Eat Ethiopian food. Shiro is nourishing, simple, cheap and energising.
Ethiopian Shiro 1-Pot Wonder
Stranded in Addis Ababa, Mesfin cooked 1-pot-wonders on a hotplate on the concrete floor. Our health improved. When we sent photos to Australia, friends asked, ‘What have you been doing? You have lost weight. Your hair is long & shiny.’ Our secret? Ethiopian food and drink and her vegetarian dishes. Jump to Mesfin’s Ethiopian Shiro Recipe. It is an Amhara recipe from mountainous regions.
Locals spoiled us with invitations to dinner. Due to COVID-19, we wore masks and resisted hugging our lovely hosts. They fed us their fanciest dish: doro wat. Everybody loves it. Friends said, ‘We have cleared out our spare room; you are welcome.’ We kept them safe by staying on our own, but were grateful. Ethiopians have always welcomed and nurtured refugees. By 2022, Ethiopia would have 8 million refugees – from Ukraine to Yemen.
Our shiro pot emitted sugary & herbal aromas
A unique staple food of Ethiopia is shiro. Naturally processed, it is vegetarian and made with beans and spice. The powdered mixture is a rich yellow. Cooked, it is a smooth, curry paste.
Shiro is cooked in a single pot with water & salt: 3 ingredients. Our shiro pot emitted sugary & herbal aromas from fresh herbs, garlic and red onion. Read about Ethiopian herbs & spices. Red onions provide the sweetness. In cold weather, Mesfin adds them to the basic shiro recipe.
Cold & Flu Tip
Do you have a cold or ‘flu? Cut an onion. Place it by your bed. Throw it out in the morning (do not eat it). Survivors did this during the bubonic plague in Europe.
Mesfin bought shiny-skinned onions from vegetable shops like the one in the featured image. Wheelbarrows on street corners also sold whole loads of onions. They also held roma tomatoes (not from Italy), sugar cane, watermelon, pineapple, oranges, tirungu (like mango) or bananas. Ethiopians never purchase onions with skins removed: peeled onion absorbs toxins from the air.
Addis Ababa’s alpine nights could be chilly, although—during 2020–21—the temperature never dropped below 5-degrees Celsius. All year round, shiro with injera (Ethiopian flatbread) was comfort food. We ate it for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
No Fuss Shiro
You won’t need a shopping list because you buy only 1 ingredient: meten shiro powder
You may see this on the label: ሽሮ (shiro in Amharic)
- In Ethiopia in 2021, a 500-gram packet costs 80 birr. This was less than $3 Australian.
- Outside Ethiopia, buy it from an African grocery. In Australia, the owner is likely to be a teacher or engineer.
- Keep opened packets in a dry place, sealing them inside another bag.
Dark clay pottery is typically Ethiopian. Mesfin’s shiro pot comes from a women’s collective in Addis Ababa. He decorated it with nail varnish!
- heavy-based pot with lid
- stirring spoon
- tablespoon (15 millilitres)
- teaspoon (5 millilitres)
- cup (240 millilitres)
Ethiopian Shiro Recipe
- Shiro powder (meten shiro) – allow up to 4 tablespoons per adult
- 500 millilitres, or 2 cups, of cold water
- iodised salt
2–4 tablespoons of shiro powder serves 1.
Cooking time: 10 – 12 minutes
- Boil 2 cups of water in the pot. Add half-to-1 teaspoon of iodised salt.
- When the water is boiling, turn down the heat to low.
- Add shiro powder – 1 heaped tablespoon at a time.
- Stir the mixture constantly. Do not let it boil over or stick on the bottom.
- Shiro can be eaten like soup, or thicker, like a paste.
During cooking, add chopped onion and garlic to taste. You can also add sprigs of fresh basil after stirring in the shiro powder. Remove them before serving. Ethiopian basil is more piquant than other varieties.
How to Serve Shiro
When the shiro is cooked, stir in 1 teaspoon of kibbeh (kibbe) per serve. Kibbeh is clarified Ethiopian butter with the worst fats removed. The process filters them out as ‘butter waste’. This makes good kitchen polish, for furniture and utensils made of wood and clay. Kibbeh is usually homemade – learn more here. Otherwise, use ‘bread butter’ or olive oil – 1 teaspoon per serve of shiro.
Ethiopian bread butter is as delicious as French butter. In Arba Minch in the south, women churn milk by taking it for a walk in a pretty container. They wear it like a shoulder bag. When they get home, there is butter. Below is an exquisite bead-and-shell kibbeh storer. It is displayed at an Addis Ababa cultural restaurant.
