Out of Africa

Traditional Ethiopian food celebrates the shared experience


Forks. Knives. Spoons. You won't find any of these familiar items at an Ethiopian restaurant. Unlike at most dining experiences, you're encouraged to eat with your fingers. And take note: It's culturally preferred to use your right hand for eating, as the left hand is traditionally considered the appendage used for cleaning the body.

Food at an Ethiopian restaurant arrives tableside on a large family-style platter with an oversized spongy, thin, crepe-like flatbread called injera. Made with flour from a gluten-free grain called teff that's native to Northeastern Africa, injera has a slightly tangy flavor reminiscent of sourdough bread. A basketful of injera may also accompany the meal. Unroll it, rip off a piece, and use it to pinch up a scoop of food from the shared platter. Injera's porous surface is perfect for soaking up the stews and mixed vegetables.

You may notice while dining that Ethiopian cuisine closely resembles Indian cuisine. Both cultures expect food to be eaten with your fingers (Ethiopian's injera and Indian's naan), with items presented on a shared plate. Both cultures use clarified butter for cooking (niter kibbeh and ghee), which lends a complexity to dishes that regular butter or oil can't. The similarities are also apparent in spice blends — Ethiopia's berbere is much like India's garam masala. And alicha, a mild Ethiopian split pea curry with ginger, garlic and onions, bears a resemblance to some Indian curries. But the two cuisines reflect their distinct cultural heritages.

Berbere is common in many dishes. A ground powder combining chili peppers, garlic, ginger, basil, koramina and fenugreek, it has a noticeably reddish-orange hue and is mildly spicy with a hint of smokiness. Several Ethiopian stew-like sauces known as "wots" or "wats" gain their flavor from this ground powder.

Doro wat, a thick spicy chicken stew, is one of the most common foods in Ethiopia. Chicken legs are simmered in kibae, a blend of niter kibbeh, berbere, onion and other spices, and then chopped. The secret is to first sauté the onions without oil, causing the moisture to evaporate; niter kibbeh is then added with other spices. The result is a gravy-like consistency that's both sweet and spicy.

Most Ethiopian dishes use the niter kibbeh, which imparts a distinct flavor and is used in place of butter. It's made with a blend of spices including onion, garlic, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon stick, whole cloves, coriander, fenugreek seeds and turmeric, which are simmered on low heat with the butter.

Niter kibbeh is commonplace in tibs, cubes of boneless meats that are sautéed with onion, jalapeños and fresh spices and herbs, such as rosemary, then accompanied by various vegetables. Variations include chicken (yedoro), marinated strips of beef (zilzil), beef (yebere sega), spicy pan-fried beef (yawaze yebere), pan-fried lamb (yebeg sega) and spicy pan-fried lamb (yewaze yebeg).

The flavorful fat is also used in kitfo, a minced, lean beef that's served raw after being mixed with a ground spicy hot pepper, cardamom seed, cloves and salt seasoning called mitmita, seasoned cottage cheese and greens.

Popular vegetarian dishes include gomen, or chopped collard greens with fresh garlic and onion; misir wat, a blend of berbere, onion and herbs with red split lentils; tikil gomen, a lightly spiced cabbage, potato and carrot dish; and yekik alicha, or yellow split peas that are cooked with turmeric, herbs and onion. Most of these dishes are served warm.

During the ritual coffee ceremony, considered an essential part of Ethiopia's social and cultural life, incense is lit, and a woman in traditional Ethiopian dress prepares freshly roasted green coffee beans and grinds them. She then pours everyone a cup, bringing out sugar, salt and accompanying snacks such as a bowl of popcorn.

Recently, one of Jacksonville's Ethiopian spots, Queen of Sheba on Atlantic Boulevard, closed. Earlier this year, Nile Ethiopian (6715 Powers Ave., Ste. 3, San Jose, 731-0005) opened off University Boulevard and Philips Highway. Tucked away in a strip mall beside a Laundromat, Nile's interior is spacious and clean — with simple white walls and a black-and-white checkered floor. There's a small area at the center of the restaurant where the traditional coffee ceremony takes place.

Open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner, Nile is an adventurous destination for a low-key group dinner. This type of experience is best shared with friends or family. 

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