The Spice of Life: shiro

by Isha Karim (’22) | November 16, 2020

Photo by Temesgen Woldezion on Wikimedia Commons

As we wrap ourselves in more layers and the days start to feel longer, nothing is more exciting than a warm Friday evening. I sink into a calming routine packed with familiarity: a good book, fuzzy socks, and comfort food. For me, comfort food is spicy food, but not necessarily familiar food. My version of TGIF is experimenting with recipes on the Internet, and fortunately, I stumbled across the perfect recipe: the Ethiopean-Eritrean favorite, shiro. 

Shiro is a simple, silky ground chickpea stew that takes little time and effort to bring together. In Eritrea and Ethiopia, it’s a most beloved and important dis —a vital source of both flavor and protein. During religious fasts such as Lent and Ramadan, shiro is widely consumed for its rich and satisfying flavor provided by the shiro powder, a mixture of ground chickpeas, garlic, onion, and spices. Since many of us don’t have shiro powder on hand, I suggest replacing it with chickpea flour and a homemade blend of berbere spice. You will feel immersed in the dish as your kitchen fills with the aroma of toasting warm spices and ground chilies, another one of nature’s happy accidents. Traditionally, shiro is served alongside cooked greens and injera or other flatbreads. In my first go at shiro, I had it plain, served with a few whole-wheat pitas I had at home. But it’s also quite delicious spread in a thick layer atop sourdough toast, rubbed with garlic, and finished with slices of tomato and a fried egg. 

Personally, what makes this dish so special is the unique spice blend. As a veteran of spicy foods, I live and die by the holy trinity of spices: chili peppers, cumin, and coriander seeds. The African spice mix berbere combined with chilies, paprika, and cayenne pepper give shiro its unique kick. If you don’t have these readily available, you can find them at a local Asian supermarket or double-check if your grocery store carries these spices, and you can grind the berbere spice blend at home. The word berbere means “hot” in Amharic, no doubt because it is a spicy and flavorful spice blend, somewhat of an all-purpose spice mix found in many dishes. Coupled with the aromatics, the comforting feeling of putting together this dish is unforgettable.

Another desirable element of shiro is that it is entirely gluten-free and vegetarian, but leave out the spiced clarified butter, niter kibbeh, for a vegan option. In its simplest form, shiro is a stew or curry made from ground dried chickpeas and various spices. Beyond that, it is comprised primarily of sautéed onion and puréed tomato that come together in the pot. The chickpeas give the stew a beautiful texture and nutty flavor, while the onions and tomatoes provide an incredible base flavor. It’s surprisingly smooth and spreadable, almost the consistency of a thickened puréed soup. 

Despite whatever you define as comfort food, I highly encourage you to step out of your bubble and experiment with shiro. Arguably, the memories and the experience you have while cooking it are far greater in importance and fun. Each step from toasting spices to thinly chopping garlic will be made with extreme care and thought; it’s what makes great food. It only takes one bite to fall in love with shiro, and I guarantee you’ll be licking the ladle for seconds. 

Categories: Column, Food

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