Adding Eritrea to Montana’s culinary table (2023)

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JON BENNIONfor Lee Montana Newspapers

The fabric of our state is woven by the rich traditions and heritages of so many people, including families and individuals who are newer arrivals. This includes people like Takea, a Montanan who arrived from the east African country of Eritrea.

Takea came to Big Sky Country in 2017. Migration anywhere is often the result of people seeking new opportunities or fleeing conflict. For Takea it was the latter. She spent many years in a humanitarian camp with everything turned upside down as she wondered whether life in her home country of Eritrea would ever be the same.

Eritrea is a country on the Horn of Africa that borders the Red Sea and has historic ties to Ethiopia. It’s roughly a third the size of Montana in land mass, but has five times the population. It gained its independence in 1991, but internal and neighboring conflicts have meant much of the nation’s recent history is rather tumultuous.

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When Montana became the destination for Takea’s new beginnings, she didn’t know much about the Treasure State. But the hope of a stable environment to raise her family, contribute to a community, and place new roots was a welcome, life-changing opportunity.

Takea could win an award for the longest distance traveled to become a Montanan. Nearly 8,000 miles separates Missoula from her home city of Teseney, Eritrea. I could also give an even more important award to her for one of the best dinners I’ve had in a long time featuring many “new-to-me” homemade Eritrean classics.

As she worked on the scratch-made dishes in her home kitchen, she explained to me that cooking isn’t just something she has to do. She loves to cook. And it was evident in the labor of love I witnessed as she started many Eritrean classics right before my eyes. I am forever grateful for her family inviting me— a total stranger— into her home for a memorable meal.

Featured in this delicious spread were a soft, spongy flatbread called “injera,” a lentil and berbere stew called “tshebi birsen,” a delicious and fresh salad, and a vegetable stew of carrots, potatoes, and cabbage called “atakilt wat.” As is traditionally done, the injera was used as a utensil to grab portions of the main dishes that we shared in a communal way that made the experience more special for me.

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During my evening with Takea and her family, she told me how people and connections are both the regrets of having to leave her home country while also being a benefit of coming to Montana. The separation from family and friends in Eritrea is what she misses most. On the culinary side, it can also be difficult to find some of the spice blends and other ingredients of the quality she was used to in Eritrea.

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But the people of Montana are also the highlight of her new surroundings. And when I ask her if there are any new foods she has discovered since arriving in Missoula, she cracks a smile and says she is partial to a cheeseburger and plentiful fries at Five Guys.

While beef, goat, chicken and lamb can be proteins found on their tables, lentils are also very common in the Eritrean diet. Knowing this ahead of our dinner, I made sure to bring some Montana-grown Timeless Foods lentils to Takea’s house as a gift.

For those fellow Montanans hoping to start on a basic, but special, Eritrean food, Takea suggested a celebratory bread called “himbasha.” It’s got a tiny sweet edge that is complemented nicely by orange zest (you can add in other fruit like huckleberries, too!). It was perfect with the Eritrea coffee they roasted on a hot plate burner in their living room right before my eyes. Just before cooking the bread in a Montana cast iron pan, she carefully designed a beautiful pattern with her own unique artistic touch.

As we ate the himbasha and drank the freshly roasted coffee prepared in the Eritrean style, the family pulled up a social media quiz with many sample American citizenship test questions. They took great pleasure in answering these questions that many life-long citizens couldn’t answer (do you know the names of the three longest rivers in the U.S.?). Takea beamed when she expressed the steps she is taking to become an American citizen, which she hopes to do in the coming months after years of clearing the appropriate hurdles.

Reflecting back on this evening, I can’t help but think how this delicious dinner and discussion enriched my year, and how these newer Montanans will help enrich the Big Sky County landscape in the years to come. Here’s hoping our state can have some Eritrean culture and food woven into its permanent fabric.

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Author’s Note: Special thanks to Soft Landing in Missoula for helping to arrange this meeting. The author’s proceeds from this column have been donated to the organization. If you want to learn more about Soft Landing and help new Montanans like Takea, go to

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Takea's Eritrean Himbasha


2 cups all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons sugar

1 package of instant yeast

½ teaspoon salt - ½ teaspon

2 tablespoon canola or vegetable oil, plus 2 teaspoons for the pan

1/2 - 3/4 cup warm water

1 teaspoon sesame seeds

1/2 teaspoon cardamom powder

1 tablespoon fresh orange zest


In a large bowl, add the flour, instant yeast, sugar, salt, cardamom powder and sesame seeds. Mix well to combine. Add your orange zest and oil and mix once to combine. Slowly add warm water to make a soft dough. Knead for about 7-10 minutes to get a soft and non-sticky dough. Cover the dough and let it rest until doubled in volume (about 1-2 hours).

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Once the dough has risen, punch it down gently. Grease a cast-iron skillet, or if you prefer to do this in the oven, a 9-inch cake pan or any oven safe pan. Place the dough and spread it evenly across the pan. The dough may retract back. If so, rest for 5 minutes and then stretch again. Cover the pan and let it rest for about 30 to 45 minutes or until the dough is puffy.

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Using a blunt knife, make patterns on the dough, like a wheel. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Bake for 25-35 minutes, or until the himbasha is golden brown on top. You can also cook on the stove top on medium-low heat for about 5 minutes on one side covered with foil. Flip the himbasha and cook covered for another 5 minutes, or until both sides are golden brown.

Jon Bennion is a native Montanan, born and raised in Billings. Outside of his day job as an attorney, you can find Jon experimenting in the kitchen and developing recipes that often feature a Montana ingredient or story. Jon posts on Instagram as Intermediate Chef (@intermediatechef) and lives in Clancy.


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