Exotic Eating: Ethiopian Food

My first time eating Ethiopian food showed me how dining experiences can vary from different cultures.  For one thing, when you walk into an Ethiopian restaurant, you won’t find any silverware on your table. If you’re going to eat Ethiopian food, you’ll be eating it with your hands.  As such, you’d better make sure your hands are good and clean before you eat. Just in case you forgot, most restaurants will provide moist towelettes to wipe your hands before eating. I was surprised that my boyfriend offered to take me to his favorite Ethiopian restaurant. As much as a foodie as I am, I did not know what to expect. This was only a start to my adventure to try authentic Ethiopian cuisine.

Injera

My first taste of injera is an experience I will never forget. It’s the national staple and the base of almost every meal in Ethiopia. It is spread out like a large, thin pancake, and the food is simply heaped on top of it. At first, I have mistaken it for washcloths, since the waitress served extra injera rolled up beside the food on a separate plate.

Besides looking like a washcloth, my first impression of injera was not too positive at first! The overwhelmingly sour taste can be enough to make you want to gag, but my boyfriend told me to give it another taste and “it will start to grow on you.” The sour taste does contrast beautifully with the spicy sauces it was served with. Like with any bread, it is filling and it does a fantastic job wrapping around small pieces of food and soaking up juices. It’s also much easier to carry on the plate and it doesn’t fall apart. Injera is quite a clever way to eat your food.

Although grades and nuances do exist with injera, you may become a connoisseur with a bit of time and perseverance. Low-quality injera is traditionally dark, coarse, very thick and is made from millet or even sorghum. Good-quality injera is paler, regular in thickness, smooth, free of husks, and always made with the indigenous Ethiopian grain called teff. Because teff grows only in the highlands of Ethiopia, the best injera is traditionally found there.

Wat

Wat is Ethiopia’s version of curry and the companion to injera. Since wat can be very spicy, injera helps to temper the heat. Sometimes lamb is the most common constituent of wat, as well as beef, chicken, and goat. In my boyfriend’s opinion, Chicken is the best and doro wat (which is made with chicken) is practically the national dish of Ethiopia. Ethiopian Christians, as well as Muslims, avoid eating pork.

There are also various vegetarian versions of wat that are available. It is a big treat for the ordinary Ethiopian to eat meat, so a variety of vegetables are served alongside a meal or as a combination.  I ordered a vegetarian platter for one, which came with a combination of Split Peas, Lentil, Chickpeas, cabbage, collard greens, and spicy peppers. If you’re ravenous to try it on an empty stomach, it is just the ticket as it is very filling. Depending on your taste, it can be either bland and disgusting or tasty and divine. If it’s too bland, ask for a heap of berbere (sauce) on the side since the vegetables are served warmed but not cooked, though you can ask for it to be spicy. The special is served with minced spinach.

My boyfriend ordered a Kai wat, which is a stew of meat boiled in a spicy (thanks to a ton of berbere) red sauce. Kai sauce is also used for minchet abesh, which is a thick minced-meat stew topped with a hard-boiled egg. It is one of my boyfriend’s favourites, particularly with dry cottage cheese. Most Ethiopians seem to be under the impression that all Canadians are terrified of spicy food, so unless you specifically ask for kai wat, you’ll often be served the yellow coloured alicha wat, which is much milder and duller tasting.

Wine & Coffee

The best drink to have with Ethiopian food is a honey wine called Tej. In a glass, it looks like white wine, but to taste it, my tongue found that it has a smooth, mellow taste as the sweetness of honey balances the acidity of the wine. Ethiopians traditionally aren’t big on drinking wine during the course of the meal, so it’s a good way to conclude dinner by itself.

As such, don’t be surprised if one of your recommendations is to have a standard cup of Ethiopian coffee. Ethiopia is where the coffee bean originally came from. Typically, you can order espresso, but there are other blends available to cater to westerners’ taste. The way that it is usually served in Ethiopia, some natives drink it with salt though sugar is much popular with us. The Ethiopian coffee bean is much stronger than what I’m used to, but I like the blend with sugar.

Final Thoughts

Between the food and the ambiance, eating Ethiopian cuisine is an exotic experience that can be interactive for couples and first-time dates. The spiciness can vary and the food is oftentimes healthy. If you’re having problems with ordering, I find that the staff is very helpful and knowledgeable about anything from eating technique and history to pronouncing the names of the various food and drinks on the menu. Since my boyfriend has eaten Ethiopian food plenty of times, he was able to coach me through my first time. I think I will come back and try another dish in the future.

 

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