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How Genfo Breaks the Mold of Ethiopian Food Expectations

The breakfast porridge's forgotten place in the East African culinary canon

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This is Inside the Breakfast Bowl, a series in which Eater profiles breakfast soups and porridges from around the world. Next up: genfo.

Genfo is not discussed frequently in the canon of Ethiopian dishes, nor does it conform to Western notions of porridge. Take a deeper look at this simple dish and you will discover the results of geography, history, and evolution of a region.

Genfo is the Amharic name for a thick porridge eaten for breakfast in Ethiopia and Eritrea, where it is known as ga'at. The most typical version is made with barley flour, although it is recreated in the diaspora using wheat and occasionally corn meal. Flour that is sometimes dry-roasted before cooking is added to boiling water and stirred with a wooden dowel until smooth and very thick. The resulting porridge is stiff and slightly sticky when warm. Once mounded in a bowl, a well is created in the center. Some cooks will use the small Ethiopian coffee cups called finjal to form the perfect shape. The final step is to fill the well with niter kibbeh (tesmi in Eritrea), butter that has been clarified with spices, and the red-pepper-and-spice blend called berbere. The completed dish is served plain or flanked by scoops of yogurt.

Photo: tefan Alfons Tzeggai/Wikicommons

To anyone familiar with Ethiopian restaurants, genfo's appearance may come as a surprise. The solitary mound of dough in a bowl does not match the formula of stew on spongy flatbread. Like other Ethiopian dishes, it's often shared and can be eaten with your hands, but it can get messy, so it's not uncommon to eat genfo using a fork or spoon. Either way, bits of porridge pulled from the outside are dipped into the butter and spice mixture in the center. These Ethiopian flavors have come to represent the cuisine through centuries of trade and influence, both global and local.

Genfo bears a strong resemblance to asida, another stiff, flour-based porridge served with a sauce in its center. Asida is commonly eaten in Arab and North African countries, especially for holidays. Food historian Clifford Wright dates the dish to 13th century Muslim Andalusia based on an anonymously authored cookbook from the era. Felicia Campbell, author of The Food of Oman: Recipes and Stories from the Gateway to Arabia, provides a recipe for asida which, like most, is sweet, but she mentions it is also served with meat curry.

It's easy to imagine how this format for porridge would have traveled to Ethiopia, through the traditions of its sizable Muslim population that go back to the seventh century. While there is no record of when people started preparing genfo as it is known today, each of its ingredients has a history in the region.

Genfo becomes uniquely Ethiopian with the addition of clarified butter and red pepper.

Historian James C. McCann says that before the arrival of maize, "[genfo] would likely have been made from whatever local grain was suited to the altitude." In his book Stirring the Pot: A History of African Cuisine, McCann attributes the the modern Ethiopian diet to agriculture in the country's highlands, with cereals being developed during the Aksumite empire between 500 BC and 500 AD. That era "had its foundations in Ethiopia's endemic crops, such as teff, certain varieties of wheat and barley, and dagussa (finger millet)."

Since barley originated in the Middle East, and the concept of porridge occurs everywhere there is grain, genfo becomes uniquely Ethiopian with the addition of two ingredients: clarified butter and red pepper.

The same highland areas where grain was cultivated also provided excellent grazing land. Cattle have long been a source of food and unit of wealth for certain nomadic tribes for whom raising livestock is a way of life. Clarifying butter removes the milk solids and water that would cause spoiling, rendering it stable at warm temperatures. This deeply fragrant butter is a flavoring ingredient in most Ethiopian dishes, though observers of Orthodox Christianity, the dominant religion of Ethiopia and Eritrea, refrain from eating animal products several times a year, and on those occasions, oil is used instead.

Spices sit at a market in Ethiopia. Photo: Zacharias Abubeker/AFP/Getty Images

Even though Ethiopian food is synonymous with the red color of berbere, it is difficult to track down exactly when the usage of peppers became widespread. Before the introduction of the New World capsicum, cooks were already using spices like cumin, pepper, cloves, fenugreek, garlic, and ginger accessed from trade networks across the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. At some point, different varieties of capsicum started arriving in the region, either from the West after traveling through other African countries, or through direct trade on the East coast of the continent. Ultimately, red peppers became a ubiquitous seasoning in the cuisine, forming the basis of berbere as well as the spicier blend called mitmita. There are as many blends of berbere as cooks, each with a varying profile of spices used to accent the red pepper.

Most Ethiopian restaurants only serve lunch and dinner, so it's rare to find one that serves genfo. Of the ones serving breakfast, it is still unusual to see porridge on the menu in favor of dishes like ful, chechebsa, and eggs with tomatoes and peppers. This could have something to do with genfo's laborious and time-intensive cooking process, which cannot be done ahead of time. (Most genfo recipes include a note on the physical strength required to bring the dough together.) The cooking time, which varies based on the quantity being made, involves constant stirring as the flour and water transforms from a paste to the desired sticky mass. It's a technique best learned visually, made accessible by several videos of the process on Youtube.

At Zenebech Injera in Washington DC, you can try genfo made from barley in addition to one made from enset, also known as false banana, a main source of nutrition in certain parts of Ethiopia. A representative for the restaurant says the barley genfo is more popular than the enset, "but they're both very good. I believe that you're more likely to find the barley genfo at most restaurants in the DC area, but the enset could be one of those off-menu dishes at some of those restaurants."

If you'd like to try your hand (and bicep) at it, the ingredients are not difficult to source. Genfo is a rich, flavorful take on porridge that's sure to spice up the rotation of grits, oatmeal, or cream of wheat, and take savory breakfast to a new level.