For Meskerem Gebreyohannes, all of the Jewish holidays bring doro wat, a luxurious chicken dish she makes with slowly cooked onions and a red chile sauce layered with flavors from the African spice trail.
Despite growing up in a Jewish family in Harar, a city in Ethiopia a few hours by car from Somalia, she never celebrated “modern” holidays like Hanukkah.
Mrs. Gebreyohannes, 58, is the chef and an owner, with her husband, Kassa, of Taste of Ethiopia, a small restaurant in Southfield, Mich. She is like many other Jewish immigrants from Ethiopia, who did not learn the story of the Maccabees defeating the Greeks. It appears in the oral Torah that was written down around 200 B.C., a time when much of the world was unaware of the existence of a Jewish community in Ethiopia.
Separated from Israel and the Diaspora for more than 2,000 years, Ethiopian Jews followed the Old Testament, which does not include the Hanukkah story, as a source for holiday customs. Mrs. Gebreyohannes fled Ethiopia in 1981 as a refugee to Djibouti, then went to Canada in 1982, where she started observing the custom of lighting a menorah for eight days. She settled in Michigan in 2004.
Now, her Hanukkah traditions include candle lighting with tofe (a homemade Ethiopian beeswax candle with a big flame) as well as the doro wat, “chicken with sauce” in Amharic, a dish eaten by all Ethiopians. For her celebrations, Mrs. Gebreyohannes serves it with dabo, a holiday bread made with flour, or injera, the daily bread made of teff.
“In Ethiopia, we were always surrounded by cooking,” she said earlier this fall, while pulverizing the onions and garlic for her doro wat.
Ms. Gebreyohannes uses oil rather than the more traditional ghee used in the dish. Bright red berbere — she uses a chile spice mix from Ethiopia that includes cardamom, ginger, fenugreek and thyme — lends more than color to the sauce.
“When you smell a good berbere, you can taste the spices are there, and you don’t need to add anything else,” she said. “The spices act like cornstarch or flour to give the sauce substance.”
Mrs. Gebreyohannes learned in Ethiopia to use every part of the chicken: the bones for soups and the skin to enrich the sauces. She nostalgically refers to the birds from her home as “sacred.”
“We say that when a woman knows how to pull apart the 12 parts of a whole chicken, she has become a full woman and is ready to marry,” she said. (For the record, that’s a pair each of drumsticks, thighs, breasts and wings, and the chest, neck, ribs and giblets.) “As a child, I learned to prepare meals and dishes for many people. The idea of making a meal for less than 10 people is American.”
Her doro wat recipe may not last for all eight nights of Hanukkah. But it will add warmth, and a new holiday tradition, for one.