Ethiopia has one of the world’s most singular cuisines, one influenced by foreign ingredients but still wholly its own. It’s a fiery fare that doesn’t require utensils, unlike that of most around the world, and places great importance on bread at the table, a trait shared with France, Italy, Greece, Egypt, India and many other countries. And although meat dishes (even raw ones) play a starring role, so do vegetarian preparations.
Maybe you know some of this already? Maybe you don’t. The point is, America is a country without a border around its appetites: There are as many kinds of cuisines as there are people, and while each of us is probably familiar with the food of our own heritage, and perhaps a few others, as patrons in an increasingly global dining scene, we should strive to understand more. That’s why I’m here to help — with assistance from experts.
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 (which itself is covered in injera). The bread, in short, doubles as a utensil, which brings us to . . .
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, but the grain has often been difficult (and expensive) to source in the United States. The Ethiopian government banned the export of teff and teff flour for nearly a decade, because foreign sales were causing prices to jump in the country. American farmers have just started to fill in the gap.
Even now, with limited exports of teff flour from Ethiopia, the price remains high for the product in America. So injera-makers, such as Meaza Zemedu, owner and chef of Meaza Ethiopian Cuisine in Falls Church, Va., use teff and wheat flour to prepare their flatbreads. It’s a painstaking process that requires Zemedu to ferment the teff batter for three to four days, then combine it with wheat-flour batter before griddling the mixture on a hot mitad grill.
Good injera should be thin, tangy and have a lot of “eyes” — those tiny craters you find in the flatbread, Zemedu says. All-teff injera will be tangier than the hybrid kind found at most Ethiopian restaurants in the United States. At some places, you can order all-teff injera imported from Ethiopia, but it’ll cost you, as much as $2.50 a roll.
The pivot to chiles
Ethiopian cuisine as we know it didn’t come into existence until the 16th century. Or maybe the 17th or 18th centuries. It’s not exactly clear. What’s clearer is that even though Ethiopian food is known for its sometimes-incendiary spices, when, in the 1520s, Francisco Alvares visited the land that would become known as Ethiopia, the Portuguese missionary and explorer ran across no chile peppers during his long stay. At least, Alvares never mentioned one in his copious writings on Ethiopia.
The chile pepper “couldn’t have been there at that time, or he certainly would have mentioned it,” says Kloman, the University of Pittsburgh instructor.
Nearly 250 years later, around 1770, Scottish explorer James Bruce arrived in Ethiopia and found plenty of chile peppers. Hot peppers were probably introduced to Ethiopia by Europeans who brought back plants from the New World, Kloman says. The chiles would dial up the heat levels of Ethiopian dishes, which had previously been spiced with black pepper from India and a native plant called cress.
The spice is right
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 (known as Ethiopian sacred basil), to tamp down the heat. This milder blend is used in a wide variety of dishes. Mitmita is a significantly spicier combination, heavy on peppers such as serrano, and reserved for flamethrowing preparations such as kitfo (a mound of ground beef, often served raw, mixed with mitmita and spiced butter) and dullet (in which tripe is sauteed with mitmita and other ingredients).
Few Ethiopian chefs in the United States dehydrate, grind and mix their own spices and peppers for berbere and mitmita. Instead, they will buy pre-made mixes from the mother country or from American producers, such as Workinesh Spice Blends, in Minnesota. But regardless of a blend’s origin, a chef will try to source one to her particular tastes.
“The spice level can vary, depending on the chef,” says Zenebech Dessu, the founder and chef behind Zenebech Restaurant in Washington. “They can make it more spicy.”
Salt is a key factor in determining the quality of a berbere, say Dessu and her son, Michael Demissie, who helps manage the family restaurant. Inferior berbere blends will be cut with too much salt. “Everything is going to be salty,” Demissie says.
Good for vegetarians
Despite Ethiopia’s affection for raw meat, the country has, by necessity, a deep respect for vegetarian and vegan fare. More than 40 percent of the country’s 106 million residents consider themselves Ethiopian Orthodox, a Christian church that observes as many as 250 “fasting” days. 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, such as 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).
So when your vegetarian friends tire of salads cobbled together from an indifferent kitchen at the latest flavor-of-the-month restaurant, take them to a place that knows how to cater to both meatheads and vegheads: an Ethiopian spot.