Ethiopian lentil stew: yemisir wat

Between my third and final fourth year of dental school, I decided to sign up for a dental mission trip to Ethiopia that would take place during one of our longest school breaks.  I managed to convince two other classmates to come; additionally, two dental hygiene students with a sense of adventure and that restless travel bug condition had signed up, too.

Hello to Ethiopia and it’s wonderful cuisine. (Not to mention the coffee – but I’ll save that for another time.)

yemisirwat1hAfter spending three weeks there and having experienced traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremonies, traditional food, injera bread, and wats, I realized it was a completely new culinary world I knew nothing about and was one I needed to figure out how to have again when I got home. Living in rural Montana makes it kind of hard to find an Ethiopian restaurant, but I managed to drag my husband and cousins to one in a slightly sketchy part of Atlanta, GA, and we were all blown away.

The flavors!  The spice!  (Oh, and the coffee.)

yemisirwat2vI found out that the primary seasoning ingredient used the most in Ethiopian cooking is a spice blend called berbere (say: BUR-bur-ree). You can consider berbere like the many different kinds of dry curry spice mix you kind find in stores: the specific seasoning mix really varies per person, company, or household that makes it.


I eventually got my hands on some bulk berbere that I personally liked (you can see it here).  Most Ethiopian wats (aka stews or curries) are meat-based, but there are many dishes that can be found made with vegetables or legumes.  After searching online, I ran into a newspaper story that featured an Ethiopian vegetarian feast and immediately was inspired.

I decided to make yemisir wat (aka misir wat). In most of these pictures, I used a different kind of lentil instead of the usual red lentil.  I still prefer red lentils because they break down and turn into a lovely mash (as unappetizing as that word sounds, it works well). There’s no way to get or easily make injera bread for this wat, so a bed of warm rice it is.

We also like like to add more color to our legume meals, so you can see some of the following in the pictures: red cabbage, steamed swiss chard, green onions.yemisirwat5h

Yemisir Wat

Serves approximately 6 people as a main course with another starch


  • 1-1.5 onions (any type), minced
  • 2-4 garlic cloves minced
  • Thumb-sized amount of ginger, grated
  • 0.5-1 tablespoons berbere (adjust later, depends on how spicy your berbere mix is)
  • 1 cup red lentils
  • 3 cups water
  • Salt/Braggs Liquid Aminos/soy sauce, to taste


Using a medium sized pot or skillet with a lid to be used later, saute onions till almost translucent, then add the garlic and ginger and saute another 1-2 minutes more till fragrant. Add the lentils and water to the pot and cover.  Bring to a boil, then drop the temperature so the liquid is at a simmer.  Let cook for 30 minutes or till the red lentils are broken up, whichever comes first.  Add your choice of saltiness (salt, Braggs, or soy sauce) to taste, and add more berbere as needed.

This is not as traditional, but I’ve added the following before for variety: small diced potatoes, sliced/diced mushrooms, canned coconut milk to taste.

Recipe Notes:

  • I’ve made this before without the ginger (couldn’t find it in the store!) and it tasted just fine.
  • The first kind of berbere mix was The Silk Road brand and I found it quite hot! While I normally like things spicy-hot, it was a bit much so but with not as much flavor as I preferred. My point is that every berbere mix is different and I tried to give a starting amount in the ingredient list with the tip to taste and add more later as needed!
  • I tend to use Braggs Liquid Aminos the most. When I was somewhere else and didn’t have access to it, soy sauce worked quite well. I imagine salt would work, too, but it tends to lack that final umami taste that the former two options can give to foods.
  • Again, I prefer red lentils because they break up into a nice mash. You’re welcome to try other lentils, but don’t expect them to fall apart.

3 thoughts on “Ethiopian lentil stew: yemisir wat

    • What fascinates me is that such a simple recipe (if you can get your hands on berbere) can be so delicious! I can’t believe I’d never been introduced to Ethiopian food sooner. Are there many restaurants out your way?

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