A new African tradition for Hanukkah

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.

Gebreyohannes, 58, is the chef and an owner, with her husband, Kassa, of Taste of Ethiopia, a small restaurant in Southfield, Michigan. 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 A.D. 200, 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. 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, 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.

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.”

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.

Doro Wat (Ethiopian-Style Spicy Chicken)


YIELD: 4 to 6 servings

TIME: 1 hour

Doro wat is a popular chicken dish in Ethiopia, and for Ethiopian Jews like Meskerem Gebreyohannes, it is also a fine centerpiece for a holiday like Hanukkah. Gebreyohannes makes her doro wat with a Berbere spice mix imported from Ethiopia, but for this recipe, it is not needed, as the spices are listed individually. Doro wat is easy to make and can be prepared ahead of time. You can lower the heat by ratcheting up the sweet paprika, rather than the cayenne.


8 to 10 boneless, skinless chicken thighs

Juice of 1 lemon

1 tablespoon white vinegar

4 to 5 large onions, peeled and quartered

Fresh ginger (1-inch piece), peeled and grated

1/2 head of garlic, peeled

1/3 cup olive oil

1 to 2 tablespoons hot chile powder like cayenne

1 tablespoon sweet paprika

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon ground cardamom

1/4 teaspoon dried thyme

1/4 teaspoon ground fenugreek

3/4 teaspoon salt or to taste

Pinch of freshly ground black pepper

Injera, pita, naan or rice, for serving

Hard-boiled eggs, for serving (optional)


Step 1

Heat the oven to 350 degrees and rub the chicken with the lemon juice and vinegar.

Step 2

Put the chicken in a rimmed baking sheet and bake, discarding the juices after 20 minutes, then draining again after 10 more minutes. Remove meat from oven and set aside.

Step 3

As the chicken cooks, put the onions, ginger and garlic in a food processor with a steel blade and finely chop until almost ground, leaving a bit of texture.

Step 4

Heat oil in a deep skillet over medium heat. Add the onion mixture and simmer, stirring frequently, about 20 minutes or until the onions have turned golden. Then stir in 1 tablespoon of the chile powder, the sweet paprika, ginger, coriander, cardamom, thyme, fenugreek, salt and pepper.

Step 5

Cook for a few minutes, taste the sauce, and if you prefer more bite, add more chile. Add the chicken and simmer, covered, for about 15 more minutes, adding as much as a cup of water to reach the consistency of a thick sauce. Add more salt and pepper, if desired.

Step 6

Serve with injera, pita, naan or rice and, if you wish, hard-boiled eggs.

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Cooking and Recipes

Braves kick off season with new food, beverage options
Braves kick off season with new food, beverage options

The food roster for the Atlanta Braves’ second season at SunTrust Park will feature several familiar favorites joined by some eager-to-please rookies. First up is Punch Bowl Social, opening Saturday in The Battery, the entertainment district adjacent to the ballfield. The Denver-based “eatertainment” concept will serve a menu...
Brackets and brews: 7 best bars for watching college basketball in Atlanta
Brackets and brews: 7 best bars for watching college basketball in Atlanta

Need a great place to watch college basketball in Atlanta? There are some great picks, starting with some for the dabbler −those who just want to check the bracket while concentrating on pool or darts or watch a novelty game during March Madness. Other great sports bars in the Atlanta area cater to year-round devotees, those who start with...
Where to eat Easter brunch and dinner in metro Atlanta
Where to eat Easter brunch and dinner in metro Atlanta

Lobster omelet at CRU Wine Bar. / Photo credit: Robert Yu Celebrate Easter with family, good food — and maybe even an appearance by the Easter Bunny — at these metro Atlanta Easter brunches and dinners. Reservations are recommended. Prices do no include tax and gratuity.   5Church Atlanta . The...
Love Jai Alai IPA from Cigar City? Don’t miss brewery’s Maduro Brown Ale
Love Jai Alai IPA from Cigar City? Don’t miss brewery’s Maduro Brown Ale

The beer: Maduro Brown Ale by Cigar City, made in Tampa, Fla. What it is: A fairly faithful take on an English-style brown ale from a well-regarded brewery that began distributing in Chicago in February. Cigar City is largely known for its Jai Alai IPA, but Maduro is not to be missed. It’s the first beer the brewery made when launching in 2007...
The sublime joy of cooking with peanut butter
The sublime joy of cooking with peanut butter

Peanut butter is my religion. George Washington Carver is my prophet. I think we can all agree that peanut butter is the most perfect food ever invented. It is the ultimate expression of man’s genius, a spreadable utopia that covers our sins, brings happiness to all and goes as well with jam as it does with jelly. Though peanut butter is the...
More Stories