Bless This Bread: Pan-Cooked Shabbat Dabo from Ethiopia
Not only does this loaf bring double blessings, the Ethiopian Shabbat meal itself offers up a pair of breads: The dabo opens the meal and the injera flatbread functions as the plate for the food. The yeast raised dabo may be spiced with a mix known as berbere, with fenugreek or not at all. Some call it bereketei from the Hebrew word for blessing. The healthful teff flour of the injera ferments over days producing its bubbly “eyes” for soaking up the flavorful stews.
Unfortunately, Israelis know little about the breads or food ways of the 150,000 Ethiopians there, according to Tel Aviv based culinary expert, Ruthie Russo. Large migrations rescued Jews from Ethiopia and settled them in Israel starting in 1981 with Operation Brothers and later airlifts, Operations Moses, Joshua, and Solomon. The journeys of some were by foot through Sudan to Israel.
To learn more about Ethiopian Jewish bread traditions, I contacted local chef and co-owner of the only Israeli-Ethiopian restaurant outside of Israel, Beejhy (pronounced BJ) Barhany of Tsion Café. A complicated transcontinental journey starting at the age of four in 1980 led Barhany from Ethiopia by foot to Sudan via Kenya and Uganda, then to France, Israel, and ultimately to New York. On that taxing trek they were likely to have eaten fir fir (also known as fit fit), a bread crumble of injera or dabo mixed with salad or yogurt and spiced with berbere. They also ate another portable food called dabo kolo, fried or baked dabo, well-suited for distance travel.
On Friday afternoons, youngsters in Ethiopia and later in Israel would have eaten engotcha, a biscuit sized version of dabo to excite them about the approaching Shabbat and to stave off hunger until dinner. For special occasions such as weddings, a version of dabo enriched with honey and eggs, hambusha, would be served. At the end of Passover they celebrate Gdeft with engotcha drenched in honey to celebrate sweetness and also sticky ties to family. Other post Passover customs enjoy a quickly risen pita with clarified butter and berbere. At Rosh Hashanah, dabo would be dipped into honey.
The blessing for the dabo for Shabbat for those from the Northern Ethiopian region such as Barhany, using the language of Tigrinya, would have been: “May God bless this bread. May God bless this family.” Since their dabo contained no sugar or eggs, the prayer could be said, Barhany explained in a recent phone conversation. This reflects a view in some Jewish communities that the motzi cannot be said over enriched breads. Ethiopian Jewry’s forced separation from the worldwide Jewish community and in some cases from neighboring regions of Ethiopia over centuries, led to its unique religious practices. Indeed, as Barhany reminded me, the familiar words of the formulaic motzi were not known to the biblical patriarchs or matriarchs either. Also in her experience the custom of taking challah (hafrashat challah) dough to symbolically recall the portion given to sustain the ancient kohanim (priests of the Jerusalem Temple) may have been applied to the baking of dabo. The Ethiopian priest (spiritual leader comparable to our rabbis) or kes blessed the dabo, ate some and apportioned slices for the needy, a charitable expression of the ritual separation of dough.
According to Barhany, very few cookbooks of Ethiopian cuisine or experts on Ethiopian baked goods exist. Home bakers and cooks are the specialists. After all they have been preparing these breads day in and day out for generations. The preparation of the blessed Shabbat bread, dabo, was passed from grandmother to mother to daughter, and now to you.
Rabbi Deborah R. Prinz lectures about chocolate and Judaism around the world based on her book, On the Chocolate Trail: A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals and Recipes to the Magic of Cacao (second edition, Turner Publishing. She co-curated the exhibit “Semi[te] Sweet: On Jews and Chocolate” for the Herbert and Eileen Bernard Museum at Temple Emanu-El in New York City, now available to travel to your community. Most recently she has launched the #chocolatebabkaproject, an exploration of celebratory breads.