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Qocho on an enset leaf

HUNGRY FOR SOME doro tibs, misir wot, kitfo or gomen, the dishes that come from the politically dominant northern Amhari-Tigrayan cultures? Just find any Ethiopian restaurant and you’ll find what you crave. How about some chechebsa, a treat from the majority Oromo culture? Although it’s harder to find, more and more restaurants now serve it.

But if you want qocho, you’ll have to do some traveling: Only a handful of Ethiopian restaurants in the U.S. serve this unusual and hard-to-get food, and I recently visited four of them in Washington, D.C., and its Virginia and Maryland suburbs.

Qocho is made from enset, a plant (and food source) that’s important in the majority Oromo culture, and that’s especially cherished by Ethiopia’s well-known southern Gurage people, who make up only 2.5 percent of the population, and who contributed kitfo (raw seasoned ground beef) to the national cuisine. The staple meats and vegetables needed to make all other Ethiopian dishes, which the Gurage also enjoy, are easy to get in the U.S. Not so for qocho – or kocho, as it’s sometimes less accurately transliterated from Amharic.

Enset in Ethiopia

The enset plant – sometimes called “the tree against hunger,” because of its importance – grows in many parts of Africa and Asia, and it’s often called the false banana because it resembles a banana plant. But enset produces no edible fruit, so the Gurage and other Ethiopian cultures eat the tree itself. (At the end of this entry, I’ll offer links to videos that show how Ethiopians harvest enset and prepare qocho.)

Using the enset species Ensete ventricosum, Ethiopians chop the flesh of the plant’s thick trunk into a liquid meal, then form it into a dough-like mass and bury it in the ground wrapped in the big green leaves of the plant. After a few days or weeks, they dig up the now-fermented “bread,” form it into strips or flat loaves, and heat it on a stove or a mitad, the round hotplate used to make injera.

Enset is the commonly used Amharic word for the plant, but in Sebat Bet Gurage – that is, the seven interrelated languages of the Gurage culture – the plant is called esset. Seifu W. Haile, a scholar at the University of Tromsø in Norway, has created the film Esset – Soul of the Gurage, a look at the importance of the plant in the culture. He also wrote his dissertation on enset.

The most prized and delicious Gurage qocho might stay buried for a year to give it a rich fermented flavor. The qocho we eat in the U.S. can vary slightly in its sourdough taste from restaurant to restaurant, depending upon how long it was fermented in Ethiopia. This is true of injera as well both here and back home.

Ethiopians use the enset plant to create two other foods. Bula is a thick pasty porridge made from enset that’s been turned into a powder, which is reconstituted in water and often flavored with kibbee (Ethiopian spiced butter). You can find bula powder in Ethiopian markets in the U.S. But you’ll never find amicho, made from the fleshy material inside the corm of the enset plant. It tastes a little like a potato, and it can be eaten raw or cooked.

Like injera, the finished edible qocho is a little spongy, or even rubbery, although it’s thicker, firmer, denser and chewier than injera. It’s an intriguing side dish to accompany an Ethiopian meal, with an agreeable flavor and texture.

A ball of qocho from Ethiopia,
waiting to be cut into portions

The restaurants that serve qocho in the U.S. don’t bury enset in the North American ground: They get it after the fermentation process in Ethiopia. This means you’re eating qocho that’s as close to Ethiopia as it gets – closer, really, than all of the other common restaurant dishes, which use purely American ingredients, flavored of course with a few unique spices from Ethiopia.

Finding qocho at an Ethiopian restaurant in the U.S. is next to impossible. One parton at Ghion in Dallas inquired about it, and this is what he wrote on Yelp: “When I asked if they had qocho, the owner/waiter chuckled and I basically got the impression that qocho is near impossible to come across or to make in the States.”

That may be true in Dallas, but at least four restaurants in the Washington, D.C., area serve qocho: Merkamo in Springfield, Va., Enat in Alexandria, Va., Abol in Silver Spring, Md., and Lalibela in the District. Two others – Dama in Arlington, Va., and Walia in Takoma Park, Md. – have it when they can get it.

Here, then, are reports on my visits to the four places that seem to have a steady supply of this unique Ethiopian dish.

Merkamo Ethiopian Bistro. Alex Habte Chere named his restaurant for a Gurage word that means “beautiful” as well as “a radiant purity of heart.” Alex is Gurage, and his Gurage mother back home sends him the enset that he needs to make qocho, which he offers for $3 a serving. The menu says it goes best with kitfo, but you can order it as a side with any dish.

The qocho comes to Merkamo as a pale white dough-like substance (see photo above) that’s already been “cooked” – that is, fermented in the ground between leaves of the plant. Merkamo freezes it when it arrives and uses it to make individual servings of qocho to satisfy demand. They form the defrosted ball into strips, wrap the strips in enset leaves that they buy in the U.S., and then heat it for six of seven minutes in a mitad. It comes out to the patron on a plate.

