Chick-pea Fish in Berbere

The Coptic church has well over a hundred fast days per year. Some are only meat-free, some are meat and fat free (no dairy), some are meat, fat, egg, and fish free. As a result, Ethiopian cuisines contain a large number of non-meat options.

This one uses chick-pea flour to replace meat. You make a dough of chick-pea flour and mold it into little fish shapes, then deep fry them and serve them with bread and a berbere-based sauce.  Again, the basic recipe comes from the Time Life Foods of Africa cookbook. I would advise a well-ventilated kitchen, because you are going to be chopping and grating a lot of onion.

For the “fish”: 3 cups chick-pea flour, 2 t salt, 1 t white pepper, 3/4-1 c water, 2 T finely grated onion 1 t finely chopped garlic, vegetable oil for deep frying

For the sauce: 2 c finely chopped onion, 1/4 c veggie oil, 1/2 c berbere, 1 T finely chopped garlic, 1 1/2 C water, 1 t salt.

First you make the fishies: Sift the chick-pea flour, salt, and white pepper into a deep bowl [I just stir them well and fluff the results]. Make a well in the center and combine 3/4 C water, onions, and garlic in the well, then stir in the dry ingredients. Beat vigorously with a wooden spoon (or sturdy other spoon) of knead with your hands until you get a very smooth dough that can hold a small ball. If the dough ball breaks apart, add a little more water 1/4 cup or less at a time until you get that nice dough ball.

Roll the dough 1/4 inch thick on a lightly floured surface. Too thick and the fish will burn on the outside before they cook through. Trust me on this one. Thinner is better, but not too thin. With a paring knife or other small, sharp knife, cut out fish three or so inches long and an inch wide. Long and skinny is your goal, not goldfish-cracker shaped. Feel free to make shallow cuts of “scales” and an “eye” on your fish.

Heat oil in a deep fryer or heavy saucepan. You need 2-3 inches of oil. (I have not used a dedicated deep fryer or Fry-Daddy type cooker, so I don’t know how well they work.) Once the oil reaches 350 F, fry the fish 4 or 5 at a time (don’t crowd) for 3-4 minutes/side. Turn them more often. They should puff up and be golden brown on both sides. Set them aside on paper towels or newspaper to drain (I like paper towel on newspaper.)

Now for the sauce. In a heavy, non-stick, ungreased 10-12 inch skillet [I use a small Dutch oven] cook the onions over moderate heat until they are soft and dry. That usually takes about five or six minutes. Stir constantly to keep them from burning, adjusting the heat as needed to keep them from scorching. Pour in the oil, and when it starts to sizzle, add berbere and garlic, stirring for a minute or so until everything is mixed. Now add the water. Stir briskly and turn up the heat. Once the sauce thickens somewhat (I prefer thicker, thinner is traditional. Just don’t burn it.) Add the salt.

Place the “fish” in the sauce and spoon the sauce over to coat them well. Turn the heat down to low/simmer, cover the pan loosely (I tip the lid a little) and simmer for 30 minutes. Serve with bread/tortillas (injra is traditional) and a small salad or lentils. It serves 4-6, I’d say closer to four, bit my family really likes it.

I have not experimented with baking the “fish.” I suspect it could be done on a lightly oiled baking sheet if you watch them like a hawk and turn them part-way through.

6 thoughts on “Chick-pea Fish in Berbere

    • Land Penguin – neither animal nor vegetable, but not mineral 🙂

      I sense a shark being loaded in the carpapult now …

  1. Interesting recipe to try. Something to pass on to my daughter, who loved “gonzo beans” when little, and looks for dishes like this. I have a fairly thin (1/4 – 3/8″) candy fish mold that I use for making biscotti on occasion, which sounds like it’ll work here also.

  2. “The Coptic church has well over a hundred fast days per year. … As a result, Ethiopian cuisines contain a large number of non-meat options.”

    Was this a case of making a necessity into a piety?

    As I experienced various foods in different cultures, it seemed that a lot of the oldest, most culturally/ethnically identifiable dishes probably came from when times were lean and people were poor.

    I never investigated it, but I always thought the Schweinehaxe was dreamed up because you sold all the “good” parts of the pig to the richer people, and made do with what’s left, sort of a German Rock Soup.

    “Well, sold the pigs and paid our debts, but all we have left are some pig legs. What are we going to eat now?”

    “I dunno, throw it in the pot and pour some beer on it and stoke up the fire.”

    “Ja, Gute Idee. Oh look, there’s an old potato and a bit of salt in back of the covered. Might be some onions left down in the Keller.”

    “I think I smelled garlic over at the Schmidt’s last week. They owe me a favor, I’ll go ask for some.”

    I’ve had a Mexican version of Schweinehaxe too, although the name escapes me.

    • It is possible. When you look at all the Orthodox Churches, the Russian and Ethiopian Coptic seem to be the strictest in terms of fasting. (I could be mistaken – there’s not much in English easily available about historical Egyptian Coptic traditions.)

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