For 2,000 years, the Beta Israel lived apart from other Ethiopians and so isolated from the rest of the world that they thought they were the only Jews. This year many Beta Israel will observe Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur in Israel for the first time. The Ethiopian government has allowed many thousands of them to immigrate to Israel, where that country's government has helped them resettle.
Who are these black Jews, survivors in a historically hostile land for 20 centuries? They call themselves Beta Israel, which means House of Israel. Other Ethiopians call them by the derogatory term falasha. In ancient Ethiopic it signifies stranger, exile, wanderer.
Where they came from originally no one knows for sure. One legend claims they are descendants of the Queen of Sheba and Solomon, king of the Israelites. According to 1 Kings, Chapter 10, when the Queen of Sheba heard of the wise King Solomon, she traveled to Jerusalem. Tradition claims that Sheba and Solomon had a son, Menelik I. Mother and son went back to Cush, the biblical name for Ethiopia, taking with them Jewish religious practices.
Modern theories say the Beta Israel descend from the Lost Tribe of Dan or emigrated from South Arabia and Egypt and married local people. Migrations probably went on for a thousand years.
While the Beta Israel's traditions resemble those of other Jews, their cuisine certainly does not. Except for following the rules of kashrut (the Jewish dietary laws), most foods of the Beta Israel are like those of other Ethiopians, and the cuisine itself has changed little over the centuries. They do disdain raw meat, however, which their countrymen enjoy as a delicacy. Like other observant Jews, they do not eat pork, but then neither do Christian and Muslim Ethiopians.
In the Gondar Province of northwest Ethiopia, where most Beta Israel lived until recently, women cooked dabbo, or raised bread, from wheat or barley flour for the Jewish holidays. To break the fast on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) people eat dabbo, milk and yogurt. A favorite holiday dish is yedoro dabbo, a kind of layered bread with chicken sauce.
For this Jewish holiday season (Rosh Hashana is winding down and Yom Kippur begins at sundown Tuesday), we offer a recipe for yedoro dabbo. The source for it (as well as the berbere recipe) is "Exotic Ethiopian Cooking" by Daniel Mesfin (Ethiopian Cookbook Enterprise, 1987).
2 boneless chicken thighs
1 cup chopped red onion
1 pound butter or margarine
1/3 cup red pepper mixture (berbere, recipe follows)
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1/4 teaspoon cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon garlic
3 pounds wheat flour
2 packages yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
4 cups hot water
4 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and chopped
Brown chicken in a non-stick skillet over very low heat. Cut chicken into cubes and add to onions along with butter. Cook 5 minutes. Add red pepper mixture (berbere), cloves, cardamom, ginger and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, 15 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.
Add 1 cup of the flour, yeast and sugar to hot water in a large bowl. Rub between fingers until yeast and sugar dissolve. Add remaining flour and keep rubbing until a soft dough is formed. Set aside for a few minutes until it rises. Skim a small amount of fat from the top of the chicken sauce and add to the dough, still rubbing with fingers. Put half the dough in an 11-inch round baking pan. Spread sauce and eggs on top of dough. Put remaining dough on top. Let dough rise to rim of pan. Place pan in a 350-degree oven. Bake 20-30 minutes until crisp and brown. Serve hot. Break with fingers. Serves six to eight.
3 teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons ground cardamom
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
2 teaspoons ground coriander
4 tablespoons finely chopped onion
4 tablespoons finely chopped garlic
4 tablespoons salt
6 tablespoons tej (honey wine) or red wine
4 cups paprika
1 cup ground hot red pepper
3 cups water
2-4 tablespoons oil
Toast ginger, cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, allspice and coriander in a dry skillet for 2 minutes. Cool 5 minutes and combine with onion, garlic, salt and wine in a blender. Process to a smooth paste. Toast paprika and red pepper. Remove from heat and stir in water, 1/2 cup at a time. Then add spice-wine mixture. Transfer to a jar, cool and dribble enough oil over the top to make a 1/8 -inch thick film. Store in the refrigerator. Keeps 6 months. Makes about 4 cups.