Shiro Eritrean Style: Minet Abay’s Dish from Home

Shiro, a common dish in Eritrea and Ethiopia, has many regional and familial variants. In Minet Abay’s household, it was usually made from spiced, ground garbanzo beans, smothered onions and tomatoes beaten or whipped to a froth resembling red meringue. It is a light, gingery and garlicky puree, eaten with ndjera, the sour flat bread which is a staple of her homeland.

minet-at-stoveMinet is the head cook in Tucson’s newest Ethiopian restaurant, Café Desta. As a child, she grew up on large farm in Tsorona Village in southern Eritrea near the border of Tigre in Ethiopia. Her father was a landowner with cattle, sheep, goats and horses; they grew primarily sorghum, tef (the gluten-free, high protein grain indigenous to east Africa) and corn for popping. Minet was the youngest of 6 children. Her older sisters were the family cooks so, she was not taught until the age of ten when she first made shiro, which “they loved”. Her talent for making ndjera, which was always made at home, began when Minet was thirteen. For years, however, Minet was responsible for getting all of the water the family used – a 30-minute donkey ride each way to the community well.

“At home we also grew vegetables, tomatoes, greens. We would go to the market to sell. I was always good at weighing things without a scale. You would show me once and I could know, always exact”.

Minet does not talk about why she left Eritrea, only how. She simply says that she placed her daughter Lula on her back and walked, without food or water, towards the Ethiopian border, pretending to be minding a cow so the border guards would not arrest her. They stayed in Shimelba Refugee Camp for three years, 5-10 people sharing a small house and whatever food aid they were able to get. It was hard as everything else they needed had to be paid for with money from her family. But, this was a time which Minet remembers fondly as her husband returned to be with them, she had a son and, she found faith.

“God always watched over me. I had never looked for him before. In the camp I saw God and understood about faith. When we left the camp to go to Addis, our car flipped twice. Jesus saved me. My favorite psalm is David 23, The Lord is My Shepherd”.

Minet likes to cook in the U.S because there is either gas or electricity for the stove . Back home, they relied on increasingly scare wood, charcoal or kerosene. She is pleased to be sharing her traditional foods with Americans, at the restaurant or, as a food demonstrator at Tucson Meet Yourself. Her favorite dishes are “kaye ase” (fish fried with berbere), “kaye beg” (lamb in berbere) and “tikil gomen” (sautéed cabbage and carrots with ginger). In between stints in the kitchen, Minet is studying English, making sure to be home when Lula returns from school and, has learned how to drive.