Serve shiro in the centre of 1 unrolled piece of flatbread, preferably Ethiopia’s unique injera. Ethiopians use injera or qocho instead of cutlery. Made from a grain called teff, injera is highly nutritious. Read about Ethiopian teff grain. Black or dark injera is lower in gluten.
Shiro can be eaten with homemade white cheese, called ayeb in Ethiopia. Garnish with the very soft cheese – after cooking the shiro.
Injera Instead of Cutlery
With your right hand—only the right hand—open out rolled-up injera and tear off a piece. Scoop up shiro with it. Watch Ethiopians to learn the best manners. If you make a mistake, they will keep a straight face. Here are 2!
An Australian dined with new Ethiopian friends. She washed her hands (excellent start). Next, she dried them – with a large circle of injera! Then she discarded it in a wastepaper basket. Nobody blinked an eyelid. When they began to eat, she discovered its real use.
I made a bigger gaff on the streets of Addis Ababa. We visited the suburbs of Arat (4) Kilo, Amist (5) Kilo, & Sidist (6) Kilo. Then I asked, ‘Where is Sost (3) Kilo?’
Cool leftover cooked shiro. Remove it from the pot if you used stainless steel or aluminium. Put it into a glass or pottery bowl and cover. Store in the middle part of the fridge. It will keep out of the fridge in temperate climates like Addis Ababa’s. There, it is rarely above 28 degrees Celsius. Do not store cooked shiro for more than 3 days.
Re-heat leftovers before eating. Heat the cooked shiro over a gentle heat, stirring 7–10 minutes.
Food for All
Shiro is food for all: young and old; rich and poor; healthy and sick. People with stomach problems can eat it. For the very young, there are less spicy preparations. Those with high levels of cholesterol eat it with olive oil. It is economical: 1 packet lasts well. For a single person, the cost is negligible. Student food!
In March, the 45-day fast for Orthodox Easter begins. This is not for the faint hearted. Ethiopians do not merely give up chocolate for Lent and eat fish on Fridays – Aussie Catholics did this when I was growing up. They eat no meat, including fish, take no milk products, and do not eat before the afternoon. Many do not drink water until then. People also do not swear. Courts reduce their activity. Butchers close, supplying meat only to hospitals.
Only Ethiopians fast for 45 days prior to Easter. Shiro provides energy then. Instead of kibbeh, people eat it with olive oil.
Preparation of Meten Shiro
There are 5 types of shiro bean. 2 varieties make the best curry paste. The most nutritious grows on Ethiopian tropical highlands. Amhara people farm it. Did shiro give their ancestors the strength to build the granite Lalibela Rock-Hewn monasteries from the top down?
Traditionally, women process shiro. It remains traditional, without chemical additives. First, they wash and dry the beans. Then they roast them lightly before grinding them with a mixture of ingredients. These consist of dried red onion, garlic, ginger, basil and turmeric. Sometimes, chili is included. Ethiopian basil or beso bela is delicious. Only those women know the precise ratio of ingredients – important to processing. Different consumers need different ratios. For example, spice will be reduced for very young children.
The final step in preparing meten shiro is carried out at a green mill. Combined ingredients are ground finely into a powder, ready for cooking.
Nutritional Advantages of Shiro
- High protein
- Can be eaten by diabetics
- Contains vitamins A, B & D-complex
- Provides anti-viral good fats (if prepared well)
A Note on Salt
Iodised salt is better than too much finely-ground sea salt. Ethiopians observe that long-term overuse of fine sea salt can lead to kidney and gallbladder problems. Island dwellers develop kidney disease. Sea salt creates wealth and is easy to obtain. However, it contains high levels of sodium chloride & sodium carbonate. This is why ships’ hulls are concrete, for endurance.
Volcanic sources provide the best salt, rich in minerals and iodine that is yellow. Hadar in Ethiopia has this salt. Currently, Ethiopians do not benefit from this. Salt from there is exported, mainly to Europe. It is used in industry, for cleaning boilers with caustic acid, and in pharmaceuticals.
- Gurage cuisine from Ethiopia’s south is delicious. Above is bula from the false banana – koba root. During the time of Negus Haile Selassie, 1 community had the muscle to build its own main road. Boy scouts, including Mesfin, sold Gurage flowers in the city as part of a fundraiser to build the road. And you should see how they dance!
- qocho is used like injera. I saw it being prepared: totally fat-free.
- Find out more about Ethiopian food here.
Organic Produce for Shiro by kind permission of Kebena grocer © Mesfin Tadesse 2020
- Red Onion on White (Wikimedia Commons); Meten Shiro, Shiro Pot, Cooked Shiro © Ianet Bastyan 2021
- Traditional Ethiopian Meal, Ethiopian Kibbeh Storer & Bula © Ianet Bastyan 2021 with permission of Soramba Cultural Restaurant, Addis Ababa