Silsi is a spicy, tangy tomato sauce fortified with onions and carrots and seasoned with berbere, the defining spice of Eritrean cooking. It likely arose out of the mingling of Italian and Eritrean food culture following Italian colonization at the turn of the 20th century. (Berbere seasoning is a ubiquitous spice blend in Ethio-Eritrean cuisine. If you plan on doing any Ethiopian or Eritrean cooking, it’s an absolute must-have. For more information on this spice mix and a recipe for making it at home, click here.)
How to Use Silsi
Silsi is like any thick, chunky tomato sauce but with a more flavourful kick. You don’t have to limit yourself to Eritrean recipes when using it: it works well in this Afghan eggplant casserole or over this spinach pici pasta. You can even dollop a few spoonfuls into this Turkish lentil soup or this okra chickpea stew.
I’ve even eaten it cold, dipping into it with leftover bread or injera scraps. And apparently, silsi is regularly enjoyed for breakfast in Eritrea. What I’m saying is, try adding it to whatever tomatoey recipe you’re making, and you can’t go wrong. Below are a couple of classic Eritrean recipes that use silsi:
Pasta al Sugo e Berbere
As residents of a former Italian colony, Eritreans eat loads of pasta. Pasta al sugo e berbere is a prime example of Eritrean-Italian fusion cuisine: it’s basically spaghetti tossed in a Bolognese sauce that’s seasoned with berbere. You can use silsi in place of tomato sauce in pretty much any pasta recipe, as they do in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea.
For this meal, I cooked 75 g of Catelli Smart® spaghetti in just enough water to cover, then stirred in 3/4 cups of silsi.
Eritrean Fata (ፋታ)
Fata (ፋታ in Tigrinya) is an Eritrean lunch specialty that is somewhat similar to the Italian panzanella salad. But instead of fresh sliced tomatoes, it uses warm silsi sauce. The full name of this dish is “fata mis celeste banee,” which means “fata with three bread.” It’s as simple as tearing up three crusty bread rolls into a bowl and dousing them in silsi. To be extra #fancy, you can top it with some yogurt (I used Silk soy yogurt) and jalapeño peppers.
Ngl, I enjoy fata way more than panzanella. Maybe that’s because this is less salad-like to me, and you know I’m biased against salads!
For over half a century in the not-so-distant past, Italy colonized various parts of Eritrea. The former has left its mark on the latter in many ways, not least of which is food. (In fact, Eritrea’s traditional dishes can be roughly classified into three cultures: Muslim, Orthodox Christian, and Italian.) But this relationship goes both ways, as Eritrean cuisine has gained footholds in Italy as well. Tomatoes and pasta are two staple foods that were popularized by Italians in Eritrea.
I couldn’t find many sources on the origins of silsi, but this source implies that it came about following Italian colonization. That makes sense to me given its similarity to Italian tomato sauce recipes. But if you know more about silsi’s history, please share it with me and I will update this post.
How are you using silsi in your cooking? I’d like to hear about your creations, so comment below with what you’ve cooked up!
Silsi (Eritrean Tomato Sauce)
- 1/4 cup sunflower oil or other neutral oil 50 g; see
- 1 large red onion or 2 small 300 g
- 1 carrot 100 g
- 1 jalapeño pepper 20 g *optional
- 1–2 tbsp berbere seasoning use
this homemade recipeor a storebought version
- 1 tbsp tomato paste 15 g
- 1 large tomato or 1/2 can diced tomatoes 400 g
- 1/2 head garlic 25 g
- 1/2 tsp fine salt or 3/4 tsp kosher salt 3 g
- 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
- 1 tbsp lemon juice 15 g *optional
- Shred the onion, carrot, and jalapeno pepper using a grater or food processor (I find that this gives me a better texture than dicing; it's important to get the veggies chopped very fine but but not puréed).
- Pour 1/4 cup oil into a saucepan on medium heat, then add the shredded veggies. Sauté for around ten minutes or until the onions are lightly caramelized and starting to stick to the pan.
- Meanwhile, chop the tomato (400g) and mince the garlic (25g), or pulse together in a food processor.
- Add 1–2 tbsp berbere seasoning and 1 tbsp tomato paste to the saucepan and sauté for another minute, then add the chopped tomato and garlic, along with salt and black pepper.
- Lower the heat to minimum and simmer, uncovered, for 30–45 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking and burning on the bottom.
- When the tomatoes have broken down and the sauce is a nice thick consistency, remove from heat and squeeze in 1 tbsp lemon juice.
- I don’t remember where I read this, so take it with a grain of salt, but apparently sunflower seed oil is the most popular cooking oil available in Eritrea. Any neutral-tasting oil is fine for this recipe.
Nutrition, Cost, and Emissions Information
Each 1/2-cup serving of Eritrean silsi is 185 cal, costs $0.67, and releases 378 gCO2e of carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
Calculation for full recipe as written (4 servings):
Feel free to contact me for sources on the nutritional and carbon emissions information presented here. Note that I am not a nutritionist and guidelines on this page are provided for informational purposes only.