Tsebhi Birsen is a magnificent spicy lentil recipe that hails from Eritrea right in the horn of Africa. This relatively simple recipe is packed with incredible flavors, and its chief ingredient hearkens back to ancient times.
But let us not be carried into prehistory so quickly today. While the ancient history of the lentil is itself a fascinating tale, the more recent history of Eritrea is even more vibrant.
In this small country perched upon the Red Sea, you’ll find some of the most magnificent European architecture of the 20th century.
Tsebhi Birsen: Eritrean Modernist Architecture, Prehistoric Lentils, and Spicy Tigrayan Dishes
As we explore the world through our palettes, we have frequently come across recipes, ingredients and cultures that have traversed our oceans, deserts and mountains.
This might be the first time, however, that we have found architecture moving from one continent to another. From Italy to the horn of Africa, modernist architecture made a long voyage to Eritrea where its beautiful buildings still stand today.
L’architettura in Eritrea
It’s said that Eritrea is one of the most secretive nations in the world. Her 20th century history is a sad one, from Italian colonial rule to annexation by Ethiopia to a 30 year struggle for independence that left the country battered. Eritrea is now ruled by an authoritarian president, and little information leaves the country.
The isolation of Eritrea has preserved the very tangible legacy of Italian colonialism. After thousands of years of proud civilizations living in modern day Eritrea – even including the great Ottoman Empire – the Eritreans became part of Italy’s conquest during the Scramble for Africa in the 1800s.
Under Benito Mussolini, Ethiopia and Eritrea were re-invaded by the Italians in the late 1930s. The capital Asmara became the Italians’ operational base… and the tableau for daydreaming architects to fulfill their modernist imaginational desires.
If you’re not familiar with 1930s modernist architecture, think of Old Hollywood glamour and the futuristic buildings portrayed in the movies from that era. These are the types of buildings that cover Asmara, which boasts airplane-shaped gas stations, train-like office buildings, and cinemas with ornate plasterwork and romantic decadence.
Italian architects had long wanted to create these buildings in Italy, but building to this type of scale wasn’t possible with the historical architecture that already dominated Italian cities. So Asmara was their playground, and in it they played extravagantly.
By 1939, half of Asmara’s population was native Italians who had immigrated into Eritrea, and a large portion were very forward thinking architects eager to leave their mark on the “blank canvas” of the capital. So pervasive did this modernist architecture throughout Asmara become that the city was called “Little Rome” during its Italian occupation in the 1930s and 1940s.
There are far fewer Italians now living in Asmara these days, but the buildings remain remarkably untouched even after decades of scarring struggles that have ensued for the Eritrean people. And in an effort to preserve this incredible architecture, Eritrea has filed for Unesco World Heritage status for some 4,000 buildings in Asmara alone.
Amsara is certainly a unique city where the juxtaposition of modernist architecture and Eritrean life has given way to a beautiful blend of cultures and traditions.
The Legumes of Yesteryear
Let’s dramatically shift gears from the vast architecture of Asmara to the minuscule lentil, the heart of tsebhi birsen.
Lentils are part of the legume family alongside the likes of beans, peas and even peanuts. It’s a dry fruit that grows in a pod-like structure. However, when we only eat what’s inside the pod, we call it a pulse, therefore lentils are technically pulses. Green beans and snow peas, on the other hand, are not pulses because we eat the entire pod. So bugger off green beans and snow peas – you’ll have your turn another day!
Lentils are a itsy bitsy but mighty food and are one of the most ancient of foods to ever be cultivated. There’s evidence to suggest that Neolithic peoples began cultivating them over 8,500 years ago.
While this is relatively young compared to the likes of corn or even potatoes, keep in mind that in the Near East, early humans had not even begun making pottery but were munching away on bowls full of lentils.
The Tigrayans and Tsebhi Foods
Tigrinya is the language spoken by the Tigray-Tigrinya people, a tribe originating in the horn of Africa predominantly in Eritrea and Ethiopia.
One glance at an Eritrean recipe book and you will notice immediately that many Tigray-Tigrinya recipes start with “tsebhi.” The Tigrayan tsebhi means sauce in English, so the rough translation for tsebhi birsen is lentil sauce.
Many of the Tigray-Tigrinya tsebhis are known to be well-spiced (more on that later), and it’s the spices of Eritrean cuisine that distinguish it from its Ethiopian neighbor. With so many dishes focused on created richly spiced sauces, injera is a staple at every dinner. Injera – a leavened flatbread made from teff flour – is laid in the center of a mesob, a communal basket, and the tsebhi is poured in the middle. Families gather around the mesob to break of bits of injera from the outside to create handfuls of the exquisite stew in the middle.
We love this type of meal. Gathering with loved ones around a single, richly spiced dish seems like the ideal way to end the day, probably just as our ancestors from 8,500 years ago.
