Zigni is a delicious spicy & aromatic stew made with berbere seasoning. This recipe shows how to prepare it using poultry, beef, lamb or goat meat.
Zigni is a hugely popular spicy stew in Eritrea, and Ethiopia where it is known as Kai Wat.
Some may say it is the national dish of Eritrea, and it is usually made for special occasions (the traditional recipe takes between 5-6 hours).
Small pieces of poultry or red meat are slow-cooked over a low heat in an onion and tomato based sauce with a good amount of berbere seasoning. It is made using beef, goat meat or lamb.
Zigni is usually eaten with injera, a flatbread made from teff flour, popular throughout East Africa, but can also be served with plain rice.
We have been missing our favourite Eritrean dishes from Mosob (London) so we learned how to make Zigni at home.
I was inspired by this recipe for zigni from The Daring Gourmet but I increased the cooking time to caramelise the onions for a richer and fuller flavour, then added tomatoes and a little vinegar for tanginess.
Traditional Eritrean recipes call for the onions to be cooked slowly on a very low heat for 2 hours till they are reddish brown, caramelised and jam-like.
Cooking the onion for 2 hours stirring and scarping the bottom to make sure they don’t burn gives a most wonderful flavour and if you have time to do so, the result is very rewarding.
However, for convenience this recipe requires the onions are cooked for one hour and this also gives a very delicious sauce.
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Type of meat
If you are able to get hold of goat meat, use younger goat meat and not that of older animal.
I recommend trying zigni with goat meat as not only is it healthier but turns out very tasty.
If you have difficulty find goat meat (it is not always easy to find here in London), lamb is a great alternative as it is also well suited to long slow cooking, or stewing beef.
If using lamb trim most of the fat off. This is what they use for their zigni at Mosob.
For a fuller flavour, use a combination of meat on the bone and boneless.
Chicken also works well for this recipe but you will need to reduce the cooking time to 30 minutes.
Many Eritrean cooks like to use rooster chicken (capon) for its leaner and more flavoursome meat.
There are 3 special ingredients you will need to make zigni:
- Spiced clarified butter
- Berbere spice mix
You should be able to find some of these ingredients in Eritrean/Ethiopian or International food stores.
Spiced clarified butter
Zigni is traditionally made with a spiced clarified butter, similar to ghee but seasoned with spices and herbs.
This butter is known as T’esmi (in Eritrea) or Niter Kibbeh (in Ethiopia), where it is extremely popular. It is also used with slight variations for many other East African dishes.
Tesmi is deliciously fragrant and adds wonderful depth of flavour to many dishes.
I have not been able to find it locally in stores so I make my own. It is very easy to make and a wonderful ingredient to have on hand for a multitude of dishes.
Like ghee, niter kibbeh will keep for up to 6 months in a cool and dry place.
Here is the recipe for how to make spiced clarified butter with suggestions on what to use it for.
Berbere spice mix
Berbere is a blend of herbs and spices and it is what gives many Eritrean and Ethiopian dishes their characteristic red colour.
If you are keen on these cuisines, it is worth keeping a jar of this spice mix to hand as it is used in many meat and vegetables dishes.
You could either buy the berbere mix readymade, or make your own.
If you have time, a homemade berbere spice blend is better as it allows you to adjust the ingredients and amount of chilli to your taste.
It is made by lightly toasting whole spices in a skillet to release their oil, grinding then mixing with other ground spices.
Note: Certain ingredients such as onion, ginger and garlic, have been omitted from this spice mixture as they are already present in our zigni base sauce. If you wish to use this spice mix to add extra flavour to other meat or vegetable dishes just add a little water, some freshly chopped garlic, ginger and red onion before using.
To make the spice mix – In a dry skillet gently roast the following whole spices on a low flame for 1-2 minutes till aromatic then grind to a powder with the dried herbs:
- black cardamom pods
- white cumin seeds
- fenugreek seeds
- black peppercorns
Dried herbs – oregano, thyme, rosemary
Transfer to a small bowl and mix with these ground spices:
- red chilli powder
- coriander powder
This spice mix is best prepared the same day for best flavour but can also be prepared up to a week in advance.
Injera is a round pancake-like flatbread, using teff flour to make a sourdough which is fermented overnight, so it is sour and tangy.
