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Teach me about Ethiopian food

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There is a thread going about Ethiopian food and food allergy, so I though I would post this query in a separate thread:

I had a bad experience with Ethiopian food over 15 years ago: At school a friend's mom owned a local Ethiopian resto and he told me to go there and try it. I went in with some friends, it was in walking distance from our neighborhood. When we got there, his mom kept giving us more and more food and it was terrible, inedibly bad. But we had to pretend we were eating it. His mom and aunties hovered and kept checking on us and we were shifting the food around on the plate and didn't know what to do. It was just gross. Specifically, the flavors were muddy, the food was greazy, and even though everyone at our table was a chile eater and loved spicy food, the food was fiery hot and all we could taste was red chiles. Then at school the next day I had to lie and say it was great! I didn't want to hurt my friend's feelings about his mom's resto and his family's national cuisine. Anyway, I have never eaten Ethiopian food again. I realized that it was just a bad restaurant, and that I should give Ethiopian food another chance. We have two Ethiopian places in town for me to try. But where to begin? I am very adventurous in what I eat, but truthfully I only get into new cuisines when I have friends who turn me on to them and can give input and guidance. I don't like not knowing what to order and not knowing how to eat the food properly to get the best flavors and experience. Maybe I am not truly adventurous.

So can you guide me?

What are the gateway foods that a person should try...names and description? How to eat the food, what goes with what? What flavors are the backbone of the cuisine? Tell me all about Ethiopian, inspire me to try again.

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  1. If you go with at least one other person, there is almost always a "combo platter" of the most popular dishes available on the menu for a set price. Usually includes doro wat (sort of like a chicken curry, can be spicy but not too much) and some greens, lentils or chickpeas, maybe a lamb or ground beef as well. There should also be vegetarian platters if you're a vegetarian. Collard greens and cabbage with carrots are pretty standard, as well.

    Basically, just trust the restaurant and the wait staff to tell you what are the most popular dishes. Tell them what you're looking for and what level of "adventure" you're going for, and I'm sure they'll understand. They must have tons of people who have never eaten their cuisine before come in every single day.

    ETA: Derek tibs is traditionally chunks of raw beef, but in a lot of Ethiopian restaurants in the country, they cook the beef.

    2 Replies
    1. re: yfunk3

      I thought kitfo was also raw spiced beef, ground, a la steak tartare? Is that just a different name? Anyway that's my fave.

      Of course it all comes with injera, which is addictive, spongy, sour-ish flatbread.

      1. re: tatamagouche

        Kitfo, yes. Sorry! Mixing up my Ethiopian dishes! Whoops...

    2. Try their doro wot, like yfunk3 suggested-it is extremely popular (and said to be their national dish). Basically, it's a stew made from different spices, onions, ginger, and spiced butter with chicken (usually a drumstick) and a hardboiled egg. The sauce is absolutely delicious when it gets soaked into the injera-that's my favorite part.

      Another dish worth trying is any kind of "tibs" dish-it is drier than the wots (stews) . Siga tibs (beef, many times cooked with onions and peppers) or zilzil tibs (beef, but spices vary among restaurants) are good ones to try.

      1 Reply
      1. re: twj

        lamb tibs made with halal lamb is my preference. many ethiopian restaurants also offer catfish dishes that are popular.

        a lentil or meat stew: wat-- would be a good intro dish for a solo diner, but it's more fun to go in a group and be able to enjoy more items "family style." one of my favorite vegetarian dishes is called atkilt, it's a simple sort of vegetable stew/curry with cabbage, potato, carrot, onion, and spiced butter.

        i agree that most places offer a "sampler" platter, either mix/match or pre-selected by the restaurant, of meat or vegetarian dishes served right on a big injera, with more injera on the side to use to eat everything with hands. this is already aimed at folks unfamiliar with the cuisine and features the most novice-friendly or "greatest hits" dishes. try a sampler and decide if you like the restaurant's general presentation and flavor, then go back and start to explore the whole menu. forget your first bad experience and just have fun and enjoy.

      2. The names of the dishes are confusing and the bread is certainly unique but the dishes themselves use readily recognizable ingredients - lamb, beef, chicken, fish (around here, only tilapia that I know of), green beans and carrots (fasolia), onions, beets, cabbage, collards, chickpeas, lentils, spiced butter. On each table should be a shaker of mitmita, the ground African bird’s eye pepper that is used for heat, not black pepper. There will be chilled salads including lettuce and tomato but also moistened injera. A particular favorite of mine is sufe fitfit - injera mixed with sesame juice and served chilled.

        Proper etiquette would be to eat only with your right hand, tearing off a piece of the injera to use as a wrap to pinch a bite of food and bring it to your mouth. Mostly it seems Ethiopians consume the bread with the bite but I find the injera very filling and sometimes use a piece to pick up several bites. You can combine different elements on the plate - which is a piece of injera you’re supposed to eat - in a single mouthful if you like.

        Doro Wot, described above, is the national dish, while places around here always claim kitfo or kitfoo - the Ethiopian version of steak tartare - is the favorite among diners. This can also be ordered slightly cooked (lublub) and some places even offer to cook it well done. There will also be a combo plate of several of the vegetable wots (and sometimes a combo plate of several of the meat wots, although that might be quite expensive). Most places seem to include samples of about 5 or 6 of the vegetable wots but one place here presented samples of 13 different wots, and that was my first experience at an Ethiopian restaurant so I got a chance to sample a lot. I always go for either the Doro Wat, Kitfo, or veg combo plate the first time at a new place and have never been disappointed. A meat dish should be accompanied by a couple of the sides and you may or may not get to choose which ones you want.

        There are some dishes I don’t care for. Gomen, collards, has always been extremely bitter when I’ve had it, more bitter than any other collard dish I’ve ever had, and I don’t like it. I don’t care for the pureed chickpea dish, Shiro Wot, mostly because the texture isn’t as interesting as other chickpea preparations, especially Shimbra Asa, which involves chickpea flour dumplings. I’ve also had another raw beef dish, Gored Gored, which involves chunks rather than minced beef and was quite tough and not that well spiced the one time I tried it.

        Another thing I really like is aib or ayeb, Ethiopian slightly sour cottage cheese, made from buttermilk, I think. It may accompany another dish but I’ve never seen it on a menu separately.

        Except for one place located too close to an elementary school, the places here serve alcohol including Ethiopian wine and beer. I always just drink water and look forward to finishing the meal with a cup of Ethiopian coffee, with lots of sugar. Only one place here offers the full Ethiopian coffee ceremony; that would be something to share with fellow diners, I think.

        Go and enjoy and please report back. I’m still learning and I’ll look forward to your report.