One look at the dish bubbling in its stone bowl, set beside a large plate of injera and fresh vegetables, and it’s difficult to understand why anyone would consider shiro a “poor man’s meal.”
But this is how chef Tiruzer “T” Mamo of Abol in Silver Spring describes the stew (also spelled “shuro” or “shero”), thick with chickpeas and beans, and long a staple in her native Ethiopia.
“Most Ethiopians eat this dish because the cost is very low,” Mamo said, though she was quick to add that it’s not all about pinching pennies. “You can add meat to it; you can add butter. You can prepare it the way you want it.”
Traditional shiro is a vegetarian dish made from ground chickpea powder prepared with minced onions, tomatoes, garlic and besobela, Ethiopia’s “sacred basil.” Like most Ethiopian entrees, it’s served atop injera, the spongy flatbread eaten with stews and salads.
Despite its ubiquity in Ethiopia, shiro is often considered off the doro-wat-beaten path for Western diners, Mamo said. This isn’t for lack of heartiness: At no more than $13 at most establishments, an order of shiro easily feeds two. Even without meat, the richness of shiro has made it an ideal fasting food for the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, which keeps regular fast days during which adherents must abstain from consuming animal products.
Some variation of shiro can be found on just about every Ethiopian menu in the Washington area. And though each dish may share the same base, different chefs offer significant variations in texture and the intensity of flavor.
At Abol, Mamo serves a version of the dish made with ground split peas simmered in a spicy berbere sauce, topped with beef tibs and spiced butter.
At Silver Spring’s Bete Ethiopian, the meten (spiced) shiro is served alongside a light salad of chopped lettuce, onion and tomato and three rolls of injera. The accompaniments are served in a lidded wicker basket (a smaller version of the traditional mesob), while a server spoons dollops of shiro from a hot stone bowl onto the platter before you.
The emphasis on spice in this preparation gives it an extra kick, so the inexperienced Ethiopian-eater may be gulping down water along with injera. The stew is less creamy than other shiros, with vegetable bits giving it a satisfying texture.
For a milder take, you might try the signature shiro at Ethiopic on H Street NE. The pureed split peas cooked with red onions and garlic has a more subdued spice factor, though its flavor is no less rich. It works well as a palate cleanser if you’re pairing it with sharper entrees.
According to Mamo, the beef shiro dish at Abol is popular among Ethiopian customers, but non-Ethiopians tend to opt for more recognizable options, like lentils or doro wat (chicken stew). “People don’t know about it as much as other types of Ethiopian food,” she said.
Once discovered, however, the hot and hearty stew has no trouble winning over a diner’s heart.