I am an American, and therefore rich by local standards, they expected me to order kittfo, a brightly spiced delicacy of raw ground beef and chiles, or lamb stew. So I ordered those dishes for the table, and loved every bite of the heaping platter I shared with my friends. But I also ordered shiro, which everybody else happily ate, too.
Many Ethiopians have a complicated relationship with shiro — especially those now living outside of Ethiopia. Shiro is a pipeline to memories of "back home," of one's grandmother setting chickpeas to dry in the sun. But to some now settled into life in the United States, a place where meat is abundant, as are over-the-counter medicine and 24-hour-a-day electricity, shiro is something best left behind.
"Shiro is seen as peasant's food, a staple. It's like the less money you have, the more shiro you eat," says Petros, a life-long lover of shiro. When she was a child, her grandmother would sometimes serve the dish three times a day, to Petros's delight. "Most people eat shiro all throughout the week, but they would rather have meat," she adds. "Some of my friends here say, 'Yes, I will eat shiro. But only with a side of kittfo.'"
In theory, shiro is an easy dish to perfect, a basic roux of olive oil, onions and garlic, with diced tomatoes and chickpea meal slowly added, then boiled, stirred and simmered. The trick is in getting the ratio just right. "If you are a good cook, shiro is where you can show off," says Petros. "But if you aren't careful, it can get lumpy or too watery or too thick. If that happens, people are going to notice. If you can't cook shiro, you probably can't cook."
Cousins Azeb Leul and Tsegab Reda have mastered the trick of shiro, which they both make several times a day at Africanna Cafe, the restaurant they opened nearly a decade ago on East Colfax. Though shiro is on the menu at many of Denver's Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurants, Africanna's is widely considered the best. Served boiling hot in small pots of black clay, the dish is a perfectly blended mix of berbere and garlic: tangy, creamy and delicious.
"Everybody loves our shiro because it is so fresh and hot, so yummy," says Leul, who is bright-eyed and stylish despite spending seven days a week in the restaurant's kitchen. "Some people say, 'Why eat shiro in a restaurant? You can make it at home.' But they come here to eat our shiro, because they know it is the best. Like back home."
Leul and Reda grew up together in Adigrat, a city in Ethiopia's northern Tigray region, which is known for its mountains and sunshine as well as its cuisine. Both come from families that owned restaurants and hotels, and both have been preparing, cooking and serving traditional Ethiopian dishes since childhood. After separate journeys that led them to Denver via Washington, D.C., and Oakland, the women opened Africanna Cafe in a former recording studio; the building's facade still features murals of Louis Armstrong, Madonna, Bob Marley and Miles Davis. Yet despite its incongruous exterior, Africanna Cafe is a seat of the city's Ethiopian community, which, at 10,000 strong and counting, is one of the largest in the country; just check the line of cars and taxis in front on Friday and Saturday nights.