About the Recipe
When it comes to preparing tsebhi birsen, you don’t need to do much besides stir really, really well. From there, just let the berbere do the rest.
Think of berbere as an “uber-spice” that Ethiopian and Eritrean recipes use to bring immense flavor to dishes (and sometimes as medicine to cure stomach ache). There’s no one way to prepare berbere, and you can really mix any spices you want into your own berbere so long as you have the only two required ingredients: fenugreek and chili peppers.
Outside of that, anything else is fair game, but berbere will commonly also have other potent flavors like ginger, garlic, nigella seeds, coriander, cumin, turmeric, nutmeg, allspice, black pepper and more. Like we said, it’s the “uber-spice” that you simply have to try.
For your tsebhi birsen, it all begins with some onions and berbere. Start with your pot of heated oil and some sweating, translucent onions. Once the onions have been pre-cooked, add in your berbere and stir around vigorously. It will want to clump up, but your goal here should be to stir the berbere well enough into the onions that it coats evenly over the onions.
After a few minutes of stirring and heating the berbere, add in other ingredients like tomatoes and garlic as a thicker, highly fragrant paste starts to form. You’ll take your pre-washed lentils and pour them in thereafter, at which point you’ll need to stir and stir again to coat the lentils in this paste.
Once you’re sure the lentils are well covered and ready to go, add enough water to submerge them and bring it to a short boil. As it hits the boiling point, reduce your stovetop heat to a simmer, cover your stockpot and only occasionally stir the tsebhi birsen as the lentils cook through.
In just 45 hands-off minutes later, you’ll have a delectable tsebhi birsen that will go famously with some fresh injera. Enjoy!
Our Take on the Recipe
For a recipe like tsebhi birsen, there’s only a few main guidelines that you need to follow for a truly delicious tsebhi birsen. We followed the guidelines laid out in this reference recipe, then we went on our way from there.
For starters, we sought to make a vegan-friendly version of this recipe, so we cut out any butter or ghee and instead used olive oil as our base fat. It was an easy change that had very little effect on the dish overall.
What did have a slight effect, though, was the extra ginger we decided to add, but we found it was a positive one. We upped the amount of cardamom and cumin for good measure too.
As for the berbere, we had actually some leftover from when we prepared doro wot, so we used that in this particular recipe. While we didn’t make it from scratch for this recipe, we did include our own version in case you’d like to make it at home for yourself. If you happen to have an Ethiopian restaurant or grocery store near you, however, you can just as easily purchase pre-made berbere very affordably from them.
Otherwise, tsebhi birsen is a simple yet incredibly vibrant dish that can light up any meal of the day. If anything to try the flavors of cooked berbere, this one we definitely recommend you try making.
What would you prepare as your berbere for tsebhi birsen? Comment below!
Helpers for this Recipe
Tsebhi Birsen: Eritrean Red Lentils Simmered in Berbere
Yield 4 people
- 1 1/2 cup red lentils, washed in water then drained
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 medium onions, minced
- 2 tablespoons Berbere spice (see below for homemade version)
- 4 medium-sized tomatoes, blanched, peeled and finely diced
- 2 teaspoons tomato paste
- 3 garlic cloves, crushed
- 1 inch piece of ginger, minced
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 2 cups water
- Salt and black pepper, to taste
Berbere (Fenugreek and Cayenne Required, the Rest Optional)
- 2 teaspoons ground fenugreek
- 4 tablespoons ground cayenne
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
Stage 1 - Prepare Berbere (Optional)
- Take a skillet over medium heat. When hot, add in all your ground spices
- Toast the spices for 2-3 minutes over this heat, stirring constantly so as to prevent burning. Once the spices have toasted and the smells very fragrant, take the berbere off the heat and store in a container at room temperature
Stage 2 - Create Base for Tsebhi Birsen
- Take a stockpot over medium-high heat and add your olive oil. When the oil is heated, next add in your onions and begin to cook
- Cook your onions for 2-3 minutes as they begin to sweat and become translucent
- Next, add in your berbere spice and mix vigorously into the onions. Continue to cook for 4-5 minutes
- Add in your tomatoes and tomato paste, stir well and cook for another 2 minutes
- As the pot begins to bubble and the tomatoes cook, add in your garlic, ginger, ground cumin and ground cardamom and stir around again
Stage 3 - Add and Simmer Lentils
- After another 1-2 minutes with the mixture simmering, add in your lentils as is and stir vigorously throughout to coat the lentils in flavor. Continue to stir for at least another 30 seconds or even a whole minute
- Pour in your water (enough to submerge the lentils) and cover the stockpot as the water comes to a boil
- Once the water has reached its boiling point, reduce the stovetop heat to a simmer
- Simmer your tsebhi birsen for 45 minutes (stirring every 7-10 minutes), then turn off the heat and serve. Enjoy!