Sunday, March 13, 2011

Snacking State-by-State: District of Columbia II - Wot's the Buzz? Tell me what's Axum-in'

Beyond US Senate Bean Soup, it's difficult to identify DC's cuisine. Is it Chesapeake cuisine? The Potomac does branch off the Chesapeake after all. Is it Southern? Is it Northern? Or is it not even American?

Snacking State-by-State: District of Columbia

Official Name: District of Columbia
Is it a State? Nope - it's a Federal District
District Nicknames: DC, the District
Formation: September 9, 1781 (as the Territory of Columbia). Officially became the District of Columbia on February 27, 1801, carved out of the original Washington County, Maryland; Georgetown, Maryland; and Alexandria County & City, Virginia - the last of which have since retroceded back to Virginia)
Important City: Only one, really: Washington
Region: Mid-Atlantic, South, Northeast; South Atlantic (US Census)
RAFT Nations: Chestnut, Crabcake
Bordered by: Maryland (northeast, southeast, northwest), Virginia & the Potomac River (southwest)
Official State Foods and Edible Things: none - not even "American food" or "apple pie"
Some Famous & Typical Foods: also none really - except US Senate Bean Soup; is very easy to find just about any food in DC, from every region of the country and most countries around the world.

On a recent episode of the Kojo Nnamdi Show on Washington's NPR station WAMU, a few guests tried to define the cultural flavor - and along with that, the culinary flavor - of the District. Here Kojo discusses the DC ethnic eats scene with guest Tim Carman, food critic for the Washington Post:

[NNAMDI] And this we got from Lisa in Takoma Park. "One thing that I'm not sure makes D.C. better or worse, just different from other older cities on the East Coast, a lot of our ethnic neighborhoods are most vibrant in the suburbs. It's no secret among foodies, for sure. If you wanna eat great Chinese food, you go to the suburbs in Montgomery County. If you wanna eat Salvadorian food, you can come to my neighborhood, in Takoma Park. In other cities, you can find these ethnic pockets in the inner core of the city." That is an important distinction and, in a way, refutes what our early e-mailer has been saying because people do go in pursuit of those foods all over the region, do they not, Tim Carman?

[CARMAN] We have a really strong ethnic food culture, and that -- I think that's almost points out like this classist approach to what people think of as good eating. You know, when people judge a city's restaurant scene, they typically, I think, look at the more sophisticated places. You know, is it a white table cloth service? Do they have a four-star chef? Whereas if you take the larger picture, I think D.C., from really different cultural perspectives, has some really fine cuisine, whether it's Chinese or Salvadoran or Ethiopian, Vietnamese, of course. I mean all of this. [Kojo Nnamdi Show, January 3, 2011]
That's one thing I love about the DC region, as does Tyler Cowen and his Ethnic Dining blog (By the way: are you wondering what's the difference between the suburbs in Maryland and Virginia, ethnic food wise? Wonder no more). Washington and the DC suburbs have many ethnic cuisines, and they are just as important a part of the local flavor as any all-American dish. It's what makes the tandoori chickens, pad thais and doro wots of the region "American" - just like the burritos, stromboli and egg rolls that preceded them.

To represent the international diversity of DC's dining scene, I chose a few recipes: a main course and a few sides. The sides come from Korea and El Salvador, two well-represented communities in the area. But first and foremost I swerved towards Ethiopian. Whenever I visit Adams Morgan in DC, it is very difficult for me not to visit one of the several Ethiopian restaurants. And there are many to choose from: DC has the largest Ethiopian community in the world, outside of Africa. To truly represent DC, I found a recipe for the best known (to Americans) Ethiopian dish of all: doro wot. Reprinted in the Washington Post, this recipe comes from Senedu Zewdie, former owner of the now-closed Sodere Restaurant. This is her mother's recipe, and I can only hope I do it justice.

Recipes: Doro Wot (with GamJa Salad and Curtido)

Recipe: Doro Wot (Ethiopian Chicken Stew)

I cut Zewdie's recipe in half, to make it more manageable and less expensive. I am not going to feed an army of twelve here. I also admit that, since this post lands during the Lenten season, it would be more appropriate to make a vegetarian recipe - a lentil dish, for example. But I wanted doro wot, and I actually made the chicken several weeks before this was published. By now I'm probably getting Georgia or Hawaii into the pipeline.

Anyway, this recipe gave me a good opportunity to use up some of the Ethiopian ingredients and supplies that I still had left over from last year's bacon cook-off. If you don't know, this was where I tried (successfully, I think) to cook bacon in an Ethiopian style wot. That may not sound strange to Americans, but bacon is not something you will find easily in Ethiopia: neither Muslims nor Jews nor Ethiopian Orthodox Christians are allowed to eat pork at all.

For this much more traditional doro wot I used the following ingredients

* 5 - 6 onions (about $1.49/lb - about 2 lbs)
* 1/2 small can of tomato paste (about 70 cents)
* 1 cup of nitter kibbeh (Ethiopian spiced butter - I still had some from my recipe in June, and yes, this spiced ghee lasts for a very long time on your shelf. But I needed to make more. Two sticks of butter and the requisite spices, plus some cheesecloth were all I needed to get to a cup. Check out my bacon wot recipe for what I did to make nitter kibbeh in the microwave)
* 3/4 cup berbere (had more than enough left over, but you'll need to make your own or visit one of DC's many Ethiopian markets to buy a tub for about $5-$6)
* 1 clove garlic
* 1 teaspoon ginger (I had none ground, only fresh, and yes this changes the recipe a little bit).
* 3 pieces each chicken thighs and chicken legs, bone-in but skin removed (about $6 to $8 total)
* ground cardamom and black pepper (had it)
* sweet white wine (had it)
* six hard boiled eggs (there go the rest of my eggs - yes, I had enough in the fridge)

Doro wot takes a while to prepare. You need at least 4 1/2 hours to do it, and you have to check in on it constantly. My advice: find things you were planning to do around the house while you make this, unless you find some way to adapt it to the slow cooker.

