The Eritrean and Ethiopian Tradition Passed From Mother to Daughter

May 25, 2024
Dining & Wine
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The thick brown liquid had been fermenting in the jug for three days, which meant it was time for Fatean Gojela to get it ready to serve for Orthodox Easter. With her granddaughter, Ava, at her side, she poured it little by little through a thin mesh sack.

“Patience, Mama,” she said to Ava, showing her how to squeeze out the liquid from a doughy mix of grains and herbs.

Ms. Gojela, 65, learned to make suwe, as the beerlike drink is called in the Tigrinya language, from her mother while growing up in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. (Today, she lives in Fort Worth, where she works as a housekeeper for hospitals.)

The beverage is primarily brewed for special occasions in Eritrea and Ethiopia, where Amharic-speakers call it tella. In the United States, members of the Ethiopian and Eritrean diaspora often make it at home for celebrations like weddings, graduations and baptisms.

Recipes for the thick, murky, slightly smoky drink vary by family and tradition, but they all use lots of dark malted barley. The knowledge is passed down from mother to daughter, and Ms. Gojela now includes her 7-year-old granddaughter; men aren’t usually involved in tella brewing.

That makes it quite different from most home brewing in the United States, where the creators — like the country’s commercial brewers and drinkers — tend to be white men. Tella and suwe makers head to home-brew shops for malted barley — which America’s hobbyist beer brewers use only in small amounts for their darkest, richest brews.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, as of 2022, the Dallas-Fort Worth area had 3,000 immigrants from Eritrea and 16,000 from Ethiopia, and more sub-Saharan immigrants than any metropolitan area except Washington or New York City. Ethiopian groceries and restaurants dot the city’s Vickery Meadow neighborhood. Some sell bottles of tella and its honey-wine cousin, called tej or myes, but the beverage is still primarily homemade.

Ms. Gojela buys barley for her suwe at BrewHound Supplies in Fort Worth. The owner, Christopher Bart, said he always knows when a customer is making the drink because he normally sells only a pound of malted barley for a five-gallon batch of beer. “Then someone comes in and asks for 50 pounds,” he said.

Fasicka Harris owns Smoke’N Ash BBQ in Arlington, a city between Dallas and Fort Worth, where she blends her husband’s Texas barbecue with her own traditional Ethiopian recipes. She remembers the first time she was trusted enough to make the family’s batch of tella. Her mother watched carefully, making sure she did everything just right. Since the drink is meant to bring people together for gatherings, Ms. Harris said, “she doesn’t want you to ruin it.”

Ms. Harris’s favorite step of her family’s recipe is one that most beer brewers skip: malting the barley. This involves soaking the grains so they begin to sprout and then roasting them, for color and flavor. Ms. Gojela also used to roast her barley at home, and though traditionalists may still do so, she now opts for the ease of buying premalted barley.

She doesn’t keep a written recipe or measure her ingredients. Everything is estimated by hand. She first makes a dough with malted barley, a little wheat flour, sugar, salt, sesame seeds and bread yeast. She bakes that into a bread, breaks it up and adds it to a big jug with water and powdered gesho, a bittering herb from Ethiopia. She uses no yeast, and lets the mixture ferment naturally — using yeast that exist naturally in the immediate environment — for three to five days.

That fermentation gives suwe a funky flavor, and Ms. Gojela adds a bit of honey for balance. The resulting drink is still, not carbonated like beer. Its flavor has robust dark caramel and bready toasted notes. Ms. Gojela does not measure the alcohol level, but most recipes come out at about 2 to 8 percent alcohol.

Fana Yohannes, who immigrated from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and is an owner of Carver Park restaurant in Dallas, said each recipe “is a representation of the family that’s making it.”

“No matter if you’re a rich or poor person, you have to offer something,” she said. “Tella is there for celebrating and pride.”

A few days after Ms. Gojela and her granddaughter made their batch, her home was full of family and the smells of an Orthodox Easter holiday spread. Fragrant incense wafted through the living room while she worked in the kitchen.

Ms. Gojela had prepared two kinds of tsehbi beef stew — one with jalapeños, one with berbere spice — and alicha, a dish of potatoes, carrots and cabbage stewed with turmeric and garlic. All were served with two kinds of injera bread and sweet himbasha. And just in case someone wanted something a little less traditional, she baked a lasagna — with African spices, of course, she said.

“She cooked enough for a village,” said Saba Haile, Ms. Gojela’s daughter, who came in from Houston for the holiday.

All afternoon, the family watched an Orthodox church service and Eritrean music videos on TV. Between clips of musicians playing a bowed masinko and krar harp, the worshipers onscreen poured frothy cups of a dark, opaque drink: suwe.

“I need the glasses,” Ms. Haile said a few moments later. “Everybody wants suwe.”

Ms. Gojela got out a big pitcher, poured in a bit of honey, then opened the fermentation vessel. She prepared one pitcher of suwe and another full of myes — a lighter, more aromatic alcoholic brew that her adult children prefer.

Ms. Gojela said she still makes suwe for the same reason she makes other family recipes: It’s important to keep a connection to where she came from.

“We have to,” she said. “That’s why we have family — to teach us. We have to know.”

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