“It’s sort of a cross between a pancake and an ace bandage”
That was my dad’s first reaction to injera. Well, his first reaction after he found out that the rolls of stretchy tan stuff weren’t little hand towels, but actually part of his meal. He had decided that since I was marrying an Ethiopian, he ought to familiarize himself with the cuisine. Dad is a well-travelled, well-read, guy with ecclectic taste in everything from music to food, but Ethiopian cuisine was something new and different, even for him.
The base of every Ethiopian meal is injera. This is made from teff flour, which is combined with water and allowed to ferment. It is cooked only on one side, in a large, round circle. The result is that one side is smooth, and the other is full of tiny little bubbles. You can see already that this is not your ordinary meal. Usually, one large injera is placed on a platter, and a variety of wat (stews) are ladeled onto it. Then more injera is torn into strips, rolled up, and placed nearby. One doesn’t used knives and forks to eat Ethiopian food – injera is the untensil of choice. After pulling a piece of injera from the roll, you must hold it in your right hand, and use it to pick up a bite of wat. There is a learning curve, and your first few bites may be quite messy.
This term covers a huge variety of tastes and textures. “Wat” just means stew. That sounds rather bland, but believe me, Ethiopian stew is anything but bland. Wat can be sweat-inducing hot chicken with boiled eggs (“Doro wat”) or a vegetable toss, or a few greens with crumbled cheese (“alicha”). There is beef “tibs” and lamb “tibs ” (meat chopped finely and mildly spiced) as well as “kitfo”, which involves raw meat and may not be something you want to try, although it is popular in Ethiopia. Besides stews, one can also get things such as an interesting chick-pea dish (“butecha”) which is delicious even though it looks like crumbled hard-boiled egg yolks, lentil soups, and of course, the ubiquitous samoosa.
Traditionally, Ethiopians eat their injera b’wat seated on low stools around a small woven table called a mesob. Usually, the mesob is woven with many brightly colored fibers, and the design alone will keep you occupied while you wait for your food. The small size of the table and the traditional “one-pot” style of eating (meaning, you don’t get seperate plates) forces diners to lean forward and interact with each other over the fragrant, colorful stews. Although conditions can be rather crowded, the requirement of eating with one’s right hand does away with any elbow-bumping issues.
Don’t forget to order coffee at the end of the meal, or spiced chai. Either way is a delicious end to the meal, and as Ethiopians tell it, they invented coffee (or at least discovered it), so you are guaranteed an excellent cup of the stuff. Some restaurants may perform the coffee ceremony for you, which is another wonderful part of Ethiopian culture.
The above describes traditional Ethiopian foods and eating style. If, however, you are unable to leave Western sensibilities behind altogether, most Ethiopian restaurants will provide you with milder sauces, a regular table, chair, silverware, and even a seperate plate, should you so desire. Personally, though, I think that immersing oneself in the culture and tradition of Ethiopian eating adds a little something to the enjoyment of the food. If you’re adventurous and have access to the ingredients required (most can be found at natural food stores, or Asian groceries), you may even want to try dishing up a little injera b’wat in your own home.
Wherever you find Ethiopian cuisine, be certain of this: It will be a unique and extremely enjoyable meal!