First, saute over low heat the sliced onions, in nothing but 1/4 cup of water. Yes, just water. You'll need to check in on it frequently because you will be doing this for about 90 minutes (it took me 75).

Next, add the tomato paste for a few minutes, and then the nitter kibbeh, berbere, ginger and garlic for yet another 60 minutes.

Nitter kibbeh, (mostly) freshly made

While that's cooking, you need to poach the chicken. Cook it in boiling water for about 15 minutes.

Like so

When the onions have been cooking for an hour, add the chicken - I also added just a little bit of water, not from the pot the chicken was just in. Cook this for yet another hour. I covered it to avoid splatter.

In the last 30 minutes of cooking, add 3 1/4 cups of water and simmer for 15 minutes, then add everything else - cardamon, pepper and eggs - for 15 final minutes.

Serve the whole thing on injera bread.

This doro wot is very much the opposite of the US Senate Bean Soup. It's thick not soupy, it's richly colored not pale, and it's exciting not bland. It's also somewhat spicy, so be prepared for that. Except for some bits of cardamom that I did not grind up well enough, this was a wonderful thing for me to eat, my first actual Ethiopian stew that could actually be eaten by someone from Ethiopia.

The sides I made are very much not Ethiopian, and probably never before have been served on injera bread. But they further reflect the cultural diversity of the DC region. And they work well in cutting the heat of the doro wot.

Recipe: Korean GamJa (Potato) Salad

I first tried a somewhat similar mashed potato dish at Joong Kak with my friends the last time or two we had Korean BBQ. It was one of the many panchan side dishes served before and during the meat. I thought this potato salad version would be a good idea to make my own. However, I made the mistake of doing the entire recipe, leaving me with more potato salad than I will ever want or be able to eat.

I don't even need to explain this recipe. Just watch this video by YouTube user tamar1973, née Tammy Quackenbush. I followed what she did.

As for my ingredients, I bought a 3 lb bag of potatoes ($3 on sale), thinking I would have some left over. These were only medium potatoes, but after about 8 or 9 of them I found the bag almost empty. Also going in were the aforementioned Gala apple (70 cents), a Korean pear ($3 at H Mart), two stalks of celery (expensive these days at $2.75), salt and white pepper.

After cooking the cubed potatoes for 10 minutes, cool them off in the fridge and add the chopped fruits & vegetables to it, and then add the dressing.

You should use Kewpie mayonnaise (500 grams sells at H Mart for $5!!!), as well as sugar (I went with Tammy's brown sugar), more salt and white pepper, and sesame seeds.

Mix it all up and there you go! A most unusual side dish for your doro wot.

To finish off the presentation I went with a unique and favorite cole slaw, again not a usual one for Americans, since this Salvadoran cole slaw has no mayo in it at all.

Recipe: Curtido (Salvadoran Cole Slaw)

This recipe I halved. I used this one from to make my curtido.

You will need 1/2 a small head of cabbage (about a dollar tops), 1/2 a large carrot (had one already), 1/8 cup minced onion (I used 1/2 a small onion) and 1/4 cup cider vinegar (had it). Just thinly shred the cabbage and carrot, slice and chop the onion, and mix everything together. Let it sit for at least two hours. Ready to eat with any pupusa or arepa.

The very diverse sides really did complement the doro wot in different ways. The potato salad was sweeter than your average one, and the curtido was not sweet at all. Each added a beautiful variety of flavors to the plate that I will look forward to over the next week as I work through all my leftovers. I just need more injera bread (if you run out of that, make some couscous).

Now I finally head down 95 - or US-1. They both lead to the same place: the Gulf, the Keys and everything in between. From boiled peanuts and Gulf shrimp to pan cubano and Key Lime pie: it's the Sunshine State, Florida.


Cowen, Tyler. "How do Maryland and Virginia differ?" Tyler Cowen's Ethnic Dining Guide, February 7, 2011.

Hensperger, Beth, and Julie Kaufmann. Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Cookbook. Harvard Common Press: Boston, 2005.

Kojo Nnamdi Show, The. "The D.C. Area's Unique (?) Cultural Identity". WAMU 88.5 American University Radio, originally aired January 3, 2011.

Martínez, Rubén. "Salvadoran Coleslaw". Gourmet (reprinted through's "Gourmet on Epi"), September 2007.

Nelson, Ben. "Senate Bean Soup: A Nebraska Favorite". Official website for Ben Nelson, US Senator for Nebraska, January 3, 2006.

Quackenbush, Tammy (Tamar1973). "Korean potato salad". Posted on YouTube, May 3, 2009.

Zewdie, Senedu, with Stephanie Sedgwick. "Doro Wat". Washington Post, May 18, 2005.

Some information also obtained from Wikipedia's "District of Columbia" page and other pages. Regrettably, the Food Timeline State Foods webpage has little to say about the District. Sigh. Still no representation.