Words By Tim Carman, (c) 2018, The Washington Post
Ethiopia has one of the world’s most singular cuisines. It’s a fiery fare that doesn’t require utensils and places great importance on bread at the table. Although meat dishes play a starring role, so do vegetarian preparations.
Eating with your hands
For those who were raised to use the proper utensil for every course, an Ethiopian restaurant can be an intimidating place. There is no silverware, and sometimes a proprietor may be resistant to cater to Westerners and their love of flatware.
Harry Kloman, a journalism instructor at the University of Pittsburgh who writes extensively about Ethiopian cuisine, remembers when the owner of an Ethiopian restaurant in Milwaukee told him, “They have to ask me three times before I remember to bring it out.”
Utensils are not impossible to find in Ethiopian restaurants or in the home country. The raw beef dish known as tere sega, or kurt, is served with a steak knife, used to slice the slabs of cow round into manageable bites. Back in Ethiopia, the Gurage people of the south-central highlands often use long wooden spoons to eat their kitfo, Kloman notes.
But otherwise, an Ethiopian meal is a feast for the hands, a tactile experience in which a diner tears off a piece of injera flatbread and uses it to scoop up the stews and salads that cover a communal platter.
A bread unlike any other
Teff is a tiny grain – about the size of a grain of sand – that has been cultivated in Ethiopia for nearly 2,000 years. Back in the home country, injera is made from 100 percent teff flour.
Chile peppers are the prime ingredient in two spice blends that dominate Ethiopian cooking: berbere and mitmita.
Berbere is a complex, brick-red blend in which chile peppers are cut with a fair number of other ingredients, including cinnamon and besobela. Besobela is known as Ethiopian sacred basil and is used to tamp down the heat.
Mitmita is a significantly spicier combination. It is heavy on peppers such as serrano, and reserved for flame-throwing preparations such as dullet and kitfo.
Kitfo is a mound of ground beef, often served raw, mixed with mitmita and spiced butter. Dullet is made with tripe and is sauteed with mitmita and other ingredients.
Good for vegetarians
More than 40 percent of Ethiopia’s 106 million residents consider themselves Ethiopian Orthodox. During fasting periods, the observant will typically eat only once a day, usually around midday or evening, and the meal will not include meat, fats, eggs or dairy.
“That’s why vegetarian meals are so important,” Kloman says.
Ethiopian cooks have therefore become experts at developing veg dishes with lots of flavor. Misir wat, in which red lentils are goosed with berbere and tikel gomen,, a dish in which cabbage, carrots and potatoes are elevated with turmeric, ginger and cumin are just 2 of these dishes.
Featured Image: Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post