HOW MANY CHOICES are too many choices?

At Ethiopia Restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., the menu boasts 792 of them when you order its beyaynetu, the Amharic word that refers to a combination platter of numerous vegetarian dishes.

The restaurant prepares 12 vegetarian dishes, and the beyaynetu lets you choose five. Do the math and you can concoct 792 five-dish combinations out of those 12 choices where no two combinations have the same five dishes.

It’s a mathematical equation called a combination factorial, and you can apply it to the menu of any Ethiopian restaurant that offers a beyaynetu.

Here’s how it figures.

In the equation, N is the number of dishes from which you can choose, and K is the number that you may choose for your platter. So at the Berkeley restaurant, N = 12 and K = 5.

First, multiply 12 x 11 x 10 x 9 x 8: That’s N (12) multiplied down by K (five) ascending numbers. That comes to 95,040. Next, multiply K down to one: 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1. That’s 120. Finally, divide 95,040 by 120, and you get 792.

Let’s try another one. Say your menu offers 10 veggie dishes, and the beyaynetu allows you to select four of them. N = 10 and K = 4. Here’s what you get:

(10 x 9 x 8 x 7) ÷ (4 x 3 x 2 x 1) = 5,040 ÷ 24 = 210

Not quite as many, but still enough to have your server tapping her foot impatiently while you decide. It’s really very simple, so try it yourself next time you’re at an Ethiopian restaurant. But if you’re just terrible at math, you can use this online calculator to do it for you (use the “Combinations” option).

Here are a few other beyaynetu facts:

♦ The word in Tigrinya for a combination platter is hiwswas, and the word in Afaan Oromo is walmaka. These words mean “combination” or “variety.”

♦ A beyaynetu is vegetarian. But if you add meat, it becomes a beyaynetu b’siga, where siga is the Amharic word for meat. It’s a bit of a paradox.

♦ During the Easter fasting season, Ethiopian Christians eat no meat. When the season ends, they enjoy a feast that brings meat back to the table. This festive meal is called yefisik beyaynetu – Fasika is the Amharic word for Easter, and the reference to it in the name emphasizes the celebratory nature of the meal, as well as the fact that the table welcomes the return of meat (usually beef or lamb, but sometimes chicken).

♦ Or you can call your basic vegetarian beyaynetu a ye’tsom wot or a ye’tsom beyaynetu. The word tsom means fast – as in, you fast from eating meat during the Easter season. Wot is the word for spicy stews, although not every dish on a beyaynetu will be spicy.

♦ According to a national survey, the five most popular dishes on a beyaynetu are misir wot (spicy red lentils), shiro (spicy pea powder), butecha (chick peas), duba wot (pumpkin) and inguday tibs (mushrooms). Actually, there was no survey: Those are just five of my favorites, which you can learn more about in my book Mesob Across America: Ethiopian Food in the U.S.A. And don’t miss out on trying some azifa (a cold green lentil dish) and tikil gomen (cabbage). Oh, okay: It’s all good, even gomen (collard greens), a dish I once didn’t like, but which I now make myself.

A beyaynetu is always your best option at an Ethiopian restaurant, especially for first-timers, because you get to sample a lot of dishes. And if you’re feasting with a group, you can order several meat entrées to accompany it – and get a test of almost everything on the menu.

Harry Kloman

University of Pittsburgh