Guest Post: Hungry Games: A Ferangie’s Guide to Habesha Cuisine

Another culture rich and educational post from our buddie Hungry Games.

Fun fact: Washington, DC, is home to the largest population of Habeshas (Ethiopians) outside of the country of Ethiopia. That means that this city is THE place to try Ethiopian cuisine if you don’t have the time, money, or inclination to fly over to Addis Ababa for dinner.

A couple years ago, I spent about a month living in Ethiopia over the summer. I am not claiming to be an expert on the food, but I did pick up some knowledge that I’m willing to share with my fellow ferangies (Amharic word for foreigner—whaddup?! You’re getting a language lesson too!)

I asked a few Ethiopians in DC where to get the best food—ok, ok, the survey sample included a friend from Addis, a guy from Gonder who is employed at my local Whole Foods, and a taxi driver who gave me a ride to Union Station. The overwhelming recommendation was Dukem (1114-1118 U St. NW, near 12th). I’ve been there. It’s great. Lalibela (1415 14th St. NW, on P St.) is also a nice spot. I just happened to take my blogger pictures while dining at Etete (1942 9th St. NW—just off U St.), which is also quite good. Dukem probably does have the best food and overall charm, but Lalibela has a cool, local (as in Ethiopian local) feel to it, and Etete is a nice, quiet spot for a meal.

Here are my tips and recommendations for a truly Habesha dining experience:

· Start out with a sambusa. Much like its Indian counterpart (the samosa), it’s a delightful appetizer to kick off your meal. You can get them from street vendors all over Addis, so pretend that you’re wandering the city as you bite into the delicious fried dough filled with lentils, onions and peppers.

· If you want to have a beverage with your meal, the tej (honey wine) is a truly authentic libation. It’s a unique flavor (tastes like mead, if you’ve ever tried that), but it may be an acquired taste.

For beer, order a St. George. It is not the best beer you will ever taste, but every restaurant in Ethiopia carries it. St. George is, after all, a beloved religious figure (he slayed the dragon!).

For something non-alcoholic, Coca Cola or Orange Fanta (if they have it) is the way to go. Most restaurants probably don’t carry soda in a glass bottle, but that’s how they would serve it up if you were in Ethiopia.

· Remember, the food requires no utensils, so fight the urge to pick up the fork that may be on your table. The food will come out on a tray lined with injera (a spongy bread made from a grain called teff, but often made from wheat in the States). You will be given another plate with rolls of injera on it.

Simply pick up a roll, begin to unravel it, and tear off a piece, which you can then use to scoop up the food and pop it in your mouth.

· Ethiopian food is meant to be shared. Order a few things on the menu and have it brought out on the same tray. Then dig in with your friends or family.

I recommend getting a vegetarian combo—often referred to as fasting food in Ethiopia, since Ethiopian Christians observe several periods of fasting where they abstain from meat. This will probably consist of some combination of lentils, cabbage, onions, potatoes, greens, salad, etc.

Throw in an order of doro wat if you like something spicy (this dish is chicken served up with a hardboiled egg, which I always found a little ironic). It’s also hard to go wrong with tibs (barbeque meat usually cooked with jalapeno peppers and onions). I like the lamb or beef.

If you’re feeling swanky, kitfo (like buttery beef tartar) is a delicacy. I’m sorry to admit that I’ve never actually tried it. It just didn’t seem like a wise idea to eat raw meat in a developing country…

· Be forewarned, most Ethiopian food is SPICY. Much of it is flavored with berbere (main ingredient: ground hot chili peppers). It’s also very common for jalapeno peppers to find their way into the food.

I hope this helps make your Ethiopian dining experience successful. When you leave the restaurant, be sure to say “ameseginalehu” (thank you) to your server before you say “ciao!” (Brief history lesson: Ethiopia was occupied by Italy for a couple years around World War II. If you happen to be travelling there and don’t have a taste for the native cuisine, there is no shortage of pasta dishes and Italian pastry shops.)

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