“You need to know someone back home to get this,” says Elsa, a manager at Merkamo, which explains why it’s so seldom seen in U.S. restaurants. This intimate methods of acquisition also to helps ensure the quality of what you’re getting.

Located in a contemporary strip mall along Commerce Road, just a mile or so from a Beltway exit, Merkamo is indeed very bistro-like, with finely polished dark wood tables, chairs and floors. The art on the walls is both Ethiopian and contemporary, with cultural artifacts also decorating the walls and windowsills. There’s a bar, and live music from time to time.

The décor is warm, and the food very good. But the qocho makes it unique.

Enat Ethiopian Cuisine. Situated in a small strip mall on North Chambliss Street, just down the row from Dire Market and Café and an Ethiopian-owned hair salon, Enat also gets its qocho from a family member back home. But it comes to the restaurant read-to-eat in rectangular strips, rather than as a ball that the restaurant has to form into strips.

Enat’s owner, Abiy Bisrat, opened his restaurant two years ago after 15 years in the food and beverage business, working for a time with the Radisson Hotel company. He was searching for a name for his enterprise when his daughter, then 3 years old, said, “I like enat, Daddy.” It’s the Amharic word for “mother,” and Abiy liked it, too.

Abiy’s wife is Gurage, and a family member of hers back home in Ethiopia secures the cooked qocho for the restaurant, which refrigerates it when it arrives and heats it for customers who order it for $2.50 a serving. Enat serves the qocho wrapped into dark green enset leaves, which Abiy buys in the U.S. Other cuisines – Mexican and Thai, for example – also use enset leaves, so they’re not hard to find.

Salt 'n' mitmita

When you order a meal at Enat, the server brings your selections to the table in small serving bowls, then pours each entrée onto the injera. Each table has salt and pepper shakers, but be careful: The pepper is mitmita, the red-hot Ethiopian powder used to spice kitfo.

Abiy says that about 80 percent of his customers are Ethiopian, so he’s hoping to promote his fledgling restaurant more widely to the Virginia community. He also would like to make injera from 100 percent teff, which is gluten free, and offer it as an option to patrons who need or want it. In the meantime, qocho remains the only gluten-free “bread” on his menu.

Abol. Silver Spring is the Maryland suburb whose Georgia Avenue tumbles into the District, and the avenue and its side streets on both sides of the border are speckled with Ethiopian restaurants and markets. Abol sits along trendy Colesville Road on a block with numerous other restaurants of different cultures and cuisines.

But be forewarned: Abol only lists qocho as an option with its kitfo on its online menu. There’s no mention of it on the menu you read inside the restaurant. Not that it really matters: When I stopped by one lunchtime to try the qocho, three servers all agreed that I was the first ferenj (foreigner – i.e., non-Ethiopian) to order the rare treat.

Of the four places where I tasted qocho, Abol’s had the strongest sourdough flavor, so it was probably fermented longer than the others. It reminded me of injera, which I like best when it’s very fermented.

Like Merkamo in Springfield, Abol gets its qocho in big round frozen balls from Ethiopia and then cuts it into triangular pieces, which they heat and serve. They wrap it in an enset leaf, warm it for a few minutes in an oven, and then present it – moist, steaming and still in the leaf – to the patron. A serving costs $3, and its listed as an accompaniment to kitfo on the online menu, but you can order it with anything.

Birtukan Solomon, who owns Abol, isn’t Gurage, but she gets her qocho from the same people back home who supply her with spices. “Nowadays kitfo sells better with qocho,” she says, “and even in Addis, every kitfo joint serve kitfo with qocho.”

Lalibela. Located on the bustling corner of 14th and P streets in northwest D.C., and just across from the Studio Theater, Lalibela has some of the best kitfo I’ve ever tasted: moist, juicy and blazing hot with mitmita.

They serve four varieties, and the first one they list on the menu is “kitfo with qocho.” The combo costs $12.50, and the menu doesn’t list qocho separately. But you can get an order for $3. The restaurant’s basic kitfo alone is $10.50, so you sort of get a discount on the qocho if you order the set.

Lalibela gets its qocho in a big ball (like Merkamo) and carves it up into serving sizes. They heat the strips for a few minutes in an oven and then serve it, sans enset leaf, on a separate plate or alongside the kitfo. Both ferenj and Ethiopians order it, the servers there told me: the Ethiopians because they know it from home, and the ferenj because “they like to try everything.” If a patron asks them exactly what it is, the servers tell them it’s like a bread made from the false banana.

I doubt many people will be able to picture what they finally have served to them, but in the big city, adventuresome diners are always glad to have a unique experience. The restaurant also sells lots of Ethiopian beer to ferenj – Ethiopians tend to prefer Guinness – and I can’t imagine a better evening in Washington for Ethiopian gourmands than dining al fresco at Lalibela with domestic kitfo and a side of qocho straight from back home.

Harry Kloman
University of Pittsburgh

Watch the video “Enset: Miracle Crop of Ethiopia.”

These two videos show how Ethiopian villagers prepare the enset plant to make qocho.