It is soft and spongy with a smooth side and tiny craters on the other side, which help soak up juices and sauce from the food.
One large injera is used to line a large platter/plate and a variety of stews and salad are served in separate portions over the top. Extra injera rolls are usually provided on the side and are always served at room temperature.
If you cannot find injera, Zigni can be eaten with another type of flatbread or plain rice.
Want to try and make it yourself? Try this recipe for injera from Chipa by the Dozen
- Prepare Zigni a day in advance if possible as it tastes even better the next day.
- Use niter kibbeh, spiced ghee (see above) or butter.
- Either finely dice or blend the onions and cook on a very low heat for 1-2 hours, stirring and scraping the bottom to prevent burning. The closer to 2 hours, the more caramelized and jam-like the onions will be, giving a rich sweet flavour.
- The spice mixture is cooked before adding meat to fully release the flavours.
- Zigni is a spicy stew but feel free to adjust the amount of chilli in the berbere spice mix to your taste.
To serve, place one injera on a large serving dish and spoon the Zigni on top so it absorbs the sauce.
Serve with extra rolls of injera and tear to scoop up bite size amounts of zigni.
Store the zigni in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 3 days or freeze for up to a month.
Thaw in the fridge overnight and warm through on a medium low heat before serving.
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Zigni (Eritrean Spicy Stew)
Berbere spice mix
- 4 black cardamoms medium
- 2 teaspoons cumin seeds
- 2 teaspoons fenugreek seeds
- 3 cloves
- 10 black peppercorns
- 1 tablespoon oregano
- ½ teaspoon thyme
- ½ teaspoon rosemary
- 2 teaspoons red chilli powder
- 1 tablespoon hot paprika powder
- 2 teaspoons coriander powder
- ¼ teaspoon cinnamon powder
- a pinch nutmeg powder
- 1 kilos goat meat, lamb, stewing beef, chicken or capon 2 lbs off the bone red meat, cut into small cubes or 3 full birds skin removed and cut into 8 pieces.
- 90 grams red onions 3 cups, diced small
- 1½ tablespoons garlic chopped small
- 1½ tablespoons ginger peeled and chopped small
- 6 tablespoons niter kibbeh ⅓ cup (or T'esmi ) spiced clarified butter see notes below
- 400 grams can tomatoes 14 oz, blended till smooth
- 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
- 1 teaspoon salt adjust to taste
- 4 hard boiled eggs optional
Berbere Spice mix
- 4 black cardamoms, 2 teaspoons cumin seeds, 2 teaspoons fenugreek seeds, 3 cloves, 10 black peppercornsIn a dry skillet on a low flame, gently toast the whole spices for 1-2 minutes till aromatic.
- 1 tablespoon oregano, ½ teaspoon thyme, ½ teaspoon rosemaryGrind together with the dried herbs.
- 2 teaspoons red chilli powder, 1 tablespoon hot paprika powder, 2 teaspoons coriander powder, ¼ teaspoon cinnamon powder, a pinch nutmegTransfer to a small bowl and mix in the powdered spices.
- 6 tablespoons niter kibbeh, 90 grams red onionsIn a large saucepan on medium-low heat, melt 3 tablespoons of niter kibbeh (or ghee), add onions and cover with a lid. Cook till caramelised for 1-2 hours, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to prevent sticking.
- 1½ tablespoons garlic, 1½ tablespoons gingerStir in the garlic and ginger and cook for 10 minutes.
- 6 tablespoons niter kibbeh, 1 teaspoon saltAdd the remaining 3 tablespoons of niter kibbeh (or ghee) and stir in the berbere spices and salt, then cook for another 10 minutes.
- 400 grams can tomatoes, 1 tablespoon white wine vinegarPour in tomatoes and vinegar and cook for a further 10 minutes.
- 1 kilos goat meat, lamb, stewing beef, chicken or capon, 4 hard boiled eggsAdd the meat or poultry and stir well, then cover and simmer on a low heat for 30 minutes (poultry), 60-75 (goat meat), 40 minutes (beef) or 60 minutes (lamb)* till tender.
- Add the boiled eggs in the last 5 minutes of cooking. Serve the zigni warm with injera bread.
The ingredients here on EOTF are set out in grams & milliliters and in US cups & spoons.