Everyone has a fetish. Some collect shoes…others are tech-junkies, holding onto chargers for outdated equipment. Me, I’m a spice hoarder. On last count, 243 spices and seasonings are packed into my small Manhattan kitchen. Several are half-used, and many remain unopened, still wrapped in ethnic pouches with colorful labels alluding to exotic towns yet to be visited.
Oftentimes I feel like the biblical Queen of Sheba, who traveled the length of Egypt and Ethiopia, by camel, to visit King Solomon, bringing with her frankincense, myrrh, precious jewels, and an abundance of exotic spices.
My first memories of Ethiopian cuisine came from dining with my paternal grandfather who, like many of his Sindhi brethren, traveled from the Indian diaspora to seek fortunes abroad. He landed in Asmara, made a fortune there, and subsequently lost everything in the Eritrean-Ethiopian War (1998-2000).
Grandpa came back to India with plenty of colorful stories and delightful recipes for Ethiopian wots (stews) and small plates, like azifa, a deceptively innocent looking hummus made with green lentils, onions, chili peppers, and finished off with pungent, mustard vinaigrette.
He compared Ethiopian food to Indian cuisine — a spicy labor of love that is devoured with your fingers. The first Westerners that arrived in Addis Ababa thought the custom of eating without cutlery was barbaric, but if you ask me, I think its finger-licking fine.
Instead of a fork, try using injera, a spongy sort of sourdough-tasting pancake — like an edible doily made out of teff flour — to scoop up the food on the platter. Served family style, an entire Ethiopian meal consists of three or four meat stews and a few vegetables dishes, which are plated on one injera and shared.
The same Eritrean-Ethiopian war that brought my grandfather back home also saw the immigration of many Ethiopians to the United States, especially to Washington D.C, Los Angeles, and the Big Apple. Reportedly, NYC has over 10,000 Ethiopians, mostly in Parkchester in the Bronx, Flushing Queens, and Washington Heights, and is also home to the largest number of Ethiopian Jews in America.
One day when I was feeling especially ambitious, I thought I’d surprise my husband with Ethiopia’s native dish, doro wot – a thick and tasty chicken stew that is slow-cooked with onions, berbere, and kibe (an Ethiopian clarified butter flavored with garlic, ginger and spices), served up prettily with a half-cut hard-boiled egg. I had the spices on hand, so how hard could it be? I YouTubed the recipe, but after a few hours, I realized that this was a dish best left to the pros.
Fortunately, there are many Ethiopian restaurants to choose from in the City, including: Awash, Abyssinia, Ghenet, and Queen of Sheba.
Chef Philipos Mengistu of Queen of Sheba welcomes everyone humbly and happily. The restaurant feels instantly authentic, its guests a mixture of Westerners and ethnically dressed Ethiopians. Simply decorated with African masks and casual art, the wicker tables (mesaba) are surrounded by low stools, and with the burning incense and strong Ethiopian coffee brewing, a telling aroma of spices is omnipresent.
I start off with a Kategna, a delightful toasted injera with a judicious smattering of awaze -- a spicy berbere paste and kibe.
Chef Mengistu suggested trying a tibs wot. He lovingly seared and caramelized the diced, lean beef; then after more stirring and lots of patience, he added the spices and let it continue to cook. The result was a perfectly flavored, melt-in-your-mouth dish that paired well with Tej, a golden and velvety honey mead.
No meal is complete without a variety of vegetables, which are prepared and kept warm, or served at room temperature while the wots are cooking. My favorite is atakit wot, fresh string beans and long cut carrots, slowly cooked in a mildly piquant tomato sauce.
I suggest bringing wet wipes and a hearty appetite when visiting an Ethiopian restaurant. Then, finish up with a strong Ethiopian coffee from the country that claims to have discovered the magic beans.
After the meal, catch a football match at Van Cortlandt Park, where the New York Abay Ethiopian Sports Club (NYAESC) practices, or burn off those calories by doing a few laps around the Park yourself, alongside a New York City marathon finisher.